Please note: After several successful years, the Open Minds blog will be closing. For further details, please visit our FAQ

Currently showing: Sustainable energy > Solar

01 Nov 13 11:53

The story is simple - There are very hot sunny days in many parts of the Earth.

The question is simple - How can we change the paradigm that installing and maintaining solar is too cost prohibitive for many humans.

Do you or anyone you know have the knowledge of a solar gadget(s) that is simple to install, very affordable (for someone that earns less than $2 / day), cheap to maintain and durable - that can even be purchased and used by the owner of a hut to power their home?

If this type of solar gadget is not yet in existence- then how do we link up to innovatively create it? Do you already have a piece of the equation for this type of device - how can we "open our minds" and join you to figure out the rest of the equation?

Category: Sustainable energy: Solar

Location: Earth


Alicia Montoya - 2 Nov 2013, 8:26 p.m.

Actually, there are plenty! I was fortunate to visit some projects with the Alstom Foundation that deliver solar-powered water and electricity to low-income homes in South Africa. Alstom Foundation partnered with Sustainable Energy Africa and micro finance partners PlaNet Finance delivering hot water and electricity to homes in Cape Town townships like Khayelitsha. Brilliant project, brilliant product, brilliant outcome!

Clara Maingi - 3 Nov 2013, 11:40 a.m.

Hi Alicia, thanks for your feedback. You are very fortunate to have had a chance to visit some of the projects delivered by the Alstom Foundation. I had not heard of Alstom Foundation, but I have just now looked at their website and their work is quite impressive. From my understanding, it seems that the Alstom Foundation operating model entails supporting NGO projects that improve the living conditions of communities in environmentally friendly and sustainable ways - this is great.

The thing that boggles my mind is that the cell phone industry has successfully managed to very innovatively and profitably penetrate into almost all the hands in the world (even the very poorest) - and most people buy their cell phones commercially - with no assistance from NGOs and Foundations. I you think it is possible for the concepts similar to those described by the late C.K Prahalad in his book "The Fortune At The Bottom of The Pyramid" to be applicable to the solar industry?

Joan Opiyo - 3 Nov 2013, 12:39 p.m.

Just so happens that my cousin back in my ancestral home has a small solar panel attached to the thatched roof of his hut. He uses it to charge his cell phone and power the radio :-) I would have to check back with him on the exact price of the panel, although it seems easy to install and maintain.

Clara Maingi - 3 Nov 2013, 12:49 p.m.

Hi Joan, wow!!..this is indeed good news. Please find out from him as many details as possible (where he got it, price, how he installed it, what he does when it needs repair (maintenance costs), how many other huts have the same device, what he likes about it, what he doesn't like about it etc). I can hardly wait for you to obtain all these details and share them with us. **Safe travels as you continue your journey across Africa!

Clara Maingi - 3 Nov 2013, 1:14 p.m.

Wow! Looks like part of the "hunt" is over....

Clara Maingi - 6 Nov 2013, 10:06 p.m.

*copied from email response to this blog post - with permission from the email sender*

Nov 4, 2013
Dear Clara,

Your question is intriguing and you touch on a subject that we have been researching for some time. We Terraintegra are a socio-environmental organisation with a proactive, problem solving approach. We have been described as a "do tank" and not a "think tank".

We work with scientists and engineers who are developing the next generation of alternative energy solutions.

There is certainly a need for simple cost effective and robust electricity generating solutions among the World's 1.6 billion energyless. Solutions exist as they do in California or Germany. But, the challenge is to generate adequate "fit for purpose" electricity (and appropriate tools; lights, water pumps, ovens, fridges, etc.) that can be acquired and usefully employed by e.g. a family with an income of less than US$2.00 per day.

While the Sun can deliver much more energy than the Earth needs to support "life as we know it", our ability to harness and utilise that energy efficiently and cost effectively is the challenge.

To begin, we should define the task:

(a) How much energy (electricity) is enough? I attach a concept document (Energy for Life) that I drafted in 2009 (so it is a bit out of date) on this question. See Chapter III page 16.

(b) What can climate and geography deliver?
If you seek to produce a modular solution, we have to focus on something that will prove useful in a majority of areas in which you intend to deploy. In the Under Developed World that will probably be a technology to harness the Sun's energy. In consequence, the majority of "off grid" projects focus on photovoltaics. PV is not a panacea however. The best PV systems are about 19% efficient, have poor capacity factor and remain expensive. They only work during daylight and require direct sunlight to work efficiently. So, even in ideal conditions, a PV system will need batteries to store electricity for use when the Sun does not shine. However, other, more cost effective, ways of harnessing Solar energy are being prototyped.

