Into Darkness — The deadly tax on poverty you don’t know about

If you know about Power:On, then you probably know that over 1.3 billion people still live without electricity in the world today. In Africa alone, 630 million people lack electricity. It is actually hard imagining what that’s like. Living without access to the most basic things we use everyday without ever thinking about them. Flipping a switch to get the lights on. Pushing a button to run the washing machine. Turning a faucet and drinking a glass of water. Turning on the computer (or is it ever even off?) and spying on friends on Facebook.

Once in a while, in the winter for example, we might experience power cuts. We are told to save energy, to be careful. And sure, power cuts are annoying. But living without electricity for a day is not so bad. Some even find it charming and take the opportunity to have dinner by candlelight. We don’t really know what actually living everyday without electricity is like. It takes a real effort, or a life-changing experience, to picture it.

We don’t really know what it’s like being in the dark areas.

For me, this happened when Louise, my co-founder, took me on a trip to Igbérè. Again, if you know Power:On, you know this is a very remote village in Benin, completely off the grid. Louise had worked there in the past with a program that was aiming to end excision practices. She won that battle (because she’s amazing), but that tells you how far we’ve come. Louise knew the village quite well. We spent the day talking to people, learning a bit about their lives. I was fascinated and disoriented. The people, the environment, the way of life were light-years away from what I had always known. It was stunning to see how a whole community functioned without basically any essential modern service. There was no cell phone coverage, except for that tiny spot right in front of the village’s chief’s home (how convenient!). There was no running water, but families still managed to get clean water from the pump. But the most shocking thing was the complete lack of electricity. There was no getting around that one.

Like in most rural communities, women and children were the most impacted. They spent hours collecting wood for cooking and heating and were exposed to dangerous indoor pollution and risks of severe burns. By 7 pm, everything was pitch dark. The only light sources in the village were open fires, candles, flashlights and several kerosene lamps that didn’t even provide enough light to read by. There was nothing more to do than eat dinner with our hosts and go to sleep.

All this was a real life-changing experience and the reason Louise and I started Power:On in Igbérè. I think it’s something that you need to experience to really get, but a good way to understand all the implications of the electricity access crisis is the idea of the poverty penalty. People in such isolated areas, who are among the poorest people on the planet, actually pay more than richer people in big cities for similar products and services — and the ones they get are often of lower quality. This is the poverty penalty. It’s essentially being taxed because you are poor.

Let’s take the example of lighting. Typically, a family in Igbérè relies on flashlights, candles and kerosene lamps, whereas a family in Cotonou (Benin’s biggest city) will use electric light bulbs. Let’s compare the lighting service that these two families get, and how much they pay for it.

Flashlights are not good enough.

A candle emits around 12 lumens (the unit of measurement for emitted light); a kerosene lamp emits around 50 lumens; a basic flashlight emits 100 lumens. On the other side, a typical 60-watt light bulb emits 730 lumens. So a typical family in Igbérè will get a service whose quality will be between 1/7 and 1/60th of what a family in Cotonou gets.

This makes sense: we all know a lightbulb is better. But what’s more shocking is that the rural family pays more than the urban family for this poorer service. In Benin, lighting a 60-watt lamp for 1 hour costs 1 cent. On average, our off-grid family in Igbérè spends 5 times that amount!

This is a double penalty: if you can’t access electricity, you pay more for lower quality.

But it doesn’t stop here. In addition to being expensive and inefficient, candles and kerosene involve a threat to the health to the entire family. Kerosene lamps are indeed responsible for 265,000 burn deaths per year. The toxic fumes they emit, together with coal and wood fires, kill more than malaria and HIV combined: 76,000… per week. It has also been shown that the lead used in candlewicks results in air lead concentrations at levels far exceeding established safety standards. Burning a candle for a few hours in an enclosed room results in lead concentrations sufficient to cause fetal damage and harm the mental development of children.

Cooking outdoor limits the toxic fumes you inhale but it’s still not good.

That’s why this poverty penalty is extremely serious. Being poor is not just about money and the quality of things you can buy. It’s literally a matter of life and death. Lighting is one of many examples of how poverty penalties affect isolated communities. Indeed, they apply to other energy services (heating, cooking, food processing and conservation, etc.), as well as to other areas where energy is needed such as medical services, transportation, financial services, education, communication…

Energy poverty — and poverty in general — takes multiple forms. And it is alienating. This alienation creates yet another dimension of the poverty penalty: the weight of tradition often prevents the poor from adopting new and safer technologies even when they are made available. This was shown in a J-PAL study in India regarding the use of improved cooking stoves that emit less smoke. From a randomized control trial conducted over a four-year period, the authors showed that after a year, the “households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time”.

We knew all of this when we founded Power:On. Eradicating poverty will take a lot of time and hard work. There is no easy way to do it. But knowing that did not discourage us. On the contrary, it led us to focus on the important things: understanding the people to offer something they will really love.

Over 100 families, entrepreneurs and public services in Igbérè have been getting electricity from Power:On’s grid for over a year now. We know we are on the right track because many of them don’t even remember where they put their old flashlights.

There are many places in the world where the day goes by more or less like it does in Igbérè. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We will solve the electricity access crisis because we know how to do it.

You are part of the solution. Join the fight with us and learn how you can contribute. It’s time to kick that poverty penalty out and Turn The Power On!

Come help us, buddy!

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