Living Off-Grid – Life in Rural Senegal

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The idea of “living off-grid” has become somewhat romanticised in the developed world. For people in rural Senegal, however, it has been a daily reality since the beginning. For a community to be self-sufficient and not rely on public utilities, the daily needs of the people must be met through other means.

As well as electricity, these needs include access to food, clean water,  and shelter, as well as access to education and healthcare. These all come with their own complexities, which are beyond the scope of this article. For now, we’re going to focus on the electricity aspect.

Electricity is crucial to providing safe and efficient sources of light. This is especially important in countries like Senegal where a day never lasts longer than 13 hours, and the sun has often set by the time a child returns home from school.

An aerial image of Lassar, one of the remote villages in which we worked.

 An aerial image of Lassar, one of the remote villages in which we worked.

A sunset in Senegal.

A Senegalese sunset – no long summer days when you live this close to the equator.

In the areas of Senegal where we work, the most common sources of light are torches – with disposable batteries – and candles. Disposable batteries are expensive, costing up to 40% of household income in some cases, and difficult to come by – some live half day’s travel from the nearest town selling batteries – not to mention the environmental impact. Candles, of course, can cause fires (would you let your child study by candlelight?), especially if you live in a wooden building with a thatched roof! Evidently, neither of these are particularly good solutions.

The Senegalese government, of course, recognises that there is an issue with access to lighting in rural areas. Several electrification initiatives have been put in place, for example the Senegalese Rural Electrification Action Plan, which raised an impressive amount of private finance. However, between 2002-2012, the plan resulted in an increase in rural electrification of only 1%. There is still a focus by governments Africa-wide to provide centralised energy production systems, much like how we receive our power in the UK. Costly, slow to implement, and (in our opinion) not suited to context.

An alternative solution for the rural lighting problem, besides grid electrification, is the use of modern off-grid lighting, such as the solar lights that we give to schoolchildren. However, as Lighting Africa notes in their 2012 Senegal report, there is little official recognition of the role these technologies can play. Official policy documents make no explicit mention of the impact that small-scale decentralised renewables can make.

This has resulted in a huge demand on the ground for products like our solar lights, and many NGOs are directly involved in their supply. Home electricity kits (such as M-KOPA’s in Kenya) are becoming more popular, powered by solar panels attached to the roof. These can make a huge difference to entire villages; a ten-mile trek to the nearest town to charge your mobile phone suddenly becomes a stroll to a solar-enabled friend in the neighbouring village.

Not ideal: A map of Senegal’s electricity grid. The power lines are shown in yellow. 

A child studying at night using one of our solar lights.

Being able to do homework and study at home is crucial to children’s success.

The more technologies like these are adopted, the easier life becomes for everybody in the developing world – reducing governmental spend on infrastructure, reducing strain on family budgets, and creating endless possibilities through empowerment with light. Power A Life recognises the need for light throughout the whole community, of course, but we decided to focus on empowering the next generation of our planet, and therefore our solar lights go directly to schoolchildren attending rural schools. Our main reason for this can be summed up pretty nicely by Nelson Mandela himself:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

We hope you stick with us on this exciting journey! We have a lot of interesting stuff in the pipeline… Stay tuned! In the mean time, you can help us by purchasing a wee PAL in our shop – giving a solar light with every purchase.

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Our first ever meeting with Cherif, our project coordinator.