Going Off-Grid in Timor Leste

by Sally Bolton

Flashback to early 2011: the Arab Spring was spreading across the Middle East and northern Africa, the hunt was still on for Osama bin Laden, and a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of these events, because I was living in remote Timor-Leste, with almost no access to news media. Pop culture had, however, reached us, albeit a little behind the rest of the world, and I was being woken each morning by Justin Bieber’s Baby. Not by choice, but because my neighbours’ kids delighted in belting it out at every opportunity.

Even now, any time I hear Baby, it takes me straight back to my time in Timor-Leste as a Kopernik Fellow. My mission: to help Kopernik’s local partners to distribute solar lights, water purifiers, clean cookstoves and rolling water drums — and to evaluate the impact these simple technologies were making on people’s lives. Over six months we contended with raging rivers, crumbling roads, a broken ferry, and a fuel shortage, as we worked to reach coastal and mountain villages in one of the poorest regions of southeast Asia.

This past February I returned to Timor-Leste and visited Atauro, a small island 25km north of Dili, where Kopernik has worked with local partners since 2011 to distribute a range of technologies. Three coastal villages on the eastern side of Atauro have access to electricity for 12 hours each night. Unless the ferry breaks down and is unable to bring fuel for the island’s generator — in which case the hours of electricity are reduced as fuel is rationed, as had happened in the three weeks prior to my visit.

Electricity is yet to reach the other villages on the island, but fortunately, solar lights have, through Kopernik’s Light Up Atauro, Switch on Atauro and Lights for a Brighter Future projects. Everyone I spoke to on the island was very enthusiastic about the lights. “You see them everywhere, up in the mountains,” said Mario, who runs a simple eco-lodge in Adara, on the more remote, western side of the island. “People love the d.lights, because they’re just so easy,” Mario told me. “Great!” I responded, “let’s go find them!”. To which Mario laughed nervously, as he explained that the only vehicle on the island able to get up into the mountains had just been rented by another group for the next three days.

“No worries, we can hike up to Makadade!” I said enthusiastically. Mario dubiously eyed the gathering storm clouds and suggested hiking up the steep slopes — which rise to almost 1,000 metres at the island’s highest point — during a torrential downpour might not be the best idea. I had forgotten how much life is ruled by the weather during the wet season in Timor-Leste.

As a Kopernik Fellow, blessed with the luxury of time, I would have waited out the rain until a clear day dawned and it was safe to venture up into the mountains. Constrained by time, I instead met with Mana Neka from Move Forward, our local partner in Bikeli village. Working with Move Forward ( and another partner, Roman Luan), we distributed two ‘generations’ of d.light solar lanterns on Atauro: the older generations (S10 & S250 models) have a battery life of around two years, while the newer generation (S20 & S300) have improved batteries expected to last more than five years.

Mana Neka said that the batteries have started to fail on some of the older lights, but the newer lights are in good working order. There have been problems with rats chewing through the solar panel cord, in which case neighbours have been sharing one panel between two solar lights — charging one light for six hours in the morning and the other light for six hours in the afternoon. Sharing is caring, and in another example of this, families in Bikeli village — which is connected to the island’s electricity grid — have been lending their solar lights to relatives who live in villages without access to electricity. However, when there is no electricity in Bikeli, people reclaim their solar lights!

Obadias and Mana Neka

I also talked with Obadias, Mana Neka’s husband, who has become a Mr Fix-It for solar lights in Bikeli, helping people troubleshoot problems and find solutions. For example, if a fisherman drops his solar lantern in the sea, the salt water will corrode the inner circuitry, causing the light to stop working within a week. However, Obadias has figured out that if you immediately pull the solar lantern apart and rub cooking oil over the components, you can stop the salt water from damaging the light, and it will continue to work. Obadias also helps people identify problems with non-functioning lanterns, for example switching out the battery to check if the problem lies with the battery or with another component of the lantern. He said that when he visits other villages, he always reminds people to clean their solar panels, to ensure they charge effectively. To quote Daniel, Kopernik’s current Engineering Fellow, Obadias is a genius for figuring this all out for himself, without any formal training in how solar lights work.

Solar technology is not entirely new on Atauro — there are in fact solar panels dating back to the 1990s which are still being used on the island. This is a little unusual, as in other parts of Timor-Leste so much was destroyed in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum for independence. Isolated from mainland Timor, Atauro escaped this destruction, and offered a safe haven for families fleeing the violence in Dili. Larger solar panels are being used by businesses and institutions on Atauro which need electricity during the day, to power tools and laptops for example, or who need a reliable nighttime source of electricity. Barry, who runs an eco-lodge in Beloi village, said the cost of solar panels has come down dramatically since he first came to Timor-Leste more than a decade ago — dropping from around US$600 for an 80W panel, to now around US$1/W. But the challenge is finding reliable batteries to use with the panels — Barry said that the batteries available in Dili are pretty poor quality, and need to be replaced frequently.

Spot the solar lanterns!

And this is where the advantage lies in simple solar lanterns like d.lights to meet basic lighting needs — they are just so easy to use and maintain, very reliable, and backed by a warranty if faults do arise. There is no doubt in my mind that these solar lanterns are making life easier for people living without access to electricity on Atauro. The challenge continues to be how to establish a sustainable supply chain to allow people to replace their solar lanterns when the batteries reach the end of their lifespan, or to buy additional lanterns, or upgrade to a solar home system, or to allow new customers to buy their first solar lantern and take their first step up the much vaunted ‘solar ladder’. Capacity and willingness to pay for the solar lanterns were big challenges in the implementation of our solar projects on Atauro.

Mana Neka said that a man recently visited Move Forward from a village where they introduced the solar lanterns several years ago, but were not able to convert interest into sales. He came in ready to buy six solar lanterns for his village, with the cash to pay for them outright, but unfortunately Move Forward no longer had any d.lights available.

It seems like an extremely long purchase funnel — the customer journey through awareness, interest, desire, and action — but the solar lanterns are a significant outlay for families with very low cash income. Perhaps that’s just how long some people need to trust the technology, understand that it is a wise investment, and save the money to be able to make the purchase. But it’s a timeframe that is unlikely to attract commercial interest in solar light distribution on Atauro — especially as market opportunities can change dramatically when the government commits to expanding electricity access. There is talk of connecting the island to the country’s electricity grid via an underwater cable. The political will to develop Atauro does not seem to be there yet, but who knows what will happen as a result of next year’s national elections.

One big development since my last visit is the introduction of competition to the telecommunications market in Timor-Leste. Breaking Timor Telecom’s monopoly, telcom companies from Indonesia and Vietnam have helped to drive down the price of phone calls, SMS and mobile data significantly, and coverage seems to have improved considerably too. This must be making life easier in so many ways, allowing families to stay in touch and making work easier too. If I was still in remote Timor-Leste, I would have no excuse for not being up-to-date on important world events — or at least on the latest Justin Bieber album.

It turns out a lot can change in five years, but a lot can stay the same too. Across Timor-Leste, a lot more people now have access to electricity, which is certainly a promising development. Yet, on Atauro Island, solar technology continues to serve a crucial need for safe, clean, bright light at night.


originally published by Sally Bolton (Kopernik) on LinkedIn. Photo credit: Sally Bolton (Kopernik)