The search for clean water in Africa often exacts a heavy toll on the lives of women and girls who are responsible for gathering it on a daily basis. In many African countries it takes up to six hours per day to collect sufficient quantities of water to serve a single family, and much of that time is spent walking; the typical round-trip distance is three miles, although in some instances it can be considerably longer. Physically reaching the water can be hazardous, as loose rocks or roots on the paths or at the edge of water sources can cause women to fall and hurt themselves, or in some cases, even die.

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he most common vessels for transporting water are Jerry Cans, and when filled with water, they weigh 44 pounds. Carrying this load every day can lead to chronic, significant pain and physical deformities in women’s backs, hips, and necks.  Pregnant women are not excused from water collection duties, and the effects of carrying the heavy water often interfere with and complicate childbirth.

What the women and girls find when they get to the water source – a pond, stream, or hole in the ground – is often less than ideal. They often find scores of other women collecting water from the same location, and the lines are so long that the newly arrived must wait for hours to take their turn

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Women cooking with dirty water unintentionally expose their families to chronic diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, worms, parasites, dysentery and hepatitis. The leading cause of death in infants is exposure to contaminated water and water-borne diseases. Yet, the water harvested can be dangerous to everyone: 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal disease, and half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people of all ages sick from diseases caused by drinking unclean water.

Solving these problems has been the focus of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international agencies such as the United Nations who have been involved in ongoing efforts to provide clean, potable water to those living in rural and urban areas in developing countries. While varying in their approaches, these actions are collectively improving the daily lives of women and their families.

One of the more widespread technologies used by aid organizations are hand pumps that access water from wells drilled into the ground. Groups such as The Water Project couple the installation of these pumps with community engagement and education classes designed to teach locals about proper hygiene and sanitation practices. Similarly, charity: water and its partners have brought water pumps to clinics and schools in Latin America, South America, Africa and South East Asia, all of which have dramatically improved the lives of community members. 

Solar energy can also play a leading role in providing access to clean water. In areas where there is no power grid and water cannot be accessed by hand or foot pumps because the water table is too deep, the choices for powering deep well water pumps are usually diesel generators or solar systems. The daily output of most village water supply pumps range from 800 to 13,000 gallons per day (3,000 – 50,000 liters). 50,000 liters is enough to supply 2,500 people with their daily water needs, using UNDP standards of 20 liters per person per day. The effective depth for water pumps to provide this much water is 400 feet (120 meters) or more.

There are very distinct differences between solar and diesel in terms of cost and reliability when it comes to providing reliable and affordable access to water. Diesel powered water pumps are typically characterized by a lower up-front purchase price than a solar system, but they require very high operations and maintenance costs. Diesel gensets typically require regular service – both minor and major – and any required repairs after a breakdown are very costly. In addition, the cost of diesel fuel is prohibitive to the world’s poorest people. Fuel price fluctuates on a daily basis, and over the long-term, it continues to steadily rise.

A solar powered water pumping system usually has a higher up-front purchase price, but it has very low operation and maintenance costs over its lifetime, which is typically 20-25 years. With a solar pump, energy and pumping costs can be accurately calculated for the life of that system, because they have fewer moving parts and require minimal maintenance to keep them running. The only maintenance normally required is cleaning the solar modules every two to four weeks. In addition, they do not require a trained operator on site as do diesel-powered systems.

In the West African country of Benin, many villages in the north suffer from a lack of clean water for drinking and domestic use. To help alleviate this problem, SELF designed and implemented solar power systems to power water pumps for drinking, as well as for irrigation.. Up to 8,000 gallons of water are being pumped every day, benefitting approximately 4,500 people living in the communities of Dunkassa and Bessassi. The laborious and time-consuming task of collecting water has been effectively eliminated, and the number of water related illnesses has dropped.

In addition, water used to irrigate crops during the dry season has resulted in a significant increase in food security and improved nutrition for the communities, who are now able to consume high-value fruits and vegetables year-round. 

collage 2.jpgAccess to clean water means better lives for women and girls and their families. Girls no longer have to help their mothers fetch water, women have more time to work without having to walk to distant water sources or to care for children who are sick from various water-borne illnesses. Women are also able to complete chores faster and have more time to develop marketable skills of their own, or to find work or develop new businesses that will bring in additional income to their households. 

And, because water is so often far away from villages, mothers often keep their daughters home from school to help collect water or to care for their younger siblings while they go off to collect it themselves. Giving women access to clean water in the village frees young girls to go to school more often and for longer periods of time.

Life in Africa is incredibly hard for women. Providing them with access to clean water through the use of solar energy means giving them the chance to improve their health, educate their children, and develop new enterprises to lift their families out of poverty.                                                            

Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power. And yet two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to power -- and the percentage is much higher for those who don’t live in cities.” – President Barack Obama, Remarks at the Uni. of Cape Town, June 30, 2013

The satellite image of earth at night says it all: except for a few urban areas scattered here and there, essentially the entire continent of Africa is shrouded in darkness. In many sub-Saharan African nations, as much as 90% of the rural population lacks access to electricity. No lights. No refrigerators. No computers. Nada, Zippo, Zilch.

