The Broken Heart of Darkness (Or Why the Heck I’m in Uganda)

You can set your watch by the blackouts in Kampala—or as they have been creatively dubbed, “load shedding.”  Simply put, demand for electricity is growing faster than Uganda’s capacity to produce it, despite only 12% of households having access to the grid.  Literally every other night starting around 6pm, there’s no power, the darkness filled with the sickly scent and ghastly hum of generators coming online.  The blackouts are regular enough that I basically know the days I need to charge up my electronics in advance of load shedding—and it’s only getting worse.

And that’s in the capital city!  In most of the country, blackouts last three days, or there is simply no power at all.

Driving through the Ugandan countryside at night, the first thing that hits you is how dark it is.  Even in the roadside towns, there are no streetlights.  Travelers walking alongside the road appear suddenly like ghosts in the bus headlights, briefly bathed in the spectral light, only to dissolve back into the black when the bus passes: swallowed by the night as if out of existence.  You wonder how more are not run over.  The only thing breaking the darkness is the occasional glimmer of a kerosene lamp flickering shyly through the cornstalks.  The twinkling flames are the only sign that the seemingly empty countryside is actually full of human life.

To my western eyes, the warm kerosene light seems charming; I can even remember finding it a bit fun back in the USA when the power went out, forcing everyone to talk around candlelight instead of watching TV.

But in Uganda and much of the developing world, kerosene is a huge problem.  According to the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the World Bank estimates that breathing kerosene fumes from an indoor lamp is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and the US Department of Energy’s Lumina Project estimates that nearly one million people a year die from kerosene lamp fires worldwide—a real danger for people living in thatch-roof huts, especially in dry season.  Given that oftentimes it is children studying over these dangerous kerosene lamps (67% of children study during evening hours according to GIZ), there is a pressing health and safety need to phase out kerosene lamps.

These twinkling lights are not only dangerous—they are also expensive to keep going.  The poor pay more for most of the few things they have, and light is no exception. Users of kerosene lighting pay 150-times more per unit of useful energy services than do those in electrified homes with compact fluorescent lamps.  In Uganda, where 90% of families have at least one kerosene lamp, families spend 6,000 Ugandan shillings (UGX) per week on lighting (a hurricane lamp placed on the table in the main room burning for 4 hours/day, l simple wick lamp or candle used in the kitchen, and l flashlight used mainly outdoors).  At today’s exchange rate of UGX 2,800 per dollar, this comes out to $9.18 per month, or $110 per year.

That may not sound like much, but when the GDP per capita is $1200/year, that’s nearly 10% of an already-low income.

Hurricane Lamp

It’s so expensive, in fact, that we’ve heard stories of parents stopping their children from studying at night because they can’t afford the kerosene to keep the lights on.  Teachers in rural areas often complain that their urban peers have an unfair advantage simply because their children have light at night.

Based on these figures, GIZ estimates that replacing just one kerosene lamp with a solar lamp would save a family $3.06 per month – or $36.72 per year.  By comparison, a ToughStuff solar light kit costs less than $18.

Child reading by kerosene lamp

It’s not just light.  90% of Ugandan families own a mobile phone, and most own more than one.   And of course where there’s no power, you have to walk into town and pay someone with a grid connection to charge your phone.  At UGX 500 per charge, one time per week per phone, this could easily cost a family UGX 5,700 ($2.07) per month.

On top of this, a villager may have to walk up to 20km (12 miles) or pay a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) into town to even get to the phone charging shop.  Based on the prices I pay for boda bodas in Kampala, this could easily cost another UGX 10,000 per month—as much as your typical mobile phone user spends on airtime.  In the US, I was annoyed every time my HTC hero ran out of battery at night when I was out… but I at least got to charge it back when I got home.  Imagine having to walk 12 miles every time your phone died!

The third major energy need in rural Africa is one that few people realize: playing radios. Most people in the village can’t afford televisions, so radio is the major mass medium for news and entertainment: GIZ estimates that 84% of Ugandan households have at least one radio.  These radios run almost exclusively on dry-cell batteries, even in homes with grid connections—families go through 2.2 batteries per week, costing them about UGX 2,000 per week: $37 per year.

That may not sound like much, but remember: there’s no waste disposal in the rural areas.  So every used battery simply gets thrown away, leaching mercury and other toxic chemicals into the environment.  With at least 4 million households in Uganda, that comes out to nearly 400 million batteries per year, just for listening to radio!  If you stacked these batteries end to end, it would stretch roughly the diameter of the earth.

So batteries, phone charging, kerosene for lamps costs poor Ugandans up to UGX 40,000 ($14) per month, or nearly UGX 480,000 ($171) per year.  Considering Uganda’s GDP per capita is only about $1200, this represents a massive 14% of income going to energy expenditures.  (By contrast, Americans spend more like 4% of their income on energy).

By comparison, a complete ToughStuff solar kit with two solar panels, which can provide light, charge a phone, and play a radio, costs just UGX 110,000, or $40—roughly a 3-month payback period.

ToughStuff Lamp, Radio Connectors, Solar Panel, Phone Connectors, and Rechargeable Power Pack

In other words, a $40 investment in solar energy could increase a family’s disposable income by up to $131 per year—and that’s just monetary savings.  From a development point of view, that $40 is also providing light for education, reducing the inequality in grades between children in towns with power and those without.  It’s improving health by reducing inhalation of kerosene fumes and the risk of death by lamp fire. Women can do productive activities in the newfound light, and revel in the fact that their children’s educational opportunities are now improved.  And shops who use the lamps to stay open two hours longer could increase their income by 20%.

NGOs have long viewed health, education, and women’s empowerment as the major keys to development, but we’re learning that energy is just as important—and in fact impacts all three previous outcomes (I believe the buzzword is “cross-cutting”).  Without clean energy, dirty air harms health.  Without light, there is no education at night, and women cannot work in the dark.

That’s why we’re here: to break the heart of darkness.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Can a Tough Stuff kit completely fulfill a typical family’s energy demand? Or does it act more like a supplement?


  2. […] About « The Broken Heart of Darkness (Or Why the Heck I’m in Uganda) […]


  3. […] doesn’t have to remain dark forever.  Solar light can bring hope and opportunity to Africa and break the Heart of Darkness. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]


  4. Hi, Can you supply Tough Stuff Solar Kit to Kenya? Whats the cost per unit if I buy say 1,000 units?
    Thanks and best regs,


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