In Malawi, many people heavily rely on home-made koloboyi paraffin lamps for lighting. But paraffin is far more expensive than electric lighting. The cost of useful light energy ($/lumen hour of light) for paraffin is 325 times higher than the inefficient incandescent bulb, is 1625 times higher than compact fluorescent light bulbs. Paraffin requires requires 10% to 25% of a villager’s annual income.

Paraffin lamp

All paraffin lamps are bad

Children playing indoors

Children playing indoors because there is light


Paraffin lamps cause local and indoor air pollution. The World Bank estimates that 780 million women and children breathing paraffin fumes inhale the equivalent of smoke from 2 packs of cigarettes a day. As a result, two-thirds of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.

Fuel based lighting causes much more fire catastrophes than all forms of electric lighting. Each year, many homes and even entire communities are razed to the ground by fire due to toppled lamps. Paraffin also creates greenhouse gases. Furthermore, light from kerosene lamps is not very bright and is inefficient.

Currently many governments and organizations are working very hard in order to replace kerosene lamps with white LED lighting systems in developing countries. The Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), an organization that is working in rural Malawi, is one of them.

CCODE selected seven semi-literate women from Chimonjo and Chitala villages in Salima district; Kaphuka village in Dedza district; and Makunganya village in in Zomba district, and sent them to Barefoot College in India, where they were trained as “solar engineers” for six months. They were equipped with skills to install, fabricate and maintain solar home lighting in their villages.

CCODE Director, Siku Nkhoma, says the idea was to make communities especially women to be leaders in project implementation at community level and ensure sustainability as the skills will be available at community level beyond the project’s life span. She further points out that women, instead of men, were selected as the community believed that once trained, women will be able to remain in the village whilst men are most likely to migrate into the city.

After coming back from India, the women carried out the following tasks:

  • They installed 316 standalone household solar energy systems in village households in the four villages; they continue offering technical support to these households.
  • They facilitated the establishment and construction of four rural electronic workshops, one in each of the four villages. These workshops were also installed with standalone solar- energy systems
  • They established village based Fund in each of the four villages for the maintenance of the solar energy systems.

Community members pay for the service by contributing an equivalent of US1.50 per month, which is used for supporting the women solar engineers as part of their monthly allowances, procurement of solar maintenance equipment, and the management of the electronic workshops. The villagers do not have problems paying this money because it is much less than the amount that they used to spend on paraffin previously.

The installation of solar electricity in these households has contributed greatly to the improvement of people’s livelihoods. The day for most of these households no longer ends at dusk, but like all of us privileged to have electricity, they now have a choice. School-going children are now able to study and do their homework even at night.

Availability of solar electricity has also enabled the households to save money, which they used to spend on buying other sources of lighting e.g. paraffin, candles. The money thus saved will go a long way in enabling the households to access the various other important needs for their households.

The fact that women, who used to be ordinary mothers in the village, are in the forefront of changing their communities shows that gender dynamics have changed in the villages.This will be a source of inspiration for many young Malawian women who are engaging in career paths that traditionally associated with men.

Women going up to mount the solar panels

Women going up to mount the solar panels

Women working very hard to light their homes

Women working very hard to light their homes

Women at work

Women at work as the man looks on

The lights are on

The lights are on

Last but not least, the success of the project in the four villages has stirred a huge demand from neighbouring villages which were not targeted by the project. Lots of people are now coming forward demanding solar electricity.

The challenge is how to deal with this enormous demand. If you are interested in getting involved in this exciting work, please give me a shout and I will connect you with the folks at CCODE.

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