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Nearly twenty years ago, I witnessed a family living in a very poor and remote village in western China flip a switch and experience electric light for the first time in their lives. That encounter was a life-changing event; it made me realize just how transformative electricity can be to people living without access to modern energy services.

Since then I’ve dedicated myself to eradicating energy poverty through my leadership of the Solar Electric Light Fund. International development work is inherently difficult, and installing solar equipment in some of the most remote locations on earth, even more so. Yet, for all of the trials and tribulations of working in difficult environments, for me there has been no greater reward than helping rural communities improve their lives through the use of solar generated electricity and seeing them flourish after they flip on that power switch for the first time.

When I read that President Obama had introduced his administration’s new Power Africa initiative I was excited at the prospect of more lights being turned on in Africa, more children being able to go to school and access online resources, more patients being treated and vaccinated at rural health clinics, more farmers finding ways to ensure their own food security, and more small entrepreneurs launching new businesses.

Power Africa will commit more than $7 billion in financial support over the next five years from the U.S. Import-Export Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation. An additional $9 billion will be leveraged in private sector commitments from initiative partners that will support the development of more than 8,000 megawatts of new electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa.

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For those of us in the international development community who have been fighting energy poverty, this initiative is a big deal. Combined with the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative – whose primary goal is to ensure universal access to modern energy services for the world’s poor by 2030 – Power Africa can help make a significant contribution to the challenge of providing electricity to those who have none.

Although the bulk of the initiative seems to be focused on developing electricity services for those that live in or near urban areas, it is important to note that the vast majority of people who suffer from energy poverty live beyond the reach of a traditional power grid. These folks are not likely to have access to grid electricity anytime soon due to the exorbitant cost and logistical difficulty of extending power lines to remote parts of the world. Solar and other renewable energy‐based power systems offer the best solution in meeting the current and future energy needs of off-grid communities as they can be installed in very remote locations and do not have to be tied to a utility grid.  

Solar electricity may be used to power stand-alone applications such as household lighting systems and appliances, or alternatively, to power larger facilities such as schools and health centers. It can also be used to pump and purify water, irrigate crops, run computers, and power small businesses. When combined with wireless communications, solar energy can also put the world’s ever-expanding database of knowledge at the fingertips of every child on the planet, no matter how remote or isolated he or she may happen to be. And now, thanks to recent advances in inverter and smart metering technology, solar microgrids are quickly becoming a cost-effective solution for powering entire villages or even clusters of villages in the developing world.

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Achieving the goals of the Power Africa initiative will require creative thinking, innovation, expertise, and cooperation. Working with government, private sector and non-governmental organization partners, SELF has built a track record of successful solar electricity projects in more than 20 countries around the world, enabling us to develop innovative applications of solar energy to assist those living without electricity in their economic, education, health and agricultural development. By working collaboratively to develop innovative approaches in providing energy solutions for people living in energy poverty, we can put them on a path of self-reliance and prosperity.

I believe that energy is a human right. Without it, there is no way to light homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world; it is a cornerstone of modern civilization.

For many communities that lie beyond the reach of a conventional power grid, solar energy offers the greatest hope to provide the power they need to improve their lives. I believe that SELF’s approach in implementing solar energy systems to power virtually every aspect of community life can be replicated around the world to help lift people out of poverty and secure a brighter future for themselves and their children.

Energy is a Human Right

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UNlogo.jpgIt's time to declare energy to be a human right.

Without energy, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world. 

Energy is a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet 1.5 billion people still have no access to electricity. This is unacceptable.

But progress is being made. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, announced that 2012 has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”. 

For those of us who have been fighting energy poverty, this is a big deal.  In fact, this is a big deal for anyone and everyone who cares about clean water, food security, women’s empowerment, healthcare, education, poverty alleviation, and the protection of our global ecosystem, for energy access is a prerequisite for all of the above.

For far too long, the role of energy in meeting basic human needs had been overlooked by the international development community.  Energy access was not included as a Millennium Development Goal when the MDGs were first announced by the U.N. in the year 2000.  Ever since then, however, there has been a growing consensus that none of the MDGs can be achieved without access to modern energy services.   And now, with the declaration of the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the United Nations has elevated the importance of energy access to the highest level of political discourse. The U.N. Secretary General is calling upon governments of the world, along with the private sector and civil society, to join forces in a global campaign to end energy poverty by the year 2030.

The UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is focused on three mutually reinforcing goals: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.  

I am happy to see this campaign get underway. But we can do more. We can assign legal status to the notion of energy as a human right.  We can make it official!

On what grounds, then, can access to energy be considered a human right, and secondly, to what extent might a human rights platform help to accelerate progress towards the goal of universal energy access?

To find justification for the concept of energy as a human right, one need look no further than to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has its roots in the same process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In 1945, the newly established United Nations began drafting a “Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man”, which was split early on into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights and a convention containing binding commitments.  The former evolved into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was adopted on December 10,1948.

Drafting on the convention continued, but due to ongoing differences among member states on the relative importance of “negative” civil and political rights versus “positive” economic, social, and cultural rights, the convention was eventually split into two separate documents: 1) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 2) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Both drafts were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted on December 16, 1966.  As of July 2011, the Covenant had 160 parties.

