22 March 2013

Namibia: Earth Hour: Happily Switching the Lights On

THE power line to the school passes right over Annety's house. After the sun goes down, Sesheke village in the Caprivi Region is plunged into darkness - like most of rural Namibia. It's ironic that just before Earth Hour, when the world is supposed to switch off lights to raise awareness about energy wastage, many Namibians would be happy to switch a light on. And now, Annety Kachitomwa can do just that.

Annety sits in the living room doing the church accounts with the aid of a single bright light that illuminates the table. It's a Sun King, provided by Elephant Energy and powered - as the name suggests - by the sun. During the day the lamp's solar cell soaks up energy, and at night it provides light for reading and preparing food.

The Sun King provides more than light, it is also a source of income for Annety, who works as a representative for Elephant Energy, which a non-profit trust set up to provide solar lighting for rural communities. Annety sells the lights to community members and earns a commission on sales.

She needs the money. The family has a large field to plough, but hiring oxen for two weeks would have cost N$6 000. Luckily her husband is in the Namibia Defence Force, so there is an income. She reckons that an oxen for a small part of the field costs N$600 - that should provide enough maize for most of the year.

The Sun King is a popular lamp because it can charge a cell phone as well. It is known locally as the Divi light. Instead of buying it outright, which costs N$390 - more than many people can afford - customers can buy it by buying credit for light, in the same way you buy credit for a phone.

The lamps have chips inside that hold credit, rather like a SIM card. The agent buys credit from Elephant Energy in Katima Mulilo; Annety buys N$1 000 at a time. Then customers who have Divi lights bring them to Annety for a 'recharge'. The two lights stand next to each other and communicate by Bluetooth. The amount of credit is set and the customer's light is charged.

Of course the sun does the real charging. All the chip in the Divi light does is set a limit to how long the light will work. When the credit is exhausted, the light cannot be switched on, however much sunlight it has soaked up. The customer buys credit until the full cost of the light has been paid. Then the chip is switched off using the agent's light, and the customer's light will continue to work without further payment.

Credit for an hour's light is N$3. That's the cost of a candle, which also only burns for an hour. But candles flicker and are nothing like as bright as a Sun King, and you have to be careful; many houses have caught fire due to careless use of a candle. When you have spent N$350 on candles all you can do is go on buying more, but when you have spent N$350 on a Divi light, from then on it's free lighting from the sun.

Annety buys credit at two dollars and sells for three. She's developing a sense for business and sells flour, sugar, oil and sweets. She also sells candles, but Divi lights are better value, she explains to other village women. So far she has sold 18. The money will go to the ploughing and for the two young children who attend the local school.

One day, perhaps, the power line will be connected to the houses as well as the school. But maybe by then solar power will be lighting up whole houses. So while the world switches off for earth hour - Annety switches on.

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