Living in rural Africa is a daily challenge to its residents who, isolated from the conveniences of modern civilization, enjoy a much lower quality of life that the rest of the world. The “poverty trap” holds billions in a vulnerable status quo when they are too focused on the daily cost of living to invest in anything to provide them with a better quality of life.

Energy is one of the many necessities that rural Africans lack. In Kenya, two thirds of the population do not have access to a power grid. The infrastructure is unreliable even in the country’s major cities, where even urban residents must rely on wood and kerosene in the event of blackouts, to say nothing of those in remote villages.

Now, companies are starting to realize that there is a source of energy that Africa has in abundance, one that could lead to a massive overhaul in how the country receives its energy. In the heat of the African sun lies the solution to its problems. Situated around the equator, the continent is sunnier than the rest of the world. While some major solar energy projects have already been developed, businesses have started to work with the sun on a small scale to provide for those in outlying areas.

Solar development in Africa is advantageous in more ways than one. The continent has fewer barriers to entry when it comes to implementing alternative systems of energy, with traditional coal- and oil-based energy firms controlling city power systems. This enables rural Africa to adopt a nontraditional approach: implementing solar power on a home-to-home basis.

These new solar systems are a far cry from the usual image of the giant solar panel; many are only the size of a laptop. While these systems often don’t power too much more than a few light bulbs, there’s a lot of difference that a little light can make. Personal power grids for individual families can enable residents to charge their phones and help students continue their work into the evening hours. Despite living in rural areas, more and more Africans are owning smart phones to give themselves access to easy communications and information. However, many without power must find transportation to more populated areas in order to actually charge their phones.

These phones are also becoming the key to solar energy payment plans; businesses are building their services around phone use to control and pay for systems. Interested residents sign contracts in which they pay for power monthly, a method which is nevertheless cheaper than purchasing less efficient sources of energy such as kerosene. Plus, when the contract expires, the family gets to keep the system, giving them ways to help stabilize and rise above the poverty trap.  

Though the efforts of these companies, such as Tanzania’s Off The Grid Electric, aren’t philanthropic, they do provide a valuable benefit to their buyers that has the potential to affect lasting societal change. These countries are also largely based in the countries that they serve, contributing on an economic level as well as a social one. Not only that, but African leaders have demonstrated increased interest in the impact of solar power, something that these companies have proved willing to step up and provide.

It’s easy to dismiss the impact of a smartphone when they’ve become ubiquitous, but for residents of these remote areas, solar networks can give families access to the wealth of information found on the Internet. Additionally, electric lighting increases the work that can be done in evening hours, improving productivity and empowering citizens to work and study for better lives.

While these efforts are just the opening moves in a continued initiative to improve Africa’s energy infrastructure, the demand for solar power systems is an indication that countries across the continent are scrambling to make widespread social change and improve their standing in the world. It’s encouraging to see the progress being made both for and by the citizens of Africa through solar energy.