Ending Light Poverty in the International Year of Light

Philips CEO of Lighting Eric Rondolat calls for the importance of ending light poverty.

We are a ferociously adroit species. We recently landed a spacecraft on the surface of a comet. Self-driving cars are on the roads. We’ll soon be able to print human organs. Yet despite all our ingenuity we still live in a world where 1.3 billion people lack access to electric light. That’s 20% of the population.

Like food and water, light is a basic necessity that no human being should live without. The time for the world to recognize this is well overdue. It’s time to end light poverty.

We depend on artificial light. Without it, hospitals aren’t able to treat people, pupils cannot study and shops cannot do business. Without it, we cannot move safely at night. Without it, community life is stifled by the sunset.

Communities without electricity put themselves at serious risk by having to rely on candles and kerosene lamps. 1.5 million people die every year due to fire or respiratory illness because they are forced to rely on kerosene lamps. This is unacceptable, particularly as we already have the solution. We already have the technology that can end light poverty: solar powered LED lighting

Understanding that the sustainable development of communities and economies is severely limited by inadequate access to light, the United Nations has named 2015 the Year of Light. This year will see governments, scientific bodies and private sector partners converging with one aim: to promote light-based technologies as a solution to global energy, education, agriculture and health challenges.  This focus on technology is fundamental.

The reliable generation and distribution of electricity in countries suffering from light poverty could, of course, be guaranteed with investment in power plants and electric grids. This could be a viable solution if the cost for implementation were not so great and the geographical area needing to be covered so large.  If developing countries embrace the latest generation of lighting technologies, these prohibitive barriers could be leapfrogged.

One innovation that could eradicate light poverty is solar-powered lighting. Not only are solar powered lanterns cheaper (they can provide a single room with clean light for USD 10-20 per year, compared to USD 50 for kerosene), they also result in virtually zero carbon emissions. 

Philips has pioneered another solution more suitable for larger urban areas: the light center. A combination of LED luminaires and solar panels generates enough light for a 1,000m² surface. Light centers are perfect not only because they are easier to install and maintain than electric grids- they can also carry a significantly lower cost.

Some 500 million people do not have access to light in rural Africa. By the end of 2015, there will be 100 light centers in some of these areas. We hope that this growth can continue. We hope that this, or another light solution, can be implemented on a geographically meaningful scale so that we can end light poverty. One barrier to this is foresight and political will. Governments, NGOs and the private sector will need to adopt new business models and work closely together to achieve this goal.

As CEO of a lighting company, I appreciate this call for action could be viewed by some as opportunistic. I strongly believe that light should be viewed as a basic human right and is fundamental to societal development. Light poverty exists. It affects hundreds of millions of people every single day.

The technological cure for light poverty doesn’t need to be invented. We already have it. The economic motivation for ending light poverty is compelling. Light is a catalyst for growth in the areas which need it the most. Entrepreneurial drive needs to merge with political will and NGOs in order to make a real difference.

If we can land a spacecraft on top of a comet 6.4 billion km away then we should surely be able to give light to our neighbor. In the UN year of the International Year of Light, in 2015, I call on all politicians to commit to ending light poverty.

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