Social Enterprises Bringing Light to the Developing World with Low Cost Solar

toughstuffby Lorna Li

The solar industry is booming these days and it’s easy to get caught up in solar startup fever. Firstly, solar is the top job growth driver in the US economy, in spite of the economic recession.  So now’s a great opportunity to get a green job in the solar sector.

But also, VC investment in solar is reaching bubble proportions. From mega solar projects receiving VC investment in the high hundred millions, to yet another company getting into the solar lease game, it seems like big players are getting into big projects to make big bucks off solar. However, it’s even more reassuring that there are some companies focused on bringing solar to the people who need it the most, the world’s poorest.

Why the World’s Poorest People Need Solar More than We Do

The worlds poorest people still rely on unsustainable sources of energy – wood, coal, dung, and kerosene. Kerosene lamps are dangerous. Not only do kerosene fueled fires kill thousands of people each year and destroy tightly packed shanty towns, their usage can substantially increase the risk of tuberculosis.

There are over two billion people still using destructive kerosene lamps throughout the world. These lamps create recurring fuel costs for the owners ($38 billion globally) and add to the health and environmental burden of individuals living without electricity. In fact, kerosene lamps contribute 200 billion kilograms of soot and CO2 to homes and the earth’s atmosphere every year (source PDF).

Why Solar For the Poor Has Been an Unattractive Business Venture
Developing countries need more sustainable lighting alternatives, which is where solar social enterprises come in. Unfortunately, when it comes to launching a for profit venture that addresses this need, both investors and entrepreneurs face 3 powerful objections:

  1. Poor people cannot afford sustainable technologies.
  2. Poor people cannot maintain sustainable technologies.
  3. Social ventures cannot be run as commercial entities.

The following solar social enterprises set out to prove naysayers wrong, that it indeed is possible to launch a company with a business model that provides solar to the developing world.


Providing every day and emergency power that doesn’t pollute the local environment is important for the sustainable development of small communities. ToughStuff offers many advantages to the communities in which they work. To date, they have helped more than 1.4 billion people (primarily in Africa) without access to electricity by providing them the clean, safe solar alternative. They were also instrumental in providing solar products following the Haiti disaster in 2010.

These solar lights are less polluting than kerosene lamps, they present no fire hazards like traditional fuel-burning lamps and fires, and they reduce carbon dioxide emissions as well. Not only that, but by using rechargeable rather than disposable batteries, their solar products help to diminish the environmental impact of one-use batteries. Their product line also includes mobile phone and radio connectors to expand their solar panel functionality.

Greenlight Planet

Greenlight Planet is another company working to provide solar solutions for families living without reliable access to the local electricity grid. Their goal is to provide solar lighting to these people that is not only affordable, but transformative. Their lamps provide illumination that is two times brighter than traditional kerosene lanterns (which is great for doing work, studying, or cooking a meal). These lamps use industrial-grade photovoltaic technology that is strong and water-sealed for long-life. They can be mounted to a home’s roof or moved around if portability is necessary.


d.light’s mission is to provide reliable, quality lighting for people without electricity to improve their quality of life and better protect their health. Their goal is to have improved light quality for 50 million people by 2015, and 100 million people by the end of 2020. They will do this by distributing their d.light products to people in a variety of areas, most importantly in India and Africa. Their d.lights are solar-powered lights that use LED technology to provide high quality, light in a durable package – up to 100 hours of light on a single day’s solar charge (8 am to 6 pm). They have several light designs suitable for a variety of applications. Many of these systems are water, dust and insect resistant making them highly dependable and almost indestructible. Some of their products also come with an integrated mobile charger to give them even more functionality.

If you’re looking for a way to reach out to someone in a developing country, consider investing in one of these solar social enterprises to bring solar power to the people who need it the most.


Lorna Li is the Editor in Chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change. She enjoys writing about green business, social enterprise and location independent living. Follow Lorna on Twitter @lornali.

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2 responses

  1. Lorna, this is an interesting article that pointed out some critical challenges for social enterprises which are often overlooked. But I am still unclear what these three companies are doing differently from any other solar ventures to overcomes those obstacles. They are indeed industry leaders but would you care to elaborate on how they differentiate?

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