Solar lamp promotes sustainable design in Africa’s off-grid markets

Solar What device. Credit:

Top image: Solar What?! device. Credit: Professor Jamie Cross, University of Edinburgh

In 2018 an estimated 2.5 million solar devices were thrown into landfill in Kenya, adding plastics and toxic metals to the land.

In response, Engineering, Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded researchers from the University of Edinburgh looked to tackle unnecessary waste from renewable energy technologies. The result was Solar What?!

Off-grid electricity

Malian Solar repairer for Solar What?!

Malian Solar repair for Solar What?! device. Credit: Edoardo Santangelo

Millions of people across sub–Saharan Africa don’t have access to electricity. Even those who do have access often face very high prices for a supply that is insufficient and unreliable.

One solution has been to create markets for cheap, affordable off-grid lights powered by solar energy. However most devices cannot be fixed if they break down, effectively making them a disposable technology, which creates waste.

Solar What?! is a small portable lamp which can be built from recycled plastics and ethically sourced electronic components. Not only does it reduce solar waste by being easy to take apart, it is also easily repairable and powered by a mobile phone battery that is widely available across Africa.

Solar design of the future

Solar What?! device. Credit: Professor Jamie Cross, University of Edinburgh

Solar What?! device. Credit: Professor Jamie Cross, University of Edinburgh

In 2019, the research team worked with international charity SolarAid to make the first batch of Solar What?! This was made available to 25 pupils at the Nyakantaingi Primary School in Rufunsa, Zambia. To maximise societal and environmental benefits, Solar What?! designs are available for use under a Creative Commons license and can be freely downloaded from the project website.

Solar What?! has challenged unsustainable design practices in the solar industry. In February 2020 it was exhibited at the Off-Grid Solar Forum in Nairobi and it was selected from over 7,000 entries to receive a International Forum (IF) Product Design Award for Best Professional Concept.

The work on Solar What?! has led to a number of collaborations. This includes a 12-month project with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on ‘repair and repurposing’ in response to the challenges created by COVID-19 in humanitarian contexts

Professor Jamie Cross, from Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Science, who led the research and helped design the device said:

When solar-powered devices can be taken apart and repaired locally, they reduce electronic waste and provide clean energy for longer. Repair should be as important as sunlight in a responsible and sustainable solar industry.

Last updated: 10 November 2022

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