Last summer, President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Kenya. While his visit was met with general enthusiasm, the Power Africa initiative — his signature plan to expand electrical power in Kenya and other East African countries — was met with plenty of criticism.
The Power Africa plan is a long-term collaboration between public and private sectors to set up 60 million new electricity connections in sub-Saharan Africa. It's a positive step toward bringing power to the world's off-grid regions, but it's not without major setbacks. Creating a national grid system would be expensive. It would suck up resources in countries that need to prioritize more pressing concerns, like poverty, drought, and political unrest.
Worst of all, the whole process would take decades to finalize. And that's a problem because East Africa — and other regions that are severely affected by drought and lack of electricity — needs power now.
The Problem: Lack Of Power
About 1.3 billion people worldwide live without access to a power grid. Another billion are connected to a grid system that provides unreliable power. When these rural communities lack access to a consistent light and power source, their economies shut down. Children can't study, shops can't stay open, and households can't function.
And it's not just a matter of light — it's a matter of life. About 98% of people who suffer from starvation live in underdeveloped countries (typically near the equator) that are hot, isolated, and prone to drought. Communities in these regions have limited access to power and capital to grow local produce, and they rely on expensive fuels for light — like kerosene and paraffin — that emit harmful toxins into the air.
The Solution: Social Entrepreneurship
Social enterprises, which vary from small startups to international nonprofits, generate social good from an economic need. Because they're not public entities, they can sidestep the time and resource-intensive roadblocks caused by government bureaucracies. And because they create global partnerships, they balance the scale between countries rich in capital and resources, and those with very little capital or resources.
And no industry has more potential to tap into both social good and economic gains than renewable energy. Here's a list of social businesses that have created large-scale initiatives to bring affordable, off-grid power to rural communities worldwide.
SunnyMoney is a spinoff of SolarAid, a nongovernment organization (NGO) that installs solar panel systems in schools across Africa. SunnyMoney sells affordable, handheld lanterns (known as pico-solar lights) for African families who don't otherwise have access to power. Since 2011, it has become the largest seller and distributor of solar lanterns in Africa — giving over 10 million people access to safe, clean solar light.
This Denver-based company sells solar lighting options so people no longer have to rely on expensive, polluting kerosene lamps. Nokero is the only solar company to win the US Patent and Trademark Office's Patents for Humanity Award.
This German-based startup builds "autonomous business units" with built-in rooftop solar panels. Solarkiosk's lightweight structures allow vendors to set up shop in off-grid areas and generate enough power for lighting, mobile phones, batteries, a computer, and even a fridge.
Created by a group of Australians, this social business sells renewable energy products — like the Sunking solar lamp or Greenway oven — to Indian families that lack consistent access to electricity. Pollinate Energy helps local entrepreneurs, called Pollinators, start their own businesses to bring affordable energy, water, and other essentials to their communities.
This Google-owned venture develops kite-like wind turbines that fly up to 1,000 feet to capture stronger, steadier winds. Because Makani's "energy kites" use 90% less material than typical wind farms, their target markets are island countries that lack the space to set up large-scale renewable energy systems.
SunCulture is a sustainable energy company created to eradicate world hunger. SunCulture's “AgroSolar Irrigation Kit” is a solar-powered drip irrigation system that pulls water from any available source — like rivers, lakes, wells, or boreholes — and drips a small, controlled amount over the roots of crops. Because the irrigation kit uses only a fraction of water, it's an ideal irrigation system for underdeveloped regions with little to no access to water or power.
This social business, based in San Francisco and Tanzania, connects investors to sellers of solar-powered lighting systems. SunFunder sets up funding in two ways: as a crowdfunding site that allows people to loan money for individual solar projects, and as a private debt offering that allows accredited investors to invest in solar projects. SunFunder's ultimate goal is to finance $1 billion into solar loans worldwide by 2020.
Social Enterprises Bring New Light To Renewable Energy Industry
Affordable, small-scale energy products don't require government subsidies — just money from social entrepreneurs and do-gooders like you. With continued investment from private enterprise and individual contributions, off-grid solar products could light up millions of homes in a matter of days, not decades.