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Adriaan Mol, Chief Technical Officer of ToughStuff

One energy solution for Africa and Asia is distributed, personal solar power.

Lack of energy for people in the developing world is a major global issue. With the cost of power on the rise, and the need to tackle climate change, how can we ensure energy supply for all?

We're all familiar with media images of women and children walking miles a day to collect water for their families. We're less likely to think about people walking equally far and waiting for hours to charge mobile phones. Yet this is an everyday issue for those without access to mainline electricity.

1.3 billion people worldwide are not connected to the electrical grid. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 14% of people have access to electricity. The rest rely on batteries and kerosene, spending over $190 a year on lighting their homes and powering appliances, and having to endure the noxious fumes kerosene lamps emit. And for the many who can't afford it, life is limited to daylight hours. Everyday tasks such as studying or working become impossible after dark, with phone and radio use an intermittent luxury.

Electrification is advancing rapidly across the developing world. However it is predominately focussed on urban regions, with rural areas lagging far behind; the gap between urban and rural, light and dark, connected and disconnected is vast. The International Energy Agency estimates it will cost $48billion each year until 2030 to extend universal energy access to all. At several times the UK's annual aid budget, that's not a sum governments are likely to achieve any time soon, while political instability deters funders from investing in electrification privately.

So what can be done? One solution is distributed, personal solar power. People in Africa and Asia live in some of the best locations for generating energy from the sun. Solar panels the size of a book can charge lamps, mobile phones and batteries.

Personal energy solutions have clear advantages: they are cheaper than buying fuel and batteries, and pay for themselves within two or three months - then start saving their users money. Solar power is also clean, so users avoid the respiratory illnesses associated with kerosene lamps, and less CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere.

Financially it makes sense too. Where it costs donors or governments thousands of dollars to connect just one family to the grid, a personal solar product sells for less than $20 - paid for by the owner instead of public resources. Public sector investments therefore use their money much more effectively if they support the development of markets for small portable solar solutions as a first step up the 'energy ladder': the same investment will reach many more people. From an environmental point of view this is smart too: a small solar lamp and a new grid-connection off-set the same amount of kerosene currently burnt in lamps. Yet the investment required to put in place the latter is all but unaffordable, and will progress at a snail's pace compared to personal solar power that will reach millions every year.

The only way that the world's population will obtain universal access to basic energy supplies is if businesses and investors get involved. Our experience is that people at the base of the economic pyramid want to pay for affordable products that offer a financial return; yet this market is largely untapped. Organisations like ToughStuff have put in much of the groundwork already, building up rural distribution networks ready to be tapped into, and fostering micro-enterprise schemes which create jobs, improve living standards and drive up people's incomes.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All. But his call for energy that is "accessible, cleaner and more efficient" by 2030 will remain nothing more than an ambitious target unless businesses, and not just governments and aid agencies, take up that invitation.

Adriaan Mol is the Chief Technical Officer of ToughStuff


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