A quick review of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reveals just how essential energy access is to a wide range of socio-economic goals upheld by the ICESCR. Article 11 of the Covenant, for example, lists a number of rights that are essential to achieve a decent standard of living, including access to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement in living conditions”.  Article 12 confers the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant establish the right to work, while Article 13 establishes the right to education.   

While not identified as such, it may be argued that the right of access to modern energy is implicitly conferred by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as it is essential to the fulfillment of many if not most of the articles contained therein. This is precisely the case with the Millennium Development Goals: access to energy, though not included itself, is an absolute prerequisite for achieving each and every one of the MDGs.

With the launching of the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the timing could not be better for the assigning of legal status to the right of access to modern energy services.  Doing so would impose obligations on States, both at the national and international level.  A human rights approach to energy access would also help to mobilize the entire structure of the UN human rights apparatus, and empower organizations fighting for rights in other sectors to champion energy access as a key component of their respective agendas.

Let’s take women’s rights, for example, which are not only the focus of Millennium Development Goal No. 3 (“promote gender equality and empower women”) but which are also embodied in a number of international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women.  Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Convention provides the basis for achieving equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life as well as in the areas of education, health and employment.  According to Article 3 of the Convention, “States Parties shall take in all fields, in particular the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measure, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women.”

In light of the above, the question is: how will women’s rights ever be safeguarded if they are the ones who have to walk miles every day to fetch water and fuel? Or inhale the noxious fumes from indoor cooking fires and kerosene lamps? Or give birth in the dark?  

Women surely bear the greatest burden when it comes to energy poverty, and unless and until modern energy services are made available to them, women—especially those in rural areas—will continue to suffer from gross inequalities in their health, education, and economic opportunity.    

Water is another issue that is tightly interwoven with that of energy, but in terms of rights, water has made greater progress.  In fact, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right.  In adopting the resolution, the UN General Assembly expressed deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water, and called upon member states and international organizations to help poorer countries scale up efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.

And yet, access to clean water itself depends upon energy.  For example, the MDG target of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water will require one million electric pumps.  Many types of water purification systems also require electricity to operate.   So in the final analysis, the right to clean water—which underpins a number of other social and economic human rights—is itself dependent upon having access to modern forms of energy.

The same argument can be extended to other sectors as well. Healthcare is an obvious one.  Without access to energy, especially electricity, it is not possible to store vaccines and other vital medicines, or operate a modern healthcare facility.  The concept of health as a human right has made great strides in recent years, and is now championed by a growing number of visionary leaders such as Dr. Paul Farmer, who recognizes and has publically spoken out on the critical importance of modern energy in delivering healthcare services to the poor.


The list goes on and on.  Whether it be in terms of gender equality, clean water, healthcare, or any number of other priorities not discussed here (such as food security, poverty alleviation, or protection of the environment), energy access—or the lack thereof—invariably factors into the equation. Since all the Millennium Development Goals, and many of the rights upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ultimately depend upon having access to modern forms of energy, it is time that we declare energy itself to be a human right.

In light of the fact that 2012 has just been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, I cannot think of a better way to strengthen the resolve of the global development community in its efforts to achieve universal energy access.

A human rights platform would provide a strong moral basis as well as an authoritative legal structure by which to pressure governments to provide basic energy services to their people, especially those living in rural and remote regions.  It’s not just about investing government resources, which in the developing world can be quite limited; it’s about creating an enabling environment—in terms of laws, policies, and regulatory frameworks—that will encourage creative partnerships between local governments, civil society, and the private sector to increase energy access for the poor.

Energy is essential for life.  It is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  And it is essential for safeguarding a broad range of basic human rights.  The right of access to energy is, in fact, implicitly conferred by a number of international treaties and conventions, but now the time has come to make such an assumption explicit and formally declare—with the full backing and authority of the United Nations—that access to modern energy is, and shall henceforth be deemed, a fundamental human right.

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.  In some cases, though, it may also begin with a visit to the district capital to obtain a copy of one’s birth certificate.

As mentioned in a previous post, access to modern energy—while omitted from the initial group of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) launched by the United Nations in 2000—has gained growing recognition as being a prerequisite for achieving the MDGs. Indeed, the United Nations has even gone so far as to designate 2012 as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.

Last month I was invited to participate in “Energy for All: Financing Access for the Poor”, a high-level conference that took place in Oslo, Norway. I was asked to present a case study on our solar-powered drip irrigation model in Benin that has enabled women farmers in the arid, northern part of the country to grow highly nutritious food year-round.

The organizers of the conference also asked if I could bring with me to Oslo a member of the local community in Benin so that he or she could provide a first-hand account of how village life has been tranformed as a result of our project.

I immediately thought of Ms. Ganigui Guera, president of the women’s farming cooperative in Dunkassa—one of two villages in northern Benin where SELF’s Solar Market Gardens have been in operation over the past four years.

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Ms. Guera, whom we affectionately refer to as “Madame La Presidente”, was my first choice for two reasons: 1) as president of the women’s farming cooperative in Dunkassa, she is a natural leader who can speak authoritatively on behalf of the other women in the community, and 2) she is a strong, dignified woman who carries herself proudly. Such dignity was all too palpable when Madame was featured two years ago in Vu du Ciel, a French documentary about our project in Benin.

