The role of solar lights and solar home systems in modern day disaster relief

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Image source: SolarAid

Just over three weeks ago, Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and caused extreme rainfall, flooding and high winds in Malawi. With more than 700 people dead and hundreds of thousands left homeless in these regions, the destruction witnessed in the aftermath of this natural disaster has been devasting.

Relief camps set up in old buildings and tents across the three countries have been bringing temporary relief to the displaced. However, when lives are thrown into chaos by natural disasters, basic needs are snatched away – one of which is access to safe and reliable energy.

While many NGOs and local aid organizations power their relief camps with the help of battery-operated lights and fossil fuel-run generators, the route to accessing resources to keep the flow of energy constant is not an easy one. A couple of GOGLA members displayed the benefits of renewable energy and off-grid solar in such situations, as they joined relief work in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Seeing the need for immediate lighting within a number of relief camps, SolarWorks!Zonful Energy and SolarAid launched into action to meet this need locally in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi respectively. All three companies, who ordinarily do not partake in emergency response, provided local NGOs and aid agencies with solar lights and solar home systems to help light up their camps.

Located in Mozambique, SolarWorks! experienced loss close to home with around 35 team members losing their homes. Their effort to provide relief started with offering temporary shelter to these team members and their immediate families within their offices. SolarWorks! also partnered with GIZ, Save the Children, Omnivoltaic and EDP Renewables to supply solar home systems to relief camps and shelters across the country.

SolarAid, on the other hand, decided to join relief efforts in Southern Malawi after they heard about the devastation in the area from their social enterprise, SunnyMoney’s staff, and sales agents. In collaboration with local authorities and the Malawi Red Cross, a distribution plan for solar lights and solar home systems was developed.

Solar home systems: Accessible and reliable sources of energy

Emphasizing the need for reliable light in the aftermath of a disaster, Brave Mhonie, who leads SunnyMoney in Malawi, said that relief camps are temporary. In Malawi, despite the passing of Cyclone Idai, the region still experienced heavy rainfall which often forced people to pack their belongings and move in the middle of the night. Situations like these cause panic and can be dangerous without proper lighting.

“Solar lights are portable…these products are often waterproof, which makes them more resilient,” said William Ponela, Founder and CEO of Zonful Energy, as he listed out the benefits that off-grid solar can bring to disaster relief efforts. He further added that solar home systems are easy to install, which makes them a versatile tool for emergency response.

In Mozambique, Thomas de Wijn, Operations Director at SolarWorks! said that since the organization’s local capacity was limited, they were working with members of GIZ and Save the Children to help install solar home systems during the disaster relief period.

Image source: SolarAid

Promoting health and safety for women and children

Women and children are particularly at risk without light and electricity. Portable and reliable lights provide better visibility, lowering the chances of women and children falling victim to rape and sexual assault. Solar lights also help give women a sense of security and independence to move around relief camps on their own. Eliminating the use of kerosene lanterns or candles also reduce the risk of fire and pollution with these camps.

Access to light also helps make the experience of living in a relief camp less traumatic for young children.

Solar home systems can help coordinate relief efforts

Solar home systems do more than just provide light. The energy generated can also be used to charge mobile phones – an important accessory in maintaining communication channels. Fully charged and functional mobile phones give the affected the opportunity to keep in touch with loved ones, while at the same time providing them access to necessary information. A reliable source of energy and open communication channels also allow better coordination of relief efforts by NGOs and aid agencies, while keeping regular tabs on weather and health updates.

The challenges observed 

Despite the advantages of solar lights and solar home systems during disaster relief, many NGOs and aid agencies still do not consider them in their relief planning process. This usually means that these products are not stored by relevant agencies and access to them during an emergency is usually delayed. This was observed in Zimbabwe and Malawi too.

Thomas, however, notes that since solar home system providers are now located in most parts of Africa, it can be argued that aid agencies do not need to store these systems but can instead source them locally when the need arises.

While SolarWorks! was contacted by most aid agencies arriving in Mozambique to help source solar home systems, Zonful Energy and SolarAid had a different story to tell.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, William and Brave, both noted a gap in relief planning – one that they tried to bridge by donating and initiating the use of solar home systems and solar lights in camps and tents that housed survivors of the disaster.

After all, reliable lighting is important for safety, comfort and even hope in such situations.

Read more about how off-grid solar is transforming the lives of millions in our Powering Opportunity report.

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