Aalto University and three African universities joined forces to push back the darkness in a project that raised awareness of energy efficiency, developed lighting technology education and built light labs.

When the power goes out, darkness falls. In the rural areas of Africa, and often even in the cities, that darkness can be nigh on impenetrable. The air is filled with the sounds of crickets as people start looking for candles and kerosene lamps.

Actually, many African homes do not have electricity to begin with: According to the World Bank, in Tanzania only 40% of the population has electricity at home. In Mozambique and Ethiopia, the corresponding figures are 30% and 51%, respectively.

However, with populations growing and wealth slowly increasing, the demand for electrical lighting is also growing in these countries. Light is needed for studying and improving quality of life in general, and it even has an impact on health, as many traditional forms of lighting introduce smoke into indoor air.

This growing demand for electrical lighting is what the EARLI project on renewable energy and energy efficiency launched in 2017 sought to address. The project partners consisted of Aalto University in Finland, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.

- Nowadays many people living in villages buy energy-saving lamps, and many can afford cheap solar panels, says Professor Bakari Mwinyiwiwa from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania

It has now been two years since the project concluded, but according to Mwinyiwiwa, its accomplishments can be concretely seen in the increased numbers of energy-efficient lights in rural areas.

The project was coordinated by researcher Pramod Bhusal from Aalto University in Finland. He points out that, unlike in Finland and many other industrialised countries, in many poorer countries lighting still consumes a very large proportion of generated electricity, often accounting for more than half of total energy consumption.

- Whenever a new village is connected to the power grid, lights are the first thing that people buy. In many countries, the words ‘light’ and ‘electricity’ are the same, so when the power comes back after an outage, people say that the lights came back, he describes.

Improving energy efficiency through communication

While there is a great deal of discussion in African countries about renewable energy sources nowadays, the concept of energy efficiency remains unfamiliar to many.

- With more efficient electricity consumption, we could light more homes with the same amount of energy from the same sources, Mwinyiwiwa says.

According to reports by the World Bank, there are various obstacles to energy efficiency. These include people being unaware of why it is needed and being prejudiced against it. Some may even think that conserving energy harms the environment, while others are afraid of supposed health risks.

Energy efficiency is also hardly taught or studied in many poor countries. Thirdly, energy conservation can be hampered by regulation and the ignorance of decision-makers.

The universities’ joint project sought to tackle the problem in several different ways.

The project organised seminars in all three countries and carried out extensive communication campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of energy conservation and lighting. The latter included newspaper articles and meetings with companies and authorities.

- We had a great number of participants from different sectors, Bhusal says.

Courses in lighting technology launched

At the start of the project, lighting technology was not being taught in any of the three countries as a separate subject. According to Bakari Mwinyiwiwa, in Tanzania the subject was touched upon in engineering studies, but other than that, lighting research was a completely new field.

Recognising this, the project developed courses in lighting technology and brought teachers from all three countries to Finland to study and learn about energy-efficient lighting.

- Turns out that there is a lot more to it than more energy-efficient lamps, Bhusal clarifies. - There are many other things that affect energy efficiency as well, such as building design, from the choice of paints to lighting controls and the utilisation of natural light.

In Tanzania and Mozambique, the project also built lighting labs where students can learn about lighting in practice and test the efficiency and quality of different light sources.

- Before this, these countries did not have the means to carry out quality monitoring on imported products, Bhusal says.

Now, the universities have the capacity to test whether the quality, power and usability of lighting products correspond to importers’ claims.

- This is also very important in terms of getting people to accept new technologies, Bhusal says.

The new courses developed in the project were eventually integrated into the universities’ curricula, meaning that they continue to be taught even though the project has already concluded.

- We are currently also developing a graduate course, Mwinyiwiwa says. For now, he wants there to be an option of completing a master’s degree in lighting technology, and eventually maybe even a doctorate.

Lighting research can also contribute to food safety

Teaching people about lighting and energy conservation leads to practical improvements in their lives. According to Bakari Mwinyiwiwa, people in Tanzania have already come to understand that paying for energy-saving lamps is worth it because using them is ultimately cheaper for households.

Pramod Bhusal points out that the project’s immediate objective was to develop education on and raise awareness of energy efficiency, whereas new innovations, products and policies are long-term goals. The latter can be expected to come to fruition years from now, after the students graduate and enter the job market.

However, there are already some developments happening now. In Tanzania, students have built switches that dim street lights when there is no traffic on the street, for example.

- And we are seeing that when our students tell potential employers about their projects, their employment prospects go up. It is clear that companies recognise the potential of the students, Mwinyiwiwa says.

According to Mwinyiwiwa, one potential avenue of future research is the use of different light spectra in fishing and insect harvesting. One of his students had already started researching what kind of light spectrum would be ideal for attracting edible grasshoppers, which are traditionally lured simply using intense white light. Could red light, which radiates a lot of heat, be removed from the spectrum, for example?

Unfortunately, the student ended up switching courses, so the research was put on hold for now. In addition to insect harvesting, lighting is also used extensively in fishing to lure schools of fish to the surface.

- You could write a master’s thesis on what kind of light attracts fish energy-efficiently, Mwinyiwiwa says.

Efforts to develop teaching in developing countries are also continuing at Aalto University. At present, the university is involved in an Erasmus+ project funded by the European Commission focusing on the development of energy-efficient and smart lighting education in Myanmar and Vietnam.

Text: Esa Salminen


Promoting education and research on energy efficient lighting and renewable energy for sustainable development (EARLI)

Project Budget: €555 415 with MFA funding (total budget €694 269)
Project Duration: 1.3.2017-31.12.2020
Coordinating Institution: Aalto University
Partner Institutions: University of Dar es Salaam (UDS), Tanzania; Eduardo Mondlane University (UEM), Mozambique; Addis Abeba University (AAU), Ethiopia