Unfortunately, this invitation came with precious little time remaining before the conference. Madame would need to apply for a visa to travel to Norway, a process that normally takes two weeks. But getting a visa, as I found out, was the least of our problems. Madame didn’t have a passport, nor did she have a national ID card, or even a birth certificate. So in order to travel to Norway, she would have to obtain a birth certificate, then a national ID card, then a passport, and finally a visa—all within two weeks!

Against all odds, Madame Ganigui was able to obtain her birth certificate, national ID, and passport in one week, and with support from the Norwegian government as well as Danish embassy in Benin, she was issued a visa just one day before her scheduled flight to Oslo (via Brussels).

Madame had less than 24 hours to prepare for her trip to Europe. Fortunately, our solar technician Zacharie had traveled to Cotonou with Madame, so he was able to assist her with the purchase of essential items such as a suitcase and carry on bag, shoes, and of course, a warm jacket since Oslo would be significantly colder than what Madame was accostomed to.

I arrived to Oslo several hours before Madame, so I was able to pick her up at the airport. Needless to say, I was relieved to see her arrive safely, but I was also dismayed to learn that no one from the airlines had greeted her in Brussels, as agreed to, and escorted her to her connecting flight. I can only imagine how disorienting it must have been for someone who had never traveled abroad or flown before in an airplane. But Madame is a resourceful woman who managed to find the gate on her own.

After checking in to our hotel, we had a buffet dinner and retired for the evening. At dinner, and during subsequent meals in Oslo, it was very interesting to observe Madame experience certain foods for the first time.

The next morning Madame and I attended the opening plenary session which led off with introductory remarks by the Prime Minister of Norway. Thanks to the simultaneous interpreting that was available throughout the conference, Madame was able to listen to everyone’s remarks in French, a language she speaks fluently in addition to Bariba, an African dialect that is spoken widely in the north of Benin.

Later that afternoon I arranged for a brief tour of Oslo. While waiting in the lobby with Madame for our French-speaking tour guide, we had a most fortuitous encounter. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon walked through the revolving front door of the hotel, and suddenly there he was, right in front of us. I siezed the opportunity and quickly introduced the Secretary General to Madame, and told him about the solar-powered drip irrigation model that she has championed in Benin. As Madame La Presidente shook hands with Ban Ki-moon, one of the UN staff photographers took pictures.   

The next morning, I gave a talk on our work in Benin. After my remarks, I invited Madame on stage for her to share her thoughts with the audience. A bit nervous but resolute, Madame walked up to the podium and began to speak. Her voice was quiet and measured. Everyone listened intently as Madame explained who she was and what she has been doing to help her community improve its food security and climb out of poverty.“Solar energy, Madame affirmed, “has transformed our village”. “Thanks to our new-found ability to pump water from rivers and underground aquifers, we are able to grow food year-round. Not only are we feeding our families, we—the women of Dunkassa—are also earning extra income from the sale of fresh produce, income that we can use to pay for school fees and medical treatment.”

When Madame concluded her remarks, the moderator of our panel captured the general mood and reaction of everyone in the room when he said, “If ever we needed a clearer reminder of why we’re here, I think we’ve just heard it.”


Indeed, Madame’s personal testimony was the perfect way to conclude this two-day conference in Oslo. Through her presence, energy poverty suddenly took on a life-like quality that could never be conveyed through a rehearsed speech or powerpoint presentation. Madame was the real deal and everyone knew it. And though Madame’s journey to Norway had been a long and arduous one, it was worth it. Her words, gentle but powerful, will continue to reverberate in the hearts and minds of people who care about energy poverty long after she returns to her native Benin.

Madame is now back in her village, helping to prepare for the dry season which begins this month. But unlike before, when virtually nothing could be grown from November to April, Dunkassa’s drip-irrigated fields will soon be sprouting all kinds of leafy green vegetables—for both consumption as well as sale to market.

And now, Madame knows that her voice has been heard on the world stage, and that the example she is setting in Benin will light the way towards a brighter future for thousands of villagers like her elsewhere in Africa—and beyond.

In September 2000, world leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and establishing a series of time-bound targets - with a deadline of 2015 - that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals, or “MDGs” for short.


The Millennium Development Goals, which all 192 United Nation member states and at least 23 international organizations have signed on to, include 1) eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; 2) achieving universal primary education; 3) promoting gender equality and empowering women; 4) reducing child mortality; 5) improving maternal health; 6) combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7) ensuring environmental sustainability; and 8) building a global partnership for development


When the Millennium Development Goals were first announced 10 years ago, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that energy access had not been included by the U.N. as one of the MDGs.  For without access to modern energy services, none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable. However, in the past few years, a growing number of institutions, including the United Nations itself and the International Energy Agency, have come to acknowledge and promote the fundamental importance of modern energy in meeting all of the Millennium Development Goals.


So how exactly does energy relate to the MDGs?   Let us take a closer look.  For each of the Millennium Development Goals, I have provided an example or two of the role that energy access can play in fulfilling that goal.  Please bear in mind that the list of examples included here is by no means exhaustive.





Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger





  • Household lighting extends the productive work day.
  • Electricity facilitates the establishment of village-based micro-enterprises.
  • Energy for irrigation increases food production and access to nutrition.




Achieve universal primary education



  • Household lighting enables children to read and study at night.
  • Energy services reduce time spent by school-going children on basic survival activities, such as fetching water and firewood.
  • Electricity enables the use of educational media, computers, and Internet access at schools.




Promote gender equality and empower women


  • Modern energy services free women from extreme household drudgery, increase their employment opportunities, and allow them to participate more fully in community activities.
  • Energy access reduces girls’ burden to collect water and fuel, increasing their school enrollment.





Reduce child mortality



  • Energy is a prerequisite for a functional health system, contributing, for example, to lighting operating theaters, refrigerating vaccines, sterilizing equipment, and providing communications.
  • Energy for water pumping and purification greatly reduces the risk of water borne diseases.





Improve maternal health



  • Besides its centrality to the healthcare system, modern energy can lower maternal mortality by reducing the level of indoor air pollution, which kills 1.6 million people every year.





Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases  


  • Modern energy services for power and communications in rural clinics and hospitals enable a quantum leap in health services.




Ensure environmental sustainability 

  • Access to renewable energy technologies helps to preserve natural resources and lowers emissions, which helps protect the local and global environment.



Build a global partnership for development


  • The global north can help achieve the MDGs by providing increased access to renewable energy technologies and finance to the least developed countries.


As a 10-year progress report on the Millennium Development Goals was presented at the United Nations during its general assembly in September of this year, Secretaty-General Ban Ki-moon hosted a dinner at the U.N. to kickstart an awareness campaign around the need for universal energy access.  I was delighted to be present at this dinner, and to see the growing consensus among world leaders that unless and until we find a way to sustainably deliver modern energy services to the quarter of humanity still living without electricity, we will never fully achieve the MDGs.

For the past 20 years, the Solar Electric Light Fund has worked to deliver solar power to rural villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America by facilitating a new generation of “whole village” solar electrification projects.  In many of the countries in which SELF works, there is no other organization undertaking a similar, independent role in providing power to villages without existing resources. Our belief is that energy is a human right, and that without energy, community development becomes virtually impossible.

Working with government, industry and non-governmental organization partners, SELF has built a record of successful solar electricity projects in more than 20 countries, including Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Burundi, China, India, Indonesia, Lesotho, Navajo Nation, Nepal, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Vietnam.  Specifically, we have conceived and implemented projects serving the most pressing needs of the communities we are working with. With the needs of the community in mind, we see an obvious pattern emerging across the different projects we have undertaken. 

For now, let’s call this SELF’s Solar Integrated Development Maturity Model, our 5-level framework for understanding how energy poverty can be tackled at the local level, sustainably, one village at a time. The table below outlines our model:



Solar energy powers purification pumps and filters delivering clean water to communities

Solar energy powers water pumps which enable drip irrigation for critical crops

Solar energy powers health clinics allowing use of key equipment, lighting, & vaccine refrigeration.

Solar energy powers schools to enable computers and Internet access 

Solar energy powers local entrepreneurial and community activities


SELF provides assessment, training, installation and follow-up 

SELF provides assessment, training, installation and follow-up 

SELF partners with a local health organization (e.g. Partners in Health)

SELF provides assessment, training, installation and follow-up

SELF provides assessment, training, installation, follow-up and micro-lending 


SELF projects are governed by local community members

SELF projects are governed by local community members

SELF projects are governed by local community members

SELF projects are governed by local community members

SELF projects are governed by local community members

Case Studies

Nigeria: Jigawa State; India: emergency relief for tsunami victims

Benin: SELF’s Solar Market Garden project 

Haiti, Lesotho, Burundi, Rwanda: Solar Healthcare Partnership with Partners In Health; also Tanzania with the Clinton Global Initiative

South Africa: schools in Eastern Cape Provnce

Nigeria: Jigawa State’s solar-powered micro-enterprise buildings


In Jigawa State, solar-powered pumps supply villages with clean, fresh water from deep wells

a Stanford University study validates SELF’s Solar Market Garden project 

Partners In Health has committed to shifting all their clinics from reliance on diesel to solar

two thousand students and their families now have access to reliable lighting, new computer labs and the Internet

SELF’s micro enterprise initiatives create a variety of small businesses, from barbers and tailors, to peanut oil processing 

Level One: Water

Without access to clean drinking water, the standard of living in rural communities is always in “crisis” mode. Having a reliable water supply is the first priority of any village and this is especially true in the semi-desert of Nigeria’s Jigawa State where there are few rivers or other sources of water on the surface of the land. Typical methods of getting water range from open wells with rope and bucket, to hand pumps, to government supplied diesel-powered pumps that work only until they break down or until villagers run out of money to buy the expensive diesel fuel.

The powerful solar-powered pumps supplied with this project are designed to run maintenance free for eight to ten years or more and are currently supplying the villages with clean, fresh water from deep wells. Because the wells are tied into a village distribution system with numerous taps, the time that families used to spend getting water has been reduced as well. More >>

In India, SELF was involved in an emergency water purification project for Tsunami survivors.  This solar-driven project also proves that at the most basic level, solar power can be harnessed to provide clean water for people without basic utilities.

