By Kathleen Buchholz in Lusaka
“I don’t buy candles anymore; I use the light to study more than I did before.”
This statement made by Wilbroad Banda, a teacher and student from the Garden compound in Lusaka, could have been made by any number of teachers or students who received a Nokero solar light during my time interning with Lifeline Energy. For the past two months I’ve been conducting research in the compounds (urban townships) of Lusaka and I have witnessed first hand the impact that new technologies have on the urban poor.
My internship has been a form of participant observation and the research will help me write my graduate thesis on energy poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. I examine the research through Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities theory, asking the urban poor ‘has technology changed what you are capable of? Can you do the things you value?’ From the Nokero N200 solar powered lights to Lifeline Energy’s Prime Radio, a solar and wind-up radio designed for large groups, the examples of positive change abound.
For those without electricity, buying candles is a daily challenge. The typical family burns through two candles a day, with each candle lasting only two hours and lighting less than half of a small room. The cost adds up each day as an unrelenting reminder of the poverty that the family faces. The smoke burns the users eyes and the poor light puts a strain on it. Students have a hard time studying and teachers have a hard time writing lesson plans.
For those who received a solar powered light, their lives completely transformed. The amount of time students and teachers had to do the things they valued more than doubled each night, and almost all of them stopped buying candles all together. The technology didn’t just affect the receiver of the light either. Their families could cook, safely go outside at night, and read or write as well.
Energy poverty has many hidden faces. Without access to reliable energy, the poor cannot get vital information or access educational programming over the radio. Clement Chipili, a teacher and resident of Misisi Compound expressed to me how he and his family worry the government or private enterprises will tear down their homes, building high rise buildings or private residences. Rumors and a lack of reliable information fuel their fears. With the distribution of Lifeline Energy’s radios, schools can listen to programming over the air and stay updated on the local, countrywide, and international news. They can listen to educational programming such as Zambia’s Learning at Taonga Market distance education programme when broadcast.
Their daily lives change. They have an opportunity to study, to learn, to educate themselves on their surroundings. The technology adds value to their lives because it allows them the capability to learn, off the grid.