Recently, I met with a young entrepreneur, Greg Lee, who is exploring technology to bring electricity to the 85% to 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa that is beyond the reach of the electric grid.  Based on his team’s research, the number one reason African villagers want electricity?  To charge their cell phones.  The number two reason?  Lighting.

The classic “Earth at Night” NASA satellite imagery tells the story.  The heavily populated areas of developed nations shine brightly, while the energy-strapped areas of the earth are in darkness.  In Africa, light comes primarily from kerosene lamps — a dangerous and polluting fuel.

In most of the third world, cell phones have leapfrogged legacy landlines as the primary telephony technology .  I predict that LEDs will likewise leapfrog legacy incandescent and florescent lighting.  Incandescents, while inexpensive, quickly drain a solar- or electrical-generator-charged battery.  Fluorescents require less energy, but share incandescents’ short life span and add mercury disposal to an already challenged ecology.

Making light and energy widely available has the potential to bring triple bottom line benefit to whatever company or organization can crack Africa.  The triple bottom line encompasses people, planet, and profit.  While the people and planet parts for the equation seem self evident, the profit line may be difficult to master.  But, every year Africans spend $40 billion on fuel-oil-based lighting.  Someone is going to figure it out how to redirect that spending – perhaps my new young friend.

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