Level Two: Food

Vu du Ciel from Solar Electric Light Fund on Vimeo.

Food security is a critical issue in terms of stability and socio-economic development across the developing world. In November 2007, SELF partnered with Association pour le Developpement conomique Social et Culturel de Kalalé (ADESCA) to launch a remarkable pilot project, installing an innovative solar-powered drip irrigation system to pump water for food crops. SELF engineers developed a 2.1kW solar electric power supply that provides 100% of the energy for the pumps. SELF secured seed funding for the project by emerging as a winner in the 2006 Global Development Marketplace competition, sponsored by the World Bank.

See: Stanford University assessment validates SELF’s Solar Integrated Development Model

More information >>

Level Three: Health
Since 2006, SELF has been working in concert with Partners In Health (PIH) to provide solar power to their hospitals in Rwanda, Lesotho, and most recently, in Haiti.

In response to the devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, SELF is accelerating its commitment to power health clinics in Haiti with Partners In Health (PIH).  We have already provided solar electricity to the clinic in Boucan Carré, Hince, and Cerca La Source, and will now speed the process of solar electrifying all 10 PIH sites in Haiti.

More info: Rwanda, Lesotho, Burundi, and Haiti >>

Level Four: Education
In 2000, SELF began a project to bring solar electricity to Myeka High School, in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a poor, backwater region in KwaZulu, South Africa. Within the first year, the school was equipped with an overhead projector, two television sets, a VCR, a photocopier, a copy printer, and 20 computers marking the beginning of a new school experience for these youngsters. The enthusiasm in the school has been contagious throughout the teachers, students, and community. Teaching has become interactive using videos, TV programs, and overhead projectors to augment the learning experience. Students can now spend their time discussing topics and reading texts instead of hand-copying notes off the chalkboard. After receiving solar electricity at Myeka High School, not only did enrollment soar by 40%, but pass rates (the percentage of seniors who graduate with a diploma) jumped from 55% to 69%.

Then, in 2008 the Solar Electric Light Fund solar-electrified three schools in the Eastern Cape Province, the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. Funded through the generosity of the Kellogg Foundation and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, with laptops provided by Dell Computers, two thousand students and their families now have access to reliable lighting, new computer labs and wireless Internet.

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Level Five: Enterprise
In Nigeria’s Jigawa State, the power of economic transformation is captured in this footage from the CNN archives:

The solar-powered micro-enterprise buildings are the project centerpieces in each village. Each center provides electricity to 6 very small businesses that would otherwise not have access to electricity. The shared PV system, much less expensive than individual systems for each shop, allow tailors to move up from manual sewing machines to electric; barbers, from manual clippers to electric, and similar improvements in productivity for other types of businesses.

This project has introduced home lighting systems to each village. Compared to the kerosene lights that they replace, solar lighting offers a better light without the inherent fumes and fire danger of the old lamps. System users report that it is now easier for children to do their studies and home businesses are thriving under the better lighting conditions. And of course, families appreciate going about their normal activities with good lighting. With about 20 systems in each village, we have created demand and a great deal of interest in home systems. Our local partner will be able to continue electrifying houses using a micro-credit scheme where the payments for each system will be used to purchase additional systems for more homes.

One of the project villages, Wawan-rafi, has a lake nearby that is used to irrigate cash crops during the rainy season. However, many of the poorest farmers are limited in their growing ability by only being able to water their fields using a hollowed-out gourd – a slow and labor intensive process. For these farmers, we developed a cattle or person pulled cart with fold-out unbreakable solar modules powering an efficient pump that can be moved from field to field. More efficient irrigation will enable farmers to produce and sell more to provide greater income for their families.

The only source of income for most village women is the production and sale of peanut oil. Traditionally, small amounts of oil are made in a process taking great amounts of time and strenuous labor. In Wawan-rafi, we have incorporated a solar-powered oil expeller that will save time and labor while earning more income for women.

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The way forward for SELF is based on this 5-level solar integrated development maturity model. We view total village development as a unified whole, combining the various needs - at every level - with our capability to deliver scalable, sustainable development projects to serve the entire community.

To support the long-term rebuilding of Haiti, Grammy award-winning Reggae band Steel Pulse has donated 100% of the proceeds from sales of their new single Hold On [4 Haiti] to the Solar Electric Light Fund and our “Solar Health Care Partnership” with Partners In Health.

You can learn more about our project at, or watch Paul Farmer explain what we’re doing:

The money will be used to solar electrify PIH clinics in Haiti (see previous story with Larry Hagman).

Steel Pulse have been true to their roots for over thirty-five years. One of Bob Marley’s favorites, the band has maintained a sense of fierce integrity as it strives to get the message of love and unity across to all people. VIBE magazine has called them “the best live reggae band on earth.” British-born Jamaicans, Steel Pulse started their career opening for the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Generation X. They even played at President Clinton’s inaugural celebration - the only reggae band to do so. They are working on a new album and DVD and are currently on tour.

Donate and download the song below, or by visiting >>

Don’t forget to tell your friends!


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There’s a sweet irony watching long-time SELF board member Larry Hagman turn the world renown oil tycoon J.R. Ewing into a conscientious solar executive while retaining his famously wicked laugh.

