The bottle bulb may be the coolest idea I’ve ever seen
People often write to Fixes telling us of cool new devices made for the poor: the sOccket soccer ball that stores energy as children kick it; the neoprene LifeWrap that hospitals can use to save women hemorrhaging in childbirth; adjustable eyeglasses.
We love devices — but we don’t like to write about them. It’s cheating. The technology is the easy part of solving problems. There are zillions of cool ideas. Plenty of college students have come up with a great new technology for the poor.
The bigger challenge comes from the questions around any new device: How do you build a market for a technology focused on people with no money? How do you physically get it to where it needs to be? How do poor people acquire it? How can it be adopted on a wide scale? How do you make it last?
If you look at the market for solar lighting in Africa, you’ll be excused for thinking that you’re looking at the mobile phone market some 15 years ago. Both are leapfrog technologies — neither land lines nor the electrical grid is going to reach much of the continent, so let’s just skip that generation of technology and move to the next one. Like cellphones, solar lamps are getting cheaper, smaller, better. Both are life-changing, indispensable. And the market is enormous. Today, about 1.5 million people in Africa use solar lamps. That’s a huge number — but it’s less than 1 percent of the potential market. A fifth of the world’s population lives without electricity. Another large group of people do have access to electricity, but need an alternative because it is too expensive and power outages are daily events.
People without electric light usually rely on kerosene, a terrible alternative. It gives poor light — really, not enough to study by — produces noxious fumes, and is a major hazard for burns and fires. Indoor air pollution kills 2 million people each year and kerosene is a major source. Kerosene itself is also expensive; the very poor typically spend 10 percent of their income or more on kerosene. Its users pay 600 times more per unit of light than people who use electrical-powered incandescent lamps.
The unsolved problem for lighting Africa isn’t designing a great lamp. Great lamps are out there. It’s designing a great business model. Here are three different ways it can work.
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