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The Green Life: How You Can Help Bring Solar Power to Uganda

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January 15, 2014

How You Can Help Bring Solar Power to Uganda

Masa Energy's solar lanternHow can a country in which only 8.5% of people have electricity illuminate itself? What's more, how can they accomplish this without suffering from the devastating effects of kerosene smoke? Masa Energy, a Ugandan start-up, has come up with an affordable clean-energy answer. Their first product, a portable solar lantern, is easy to use and costs just $12.

Masa Energy has started a fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo.com with the goal of $50,000. [UPDATE: Donate to Masa Energy's fundraising campaign before February 28, 2014.] All contributions from the campaign will go directly towards building materials and factory space, with the potential to fund future product development and new hiring.

According to their Indiegogo page, Masa Energy's goal is "to make affordable solar products for the millions of people in Africa without access to electricity." The World Bank estimates that only 8.5% of Ugandans have access to electricity, by far the lowest in East Africa. Because of this, "many people, especially in rural areas, still rely on solutions that their grandparents relied upon, like kerosene lamps."

Simon Lule, Masa Energy's founder, described a personal experience as his inspiration for building these solar lanterns. "I was born in Uganda but spent part of my childhood in the UK," said Lule. "In 2010 I was in Uganda on a family visit and noticed that my grandparents in the village still used kerosene lamps. I mentioned the effects to them but at the time they didn't know of any cheap alternatives."

Kerosene light vs. solar lantern light

These antiquated kerosene lamps have a number of problems, most noticeably the low quality of light they emit. But they're also dirtier, unhealthier, and costlier than Masa's solar rival. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that kerosene lamps add up to 3% to global black carbon emissions, and a World Bank report cited by the BBC estimates that breathing kerosene smoke is the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

After finding that any viable solar alternatives to kerosene in Uganda were expensive and inefficient, Lule decided to make his own. "When I returned to England, I searched the internet to find out whether I could find cheaper and better quality lanterns," said Lule. "At the time the idea was to import them to Uganda and my cousins who resided in Uganda would sell them, but I couldn't find exactly what I wanted at a reasonable price. Later, my focus turned to trying to make them myself."

And how does one master the science of commercial solar technology? YouTube. "I have no background in electrical engineering, my undergraduate degree was in digital media," said Lule. "After I decided to try and make the lanterns, I spent all my free time on the internet learning about electrical components. On YouTube you can find tutorials on just about anything! When I gained enough confidence, I bought parts and experimented on a breadboard. By the end of 2012 I had a working proto-type and that's when I decided to come back to Uganda and start the company."

Easy to use designFor Lule, solar-powered products present a practical and important solution for Uganda's electricity problems. "In this country the majority of people have no access to electricity, the figures I quoted in the campaign from the World Bank show that only 8.5% of the population has access to electricity. Uganda is located on the Equator, which means we get good sunshine all year round. What's more, solar is very easy to use; I've had customers who did not go to school and yet within a few minutes I can explain to them how to use our product."

Along with this easy-to-use nature, perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Masa's solar lantern is its cost effectiveness. According to Masa Energy, the average Ugandan spends $0.20 on four hours worth of fuel, and $0.20 in poor communities in Uganda can be the equivalent of 10% to 20% of daily income. While the $12 for one of Masa's lanterns may seem to be a steep price increase, it is a fast returning investment, paying for itself in just 60 days. 

In the future, Lule plans to add solar mobile phone chargers to the Masa Energy catalog, as Lule notes that "apart from light, mobile phone charging is the other big problem for people without access to electricity."

Contributing to Masa Energy's campaign promotes clean energy, health, and entrepreneurship in Uganda. You can make contributions of $1, $10, or $100, with all those who donate $100 receiving their very own portable solar lantern in the mail. 

Lule's vision for the future of Masa Energy is ambitious and not solely confined within Uganda's borders. "I would also like to expand into neighboring countries; there are over 200 million people in this region and energy access figures are similar," said Lule. "In the long term, I would like to make other products like solar-powered street lights; such solutions don't exist in this region, yet they would be much cheaper and would free up grid-electricity to be used in homes or industry."

Check out Masa Energy's Indiegogo page to learn more and donate here

--Images courtesy of Simon Lule

Callum Beals is an editorial intern at Sierra. He recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz where he studied history and literature. He enjoys hiking, camping, and waking up at ungodly hours to watch soccer games.

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