“Shine, baby, shine,” chuckles a fiendish Hagman as he coins the new energy mantra for our time in a series of advertisements for SolarWorld. He’s playing off “Drill, baby, drill” of course, but few can argue with his message.

Serving on SELF’s board since 2000, Larry walks the talk. In 2003, he installed what is surely the largest residential solar system in the United States, if not the world, at his hilltop home in Ojai, Calif., north of LA. The combined arrays on his property total about 90 kilowatts. 

Now with his catalytic involvement in SolarWorld’s advertising campaign, he has leveraged his passion for solar energy to help SELF as well. Through its Solar2World donation program to aid communities in developing regions, SolarWorld donated solar panels to SELF for a Partners In Health (PIH) clinic in Haiti in 2009. After an earthquake devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, SELF was among nonprofit aid groups that SolarWorld agreed to supply with even bigger panel donations to ease the Haiti crisis. Thanks to Larry’s efforts, SolarWorld’s generous donation of 100KW of solar panels will power five more clinics in Haiti. For SELF, this is an integral part of our overall solar healthcare partnership with Partners in Health (PIH).

Thank you, SolarWorld, and thank you Larry.

The New York Times covered the story here.

Update: in June SELF completed solar installations at two more of the clinics operated by PIH’s Haitian counterpart, Zanmi Lasante (ZL).  And the solar industry, too, deserves tremendous credit for stepping up to help. The 5.8 kW solar-diesel hybrid system at the Hinche clinic was made possible by generous in-kind donations from the Solar Liberty Foundation and Sunsense Solar. At Cerca la Source, SELF technicians installed a 10 kW system with panels donated from Q-Cells SE, and money donated by Good Energies Foundation helped fund the balance of materials. At the Cerca la Source clinic, one of the key goals was to improve security by using outdoor night lighting throughout the grounds. We’re finding, though, that solar power gives many other benefits to these impoverished communities, sometimes unexpected. Within minutes of the first lights coming on, our project director saw a small boy standing underneath them, reading a book!

A lack of power was responsible for a lot of deaths in the first few days [after the earthquake],” writes Partners In Health (PIH) Executive Director Ophelia Dahl in a recent message.

She explains:

With electricity knocked out around Haiti, surgeons were forced to operate on patients using flashlights. Laboratory and diagnostic equipment were rendered useless. Electric water pumps were nonfunctional. Gas generators helped fill the gap. But finding fuel quickly became difficult, and gas that could be found carried price tags as high as $20 a gallon in the days following the earthquake.  Many of our clinics powered by gas generators came uncomfortably close to running out of fuel.

As PIH begins to move from short-term relief efforts towards long-term recovery and rebuilding work, finding sustainable ways to power hospitals will become a priority.

Since 2006, Partners In Health has been working in partnership with the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) to provide solar power to hospitals in Rwanda, Lesotho, and most recently, in Haiti.


The first time I met Paul Farmer, he said something to the effect of…“Bob, I’m thrilled about bringing solar power to Rwanda, but what about Haiti?  When are you guys going to help us in Haiti?”. 

I have the Clinton Foundation, especially Edwin Macharia, to thank for the introduction to Partners In Health.  I met Edwin at the inaugural Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in September 2005.  Edwin, a brilliant and hard-working Kenyan who at the time worked for the Clinton Foundation, approached me at the conference and asked if SELF could help provide reliable power for a series of rural clinics in Tanzania. That conversation led to a collaboration between SELF and the Clinton Foundation to solar electrify 4 rural health clinics in the Masasi District of southern Tanzania under the auspices of the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative (CHAI).

Since the Clinton Foundation was also supporting the work of Partners In Health in Rwanda, a program which had just been launched in the spring of 2005, Macharia encouraged me to also talk with PIH about the possibility of using solar energy to power the 5 rural health centers in eastern Rwanda that were being operated by Partners In Health.

Several months later I traveled to PIH’s headquarters in Boston to meet with PIH Executive Director Ophelia Dahl and several of her colleagues. I was accompanied by Jeff Lahl, SELF’s Project Director. Jeff and I went over the pros and cons of solar vs. diesel for powering rural health centers, and explained that while a photovoltaic solution would be more expensive upfront, it would save considerable money over time.  Furthermore, we argued, solar would be more sustainable and reliable than diesel. Shortly thereafter, PIH committed to working with SELF to solar electrify their 5 rural health centers in Rwanda.

In July 2006 I visited Rwanda for the first time, just as the first of our solar installations for PIH was getting underway. My trip coincided with President Clinton’s visit to Rwanda.  While he was visiting PIH’s hospital in Rwinkwavu, Jeff Lahl and I had an opportunity to brief President Clinton on SELF’s solar solution for Partners In Health. 


After the success of Rwanda, PIH decided to “go solar” across the board – at each and every one of their 40+ health centers in Rwanda, Malawi, Lesotho, and Haiti.  

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we have been requested by PIH to accelerate our timeline for bringing solar power to all of their sites in Haiti.  Diesel fuel is already in short supply and will likely become even more difficult to obtain as time goes by.  Solar can serve as a foundation for a robust and sustainable healthcare infrastructure in Haiti.


