Bloomberg invests US$5 million to boost cheap solar lamps in Africa

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation provides financing for Little Sun, creators of the hip and handy solar powered LED lamps that will help provide clean energy access in Africa.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation of billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced on Tuesday a US$5 million investment to finance the expansion of cheap and clean energy in Africa, through artistically-designed solar powered LED lamps.

Little Sun, a Europe-based social enterprise launched in 2012, produces hip and handy solar lamps designed by the company’s founders, artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen.

The United States-based foundation will provide a low interest rate loan to help Little Sun sell more lamps to homes, schools and local businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the first time the organisation is venturing in impact investment or businesses that generate social impact rather than financial profits, they said in a statement.

We consider access to clean, safe and sustainable energy a fundamental human right

Felix Hallwachs, managing director and CEO, Little Sun

Little Sun’s business model was rigourously evaluated for its viability, including the environmental and social benefits it could provide to society, the charity group said.

It also emphasised on the costs of the lamps, which is priced as the most affordable among other portable solar lamp products, while still giving profit margins for local entrepreneurs who will sell the lighting devices in their communities.

Felix Hallwachs, the company’s managing director and CEO, stressed that the social business of solar lamps aims to address the electricity problems in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where seven out of ten people still lack access to even the most basic electricity connection.

The off-grid lighting market in Africa has grown from 300,000 lighting products in 2009 to about 4.4 million units sold by the end of 2012, according a market report by World Bank’s finance arm, the International Finance Corporation. This is equivalent to almost 20 million Africans having access to lighting, despite the lack of connection to electricity grids, the report stated.

“We consider access to clean, safe and sustainable energy a fundamental human right,” noted Hallwachs.

The two-year old social start-up said its product lasts for two to three years before it requires a battery replacement. The Litte Sun lamp uses regular rechargeable AAA batteries and produces 10 hours of soft light when charged for five hours under the sun.

The philanthropic organisation also noted how the product can help households save up to 90 per cent of their usual expenses over three years compared to what they would have spent on kerosene to light traditional lamps. Kerosene is a petroleum-based fuel that is known to pollute the air with thick black smoke, when lamps are lit.

“Too many families are forced to breathe in toxic kerosene fumes because they don’t have access to electricity,” said the founder and former mayor Bloomberg. “Solar-powered lights can improve their health - and at the same time, protect our environment - by keeping pollutants out of the air they breathe,” he explained. 

Little Sun has already rolled out its lighting product in seven countries in the region, including Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Senegal, Ethiopia, and South Africa.

The lamps have also been selling in European Union countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, as well as in museums and other art institutions that are in partnership with the company.

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