Off-grid lighting companies can support learners in low income families to access e-learning during COVID-19 crisis, and beyond

Kim Kariuki

Picture: Brian Otieno/

According to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), at least 630M learners in the developing world are out of school due to the COVID-19 crisis. This is particularly worrying, given that this has been shown to contribute to early pregnancies among girls and increase the risk of boys being recruited into armed groups (or worse).

With $8.8M being allocated to UNICEF to help developing nations restart schooling, there’s hope. In an attempt to ensure equity in access, these countries are relying on broadcasting educational content through radio and TV, e.g. in Colombia, Croatia, Egypt and Kenya. In addition to delivering content, countries are also investing in supporting teachers and leveraging a host of digital solutions, including access to the internet and social media tools (e.g. WhatsApp). In some countries (e.g. Egypt), it is possible for learners to obtain free SIM cards to access digital content via mobile phones.

While noble, these initiatives rely on the fact that families have access – this includes the requisite assets (e.g. radios, TVs, smart phones, laptops, etc) and services (e.g. internet, electricity, etc). The reality is that low income households are less likely to afford to purchase (or maintain) access. And even if it is the case that these assets exist, they are likely in use by the adults in the home, which limits access for learners. If available, these assets may be worn or outdated, hence learners are unable to fully utilize them. In the recent past, there have been media reports of low income families in Kenya asking their neighbors to ‘turn up the volume’ so that their children can also benefit from the education content being aired by national broadcasters.

In low income households, learners have more responsibilities. These include fetching water, rearing livestock, minding younger children, etc. This means that even if there’s access, the attention of these learners may not be there. Latest media reports suggest that Kenya’s attempts at digital learning solutions have been wanting, given the inability for students to concentrate and ineffective supervision by their parents/guardians.

Given that the crisis is limiting the income-generating potential of poor households, there’s a real risk that education will be down-prioritized as households struggle to make ends meet.

On the flip side, children in richer households are able to continue with their learning via digital channels. While distractions still exist, the relatively higher household incomes means that access is better. As well, learners in private schools (and in international curriculum) have been able to continue with e-learning, facilitated by tools such as Google, Zoom, Skype, etc.

“Needless to say, the effect of the crisis on households will be exacerbated by income inequalities”

The current situation is even more worrying for the nearly 2M students who are sitting final examinations this year. There’s a likelihood that learners in low income homes will be significantly outperformed by their peers – which may exacerbate poverty if these learners end up missing out on future educational and employment opportunities. If prolonged, the crisis may cause low income families to give up on education entirely.

This is where partnerships with off-grid lighting companies can come in. Already, off-grid lighting solutions are playing a major role in improving education attainment in low income households. By investing in solar home systems (SHS), 2 of 3 households have reported an increase in household income, with the majority of savings going towards spending in education. Moreover, 84% of households with children report increases in study time due to SHS, which has been linked to better exam performance and school attendance.

Thanks to innovation, the range of solutions has expanded to charge mobile phones as well as power appliances, such as radios, TVs and small fans. Moreover, PAYGo has served to unlock demand for more expensive solutions. Lighting Global maintains an active list of off-grid solutions that have passed quality verification standards, making it easier for end-users, private sector players and governments to make informed decisions when it comes to product selection.

According to the GOGLA report for 2019:

  • Over 8.5M off-grid lighting units and 1.2M appliances were sold
  • At more than 25% of global sales, PAYGo continues to play an important role in promoting ownership
  • Households enjoy an additional 1,316 hours of per year
  • 106M people are currently enjoying access to off-grid lighting solutions, 37% are in East Africa

Now more than ever before, off-grid lighting solutions have an enormous potential to improve access to education among low income households – either directly or through bundling with asset and service providers.

Author: Kim Kariuki is an Engagement Director at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics with an interest in supporting individuals to exercise agency today for better outcomes tomorrow. The focus of his current project portfolio is to drive uptake of digital financial services, improve agricultural practices and enhance usage of clean energy solutions. He is passionate about youth, gender, employment and resilience among under-served communities.



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