Walt Ratterman—one of the most dedicated and intrepid solar pioneers that I have ever had the honor of knowing—was tragically killed last month when the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th leveled the Hotel Montana in which he was staying. The world has lost a truly great man, solar professional and global humanitarian.

I had heard about Walt for years, but didn’t get to meet him in person until the summer of 2006 when I traveled to Rwanda to check out the first of five solar electric systems that SELF was in the process of installing at rural clinics run by Partners In Health (PIH).  Aside from Walt’s deep technical knowledge and experience installing photovoltaic (PV)  systems around the world, one of the things that struck me most about Walt was his tireless work ethic.  He never seemed to take a rest.  Typically up by 4:00am, Walt would spring into action with a series of calisthenics, followed by a checklist review of everything he aimed to accomplish over the next 24 hours.  And after a long, grueling day in the field followed by a quick supper, instead of relaxing over a beer or two, Walt would inevitably fire up his laptop and respond to a string of emails and/or do some additional planning for his next project.

A couple of other attributes come to mind when I think about Walt.  First, he loved to teach and always took special pleasure in training local technicians and villagers in the basics of PV installation and maintenance.  One of my favorite photos of Walt is the one below, which features him and a couple of Rwandans wiring the back of a solar panel.


Second, Walt had a profound sense of kindness and compassion towards those less fortunate and treated everyone with the utmost respect and dignity.  He also possessed a fierce sense of social justice, which no doubt helped to fuel his passion to provide solar electricity to some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged peoples.

Third, Walt was an avid reader and student of history and world religions. One conversation that I remember fondly was about our common experiences with Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization founded by Master Zheng Yan in Taiwan.  Having lived in Taiwan for six years, I had met Master Zheng Yan on several occasions and was familiar with Tzu Chi’s humanitarian outreach in Taiwan and overseas.  You can imagine my surprise and delight when Walt informed me that not only had he met Master Zheng Yan but that he had been appointed by her as a commissioner of Tzu Chi in connection with humanitarian work he had carried out in Afghanistan!

Which brings me to Knightsbridge International (KBI), the organization under whose auspices Walt traveled to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 to provide aid to people who were fleeing from the Taliban.  As a member of Knightsbridge, a humanitarian and medical aid organization founded in 1995, Walt had journeyed to and provided relief in far-flung places such as Burma, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Sudan, and the Philippines. Some of Walt’s humanitarian feats in the first few years of the new millennium were beautifully captured in Adrian Belic’s 2006 award-winning documentary Beyond the Call about Knightsbridge International.

After completing the electrification of PIH's health centers in Rwanda, SELF asked Walt to assist with addtional projects in Rwanda, as well as to continue working with SELF on the solar electrification of PIH clinics in Losotho and Haiti.  Walt also helped us solar electrify a new hospital in Burundi that had been built by PIH's sister organization, Village Health Works.

Walt was, without doubt, the most dedicated and hardest-working project manager Jeff Lahl and I have ever worked with.  We would have gladly brought him on full time, but Walt preferred to work independently, to many organizations’ benefit.

He established SunEnergy Power International (SunEPI) to serve as a vehicle for all the humanitarian renewable energy projects that he undertook in remote, rural parts of the world.  Since 2007, Walt and SunEPI had been working with USAID to assess healthcare energy systems in Haiti, an initiative which dovetailed nicely with our plans to assist PIH in Haiti.  He oversaw our 10-kilowatt installation at the PIH-run clinic in Boucan Carre, helped secure a donation of PV equipment, and involved USAID in the project

For a long time after the January 12th earthquake in Haiti, Walt’s family—along with many of his friends and colleagues, myself included—continued to believe that he had survived the collapse of the Hotel Montana and was patiently waiting for the rubble to be cleared away so that he could refill his water bottle and get back to work. Within days of the disaster, a special Facebook page had been set up by Walt’s family to serve as a conduit for information about search and rescue operations at the Montana, as well as to provide a communications platform for anyone who knew or knew about Walt and wished to contribute personal thoughts and reflections about him or others who were also missing.

Even before the tragedy in Haiti, Walt was a hero to many people around the world, a fact that is clearly evident from reading the hundreds of impassioned prayers and well wishes posted on his Facebook page by people in faraway places whose lives were blessed in one way or another by Walt’s grace, compassion, and goodwill.

It wasn’t until a few days ago that we finally learned Walt’s remains had been found in the rubble of the Hotel Montana.  While saddened beyond words by the finality of this news, I am comforted knowing that Walt’s spirit of adventure and dedication to making this world a better place will live on in the thousands of people that he has inspired, and in the dozens of organizations that he has worked with and supported.

One such organization is Solar Energy International (SEI), a nonprofit group based in Carbondale, Colorado that has trained more people in photovoltaic design and installation than any other group that I know of.   To honor Walt, SEI has just established the Walt Ratterman Scholarship Fund to support people from developing countries to attend SEI workshops. What a wonderful way to pay tribute to Walt and his lifelong commitment to social justice and the provision of sustainable energy access across the globe.


If you wish to read more about Walt’s legacy and view some of our favorite photographs of him, please check out the tribute that we have posted on the SELF website.