(c) The costs? You will note that in the attached "Energy for Life" document, village based electricity generation remains the most cost effective strategy. It is my belief that communities of 50 or more adults, each with less than US$2.00 per day, can finance a community based electricity generating project. If the project is financed by a leaseback package, it can be very viable. The Grameen Bank has experience of financing community and village projects. It also enjoys a very low payback delinquency rate. See my blog

In conclusion, I think your quest is meritorious. I hope my comments have been of some use. Should you wish to ask some specific questions or take your project further, please feel free to contact me.

Kind regards
Mahon Slattery

Clara Maingi - 6 Nov 2013, 10:24 p.m.

Article referred to in blog post above is at:

Nov 6, 2013
Hi Clara,
I would like to make an observation about the proliferation of small PV panels, with attached LED bulbs and mobile phone chargers, throughout Africa and Asia. I have been dragged into discussions on their merits and demerits. While I welcome any technology that can "elevate quality of life" (especially obviating the need for kerosene) I argue that it must be "fit for purpose". By that I mean; robust, not harmful to the user, cost effective, easily maintained and repaired, etc. Small PV panel kits tend to be relatively expensive for their "real World" output. They have limited use (lights and mobile phones). But my main concern is that they do not appear to be subject to rigorous quality control. If badly designed and constructed these kits can cause health problems.

I attach below a LinkedIn comment which I posted earlier this year which addresses the LED lighting aspect.

"There are many ways to generate electricity to power lights and small devices. Kinetic devices can obviate a battery but must instead use a generator. I am more concerned about light quality for intended purposes. This light consumes 0.10w which indicates its lumen output is very low. A good LED will output over 60 lumens per watt (Phillips & Cree have prototypes with over 200 lumen per watt). So, this seems to involve a lot of engineering and materials for a small light energy return. And, the comment that the generator is plastic is incorrect as kinetic generation is only possible with highly conductive materials like copper, aluminum or silver.

If the purpose is to facilitate home, school and enterprise lighting in the Under Developed World, then lighting must be "fit for purpose". Defining how much light is enough for a given purpose will vary depending on its direction, distribution, colour temperature and colour rendering. Other impacts are the age of the user (e.g. a 40 year old will require twice the light of a 20 year old), the length of time the light is required and the task being undertaken (e.g. reading, precision fabrication work, sewing, writing, etc.). At a minimum an area where schoolwork is being done should have 250 LUX (lumens per M2). An adult doing some complex stitching or other medium contrast work will require upwards of 500 LUX. By comparison, full daylight gives about 10,000 LUX while an overcast day will give about 1,000 LUX......."

In conclusion, we must design a "better mousetrap". In fact Emerson was misquoted. He actually wrote "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods". Emerson had died before the first standardised mousetrap was invented.

Kind regards
Mahon Slattery

Ebrima Balajo - 5 Feb 2014, 10:10 a.m.

Sooner the regions with high solar potentials catch up economically, investment in solar technology will surely increase. As investment increases, surely more work will done in the solar sector which will lead to newer technology year after year.
What I want put across with regard to the topic is that future economic prospects in the solar gadgets lies in the economic status of the regions were the gadgets are most needed, most efficient and suitable. The economic growth of these regions will force investors to invest in the solar technology. Clara´s phrase “There are very hot sunny days in many parts of the Earth” is indirectly referring to Africa, South America and other regions lying around the equator; if I got her right. As Africa’s economic potential rises, market size increases, and purchase power increases; the demand for solar gadgets will likely increase. As demand for solar gadgets increases, investment in the solar sector will surely increase. What will that result to? Increase in competition and innovation in solar sector. The force of globalization and demand and supply will bring about low cost and efficient solar energy gadgets that will last long and be easy to maintain.
Effort should be exerted on enlightening investors with regards to future prospects of the solar technology to speed up rate of development of more solar efficient gadgets. As production increase (Supply), the prices will be regulated by the demand. Investors should focus more on the future potentials of sunny regions as economic hope for these regions is increasing. Investors need to be convince that to their investment, there will positive response and the future attractiveness is high.
See link: the economic growth (Changes) that is taking place in these regions:

Jennifer Rodney - 5 Feb 2014, 10:27 a.m.

You raise some interesting points Ebrima. Not sure if you've seen the recent posts on Open Minds that are somewhat related?

You might be interested in Juerg Trueb's piece about challenges to investing in renewable energy projects and the role the insurance industry might play in helping to facilitate change on this front. "Providing food and energy for the future"

As well, I found Martyn Parker's insights about sovereign risk management in Africa very interesting too: "African Risk Capacity - a game-changer for Africa?"

Your comments and these posts illustrate how a multi-pronged, holistic approach is needed. What's interesting to me is that investing on all these fronts has the potential to have wide-reaching benefits.

If you would like to leave a comment, please, log in.