By Kristine Pearson
For the last few years, the Freeplay Foundation has distributed tens of thousands of solar-powered wind-up Lifeline radios to poor and isolated communities across sub-Saharan Africa. Without access to information, people cannot progress or make informed choices and decisions. Working with vulnerable children, rural women and refugees, the foundation has come to appreciate how radio eases their isolation. But what many of us fail to realise is that most are listening in the dark. We also need to understand they are listening not only for the comfort provided by the voice on the radio but also for the news and information which equips them with practical knowledge, enabling them to make informed choices and decisions.
Today, formerly shielded middle-class South Africans are experiencing what millions of poor South Africans face each evening – daily load-shedding. Although South Africa is between 65% and 70% grid electrified, millions still do not have access to modern energy. As the top echelons of business, government and civil society feel a pressing need to develop renewable energy solutions, we have a moral imperative to not exclude the most vulnerable among us.
We complain about our dependence on fossil fuels as we roar off into the glow of a well-lit suburb in our gas-guzzlers to movies or a restaurant. We buy Eskomproof energy products, such as generators and precharged lighting devices. We have read that the poor make use of candles, paraffin and disposable batteries for the most basic activities of life, but do we really know the extent to which relying on hazardous, fuel-based lighting affects the quality of life of the poor, and especially children living on their own?
Fuel-based lighting can easily consume 15% of their meagre income and almost every daily decision is about making allowances for their lack of access to clean, reliable and renewable energy. For example, children's daylight hours after school are taken up by chores such as washing clothes, collecting water or firewood and preparing food, all before the sun goes down. This means little time is left for studying. Millions of orphans and other vulnerable children seek out an existence within the country's poorest communities and take on responsibilities no child should have to shoulder. In households headed by a child owing to the death of parents, or those headed by a granny, life is a daily struggle and the lack of lighting is an everyday reality creating difficulties. Middle-class energy problems mean little when you literally can't see the hand in front of your face because your windowless shack relies on an open door for daytime light and you don't have money to buy candles or paraffin for night-time activities.
Paraffin-and-wick lamps are just too expensive and no less hazardous than candles. Paraffin aggravates tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments, especially within the confined area of a shack or small house, and a recent study revealed that 4 000 children died from drinking paraffin, thinking it was water. The likelihood of candles or paraffin causing a serious fire is illustrated by a study in the Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga, where 13 out of 40 vulnerable families had experienced a fire mostly started from a candle tipping over. Some children lost clothing or their books and homework, while others lost everything. Nationally, BP estimates that 45 000 shack fires claim the lives of 2 500 to 3 000 South Africans annually. Burns are a leading cause of accidental death for children under five in South Africa. The cost of medical and emergency services, let alone loss of property and death, represents an annual setback on the country's path to prosperity.
After having distributed solar-powered wind-up radios across the developing world, the Freeplay Foundation is now also focusing on renewable lighting solutions as information and lighting are two sides of the same coin when it comes to improving the quality of life. The foundation has been conducting a series of field studies to better understand the lighting challenges and needs of vulnerable children in South Africa to help deal with this problem. Based on the feedback of child families, the foundation is developing solar and human (wind-up) powered lighting devices that use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) which are tiny, bright, energy efficient and last for thousands of hours. Clean energy has a pivotal role to play in improving safety and security, academic performance and the overall life quality of child-headed households and other vulnerable families.
Meeting the modern energy needs of all South Africans will take vision and commitment from the public and private sectors. It is crucial that the lighting needs of this growing population are considered in our commitment to sustainable energy solutions in South Africa. The Freeplay Foundation is contributing to this common cause by rolling out and advocating for increased government and corporate commitment to practical and clean lighting solutions that enable vulnerable households to pursue more productive lives.
* Pearson is CEO of the Freeplay Foundation