Bright Lights, Small Village: “Empowered by Light” Brings Solar to Rural Africa

Empowered: Bringing Light to Rural Zambia

By  Jill Abelson

Triple Pundit  and The New York Times have both recently reported on bright efforts to bring solar light to rural Africa. The inspiring stories from Uganda, Kenya and other countries demonstrate how modern power is changing life in small villages across the developing world.

In a new venture announced this summer, Dutch mega bank Rabobank has teamed up with LED leader Lemnis Lighting to bring solar light to rural Africa, beginning in Zambia. Their new non-profit, called Empowered By Light, is delivering renewable energy to rural communities that currently have no electric power.

The Pharox Solar kits being distributed in Zambia are cute as a button: bright round pods of light in a  white casing. Self-contained for power and lighting, they were developed by Lemnis and engineered for off-grid applications in Africa. The compact unit weighs about 3 pounds and measures 7”x7”, combining a small solar panel, a light of 3 LED lamps, a sealed lead acid battery, and a USB port with adapters to charge mobile devices. The design earned Lemnis a top prize from the World Bank’s Lighting Africa Development Marketplace Competition. The photovoltaic solar panel and LED bulbs have useful lives of more than 25 years, and the battery can last 3-5 years before replacement and is recyclable in Africa. Each kit costs about $20.

Empowered By Light was founded by Rabobank Executive Vice President Marco Krapels, Moira Hanes, and Gianluca Signorelli, Rabobank’s Vice President for Renewable Energy Finance. Krapels read and was inspired by the New York Times article by Elisabeth Rosenthal, describing how children in rural Africa improved their grades when given access to solar-powered light. When Warner Philips and Alex Nigg from Lemnis shared their Pharox Solar kit, the organization launched its first project, committing to deliver 5,000 solar-powered LED light/cell phone charge kits to rural families in Zambia with no access to electric power. Instead of spending 20% of their income on toxic kerosene lighting, families are now able to gather around the clean light from the Pharox kits to work, study and read into the night.

The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity. Less than 5% of people in rural Zambia have grid power, and as is common in rural Africa, most villagers cook, heat and light buildings with kerosene. Last year’s report by the U.N. Secretary General, Energy for a Sustainable Future, calls energy “the heart of most critical economic, environmental and developmental issues facing the world today.” The Report urges expanded access to reliable and modern energy services, if developing countries are to reduce poverty and improve the health of their citizens. The so-called “energy-poor” suffer health consequences from the inefficient combustion of solid fuels in inadequately ventilated buildings, as well as the economic consequences of insufficient power for income-generation and other basic services like health care and education. Women and girls, in particular, are disproportionately affected.

Empowered by Light’s goal is to eradicate kerosene lighting and bring these lights to the masses.  To that end, and with broad-based micro-financing lacking in sub-Saharan Africa, the organization is partnering with the leading Zambian bank, Zanaco, to provide financial literacy training and bank accounts to kit recipients. Other partners include Rabobank, Global Green USA, Clif Bar Family Foundation, ZEEC: Zambezi Environmental Education Camp, CPS Boston, INSID: The Institute for Sustainable Innovation & Development, Zambia National Commercial Bank and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.


Jill Abelson, an environmental consultant/writer based in San Francisco, has worked on climate change issues since 1996. She supported pioneering advocacy campaigns at the National Environmental Trust (now part of the Pew Charitable Trust) and at Greenpeace). For ten years, she was marketing/ communications director for U.S. EPA’s prestigious Energy Star program.   Her recent writing and communications work has supported many organizations including California Air Resources Board, Clear Edge Power and EOS Climate.   She graduated from Mount Holyoke College.

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