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The Economist features a story on solar lamps, it hails the advances in design, manufacturing and financing models that make the lamps increasingly attractive and affordable to the poorest of people. If the Economist is right, solar lamps will transform entire societies: “Just as the spread of mobile phones in poor countries has transformed lives and boosted economic activity, solar lighting is poised to improve incomes, educational attainment and health across the developing world.”

This claim struck me as kinda funny, and I would gladly be proven wrong (today or over time), but really, will solar lamps do all that? I do like the picture in the Economist (courtesy of d.Light) of the two eager students in pressed shirts craning their necks to study their books by the light of the S1 d.Light lamp. But will this one lamp improve both these boys’ educational attainment? I am afraid that there is too much of the old (new) “silver bullet, new technologies will save the day” sentiment in the idea of the solar lamp as savior. My guess would be that health and environmental benefits could be significant, but long term health risks and environmental concerns are not necessarily known as the best motivators for mass behavioral change, so some of the potential appeal of the solution might be lacking. Considering all one could do – and many around the world do – during long dark evenings and nights in their fully illuminated houses, it is easy to assume that to bring light would have a huge enabling effect, which is of course what the mobile phone has done in the lives of millions of people (rich and poor). But how many solar lamps does it take to provide an enabling effect on that kind of (mobile phone) scale? Of course it is exactly the mobile phone that is facilitating some of the innovative financing models mentioned in the article, illustrating the versatility of the phone. The phone as data transmitter is proving versatile beyond what phone companies imagined and for that reason the mobile phone was probably not hailed as a savior of the poor 10 years ago, and it is only with each new application of those handhelds that some very crafty people in places as far apart as Brooklyn and Nairobi are transforming lives and boosting economic activity. It seems a tall order for the solar lamp to match the mobile phone.

Todd Moss at the CDG also talks about bringing light where it is dark, but focuses on the underlying infrastructure, the supply of energy. Of course, innovative power generation and supply solutions lend themselves much better to the analogy of the mobile phone revolution. That is what will transform lives and boost economic activity. Including bringing light, of the kind that offers lots of lumens and watts, that will allow students to study and play games (like they do on their phones).