Solar study lamps in Sierra Leone

Kevin Johnstone Education, Gender, Innovation, Natural Resources, Private sector, Youth

Renewable Energy Policy Advisor, Kevin Johnstone, outlines some of the educational benefits of solar study lamp campaigns, and their potential to achieve much more.

The cost of night studies

Sometimes Bintu’s family couldn’t afford batteries for home lighting, and on those nights, she couldn’t complete her school work. Bintu’s mother explained that if “you don’t have batteries, your children will not study. And if your children are not studying, they won’t do well [in life]”.

Bintu’s story is not unique. We surveyed six districts across rural Sierra Leone, and found that most people relied on battery-powered torches for their lighting needs, especially for studying. Recurring expenses such as batteries are a financial sink when more affordable and better substitutes are available.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 aims for access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all and SDG 4 aims for inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

With access to more affordable lighting, struggling families can invest the savings into school fees, student lunches, and learning materials; marrying the Energy and Education SDGs. And this is exactly what we saw through our solar study lamp campaigns.

Schools campaigns for education and energy

In 2016, the EU’s PRESSD-SL project ran solar study lamp campaigns in schools; based on those already implemented by SolarAid. Designed by Oxfam, partnering with school principals and trusted community members, the campaigns offered small, rechargeable, solar study lamps at a promotional price in 12 secondary schools in the Kono District.

Oxfam sold the solar study lamps over limited periods to help garner attention and manage longer-term market price expectations. The promotional price mechanism increased affordability to students. We chose a market-based design to avoid the distortive effects of “giveaways”.

The campaigns helped establish trust in solar technologies and create initial demand for high-quality solar products. Kono District had previously seen an influx of inferior solar products that had damaged public trust in solar solutions. Selling high-quality, durable, GOGLA-approved lighting with a project warranty, helped reduce the perceived investment risk to families like Bintu’s.

We estimate that after only a couple of weeks, families managed to recover their investment, and start saving on the cost of continually purchasing torchlight batteries.

Oxfam sold 1,668 solar study lamps over the three, four-week campaigns. Bintu and her family managed to buy one of the lights. We estimate that after only a couple of weeks, they managed to recover their investment, and start saving on the cost of continually purchasing torchlight batteries.

As far as the educational impact, Bintu explains; “When I was using the torchlight with batteries… I was not passing my tests and my exams. Since the solar light came, it has helped me greatly to pass my exams”. Being able to study more regularly, and at a more affordable price has translated into better outcomes at school for Bintu.

Tracing the benefits of the campaigns

Six months after the campaigns, Oxfam recorded phone interviews with 50 adults whose children had purchased the solar study lamps. Though not scientifically rigorous, the light-touch survey did tease out some interesting results.

  • All respondents reported net long-term savings – averaging 2 USD per week. A massive amount for families in this area; which they used to pay for school materials, fees, and lunches. While many rural Sierra Leonean families already prioritize their children’s education, we theorized that linking the solar study lamps to education helped inspire them to spend the savings on these things.
  • Most respondents thought that the solar study lamps were decently priced, but 7 thought the promotional pricing was still too high. Unfortunately we are lacking data on who chose not to buy or could not afford solar lamps during the campaigns, so we are still missing a crucial piece of the story.
  • 46 stated that they felt positively about the lights. Coupling this response with satisfaction on pricing, we theorize that the campaigns did indeed build trust in solar study lamps as tools for education.
  • We consistently heard from parents and schools that the solar study lamps had an enormous impact for girls; allowing them to safely study at home rather than making a long and dangerous trek through the bush for night classes. Some even formed girls study groups with neighbouring students.

Limitations of the solar study lamps campaigns

Overall, the results seem promising but more study time for students does not necessarily translate into higher quality study. Anecdotally, schools and students strongly believe that the solar study lamps positively impacted their educational outcomes. However, marketing the campaigns as supporting education, will have primed people’s expectations, and inadvertently distorted perceptions of outcomes.

It is crucial for future work to build stronger evidence around solar study lamps and educational attainment, and use this to build better programs.
Due to various resource constraints, we were unable to link quantitative data such as exam results to the solar study lamps campaigns. It is crucial for future work to build stronger evidence around solar study lamps and educational attainment, and use this to build better programs.

Many questions remain, including: what are the socio-economic characteristics of buyers, non-buyers, and those who could not afford solar study lamps during the campaigns? How can we use this understanding to build better, more targeted campaigns?

What’s next for schools campaigns?

Schools campaigns have enormous potential. Campaigns could be designed in many ways, from broad aims of market building, enabling energy access, and education, to more focused, inclusive programs that target gender-specific barriers or the poorest families and communities.

NGOs can partner their experience and local relationships with the efficiency and sustainability of the private sector to design more comprehensive campaigns. For example, NGOs can build in more inclusive programming such as girls study groups, while the private sector can lever results-based financing to support longer-term market expansion into targeted communities. And more sophisticated programs could link to social safety net programs.

Oxfam hopes to expand on these lessons learned and build more partnerships with the private sector so that more students like Bintu can benefit in the long term. We sincerely thank and appreciate the PRESSD Partners as well as the EU Delegation to Sierra Leone for their support and funding on this project.


Kevin Johnstone