Good Light in the Village

Flavia and Esaya Odockthu holding Pico solar lanterns. According to Flavia, the lanterns create "good light."

In the past, there was no good light in Akokoro, the village where Esaya Odockthu and his partner Flavia live. The village is a 20-mile drive from the district capital, Nebbi, and about 250-miles from the nation’s capital, Kampala. It lies deep in the highlands that separate Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The dirt road from Nebbi get progressively narrower as it approaches Akokoro, eventually dwindling to a footpath.

Flavia and Esaya have lived in or near Akokoro their whole life. “I was born a long time ago,” Esaya says, “back when we were part of Britain. When Queen Elizabeth visited [in 1954], I was a still young man.” He guesses that he is in his mid-80s. Flavia is closer to 70. Esaya’s wife died years ago, and Flavia lost her husband. They aren’t married and now mostly depend on one another.

When Esaya was younger, he farmed plantains, potatoes, and maize, the basics of subsistence farming in Uganda. He stopped working a decade ago, too bent and arthritic to continue to work his land. He now hires other villagers to plant, weed and harvest in exchange for a portion of the farm’s output. And those neighbors still farm those same few crops, perhaps with a little bit of coffee for commercial sale.

What it Means to be Poor

There are about 100 households in village, perhaps 500 people in total, most of them children. While a few homes have concrete floors and tin roofs, most people – including Esaya and Flavia – live in mud huts with thatched roofs. Electricity lines end a few miles short of the village.

A hillside with fields and grass roofed huts in Akokoro, Uganda.
Grass-roofed huts dot the landscape in Akokoro, Uganda, where Esaya and Flavia live.

Flavia knows that they are poor. And she and Esaya marvel at the changes they have seen in their life. “The roads are better. Some houses have tin on the roof rather than grass. Children are much more likely to get schooling,” Flavia reports. “But most incredibly, there is now good light in the village.” And the lighting is available thanks to an amazing intervention that FINCA donors helped make possible.

Through a local NGO partner, FINCA sells small solar-powered lanterns for the astonishingly low price of $3. The little lanterns have a built-in solar panel and a stand that can also serve as a hook by which to hang. They have three levels of brightness (low, normal, high) and a USB port that can be used to charge a cell phone or power a radio. On a sunny day, the lantern battery can fully charge in just a few hours.

There is Now Good Light in the Village

After the sun goes down, people set the lantern on normal for most tasks, only occasionally using the high mode. At bedtime, they switch to low power to light the house or the area right outside their house overnight.

Benefits that Flavia and Esaya’s neighbors ascribe to the lights include:

  • “Better light makes it safer to walk around outside the house at night.”
  • “It means we don’t have to burn straw from the roof when more light is needed quickly”
  • “[The lights] makes it pleasant to gather with family and friends in the evening.”
  • “It is easier to take care of the baby at night.”
  • “It keeps wild animals away.”
  • “The children are no longer scared at night. They can move around the village and do small errands.”
Members of the Akokoro VSLA organized by WINEPS hold the solar lanterns that they purchased. The members say that the lanterns provide "good light."
Members of the VSLA in Akokoro display the solar lanterns that got from FINCA and WINEPS.

What it Takes to Deliver Good Light

Flavia and Esaya and dozens of their neighbors were able to purchase solar lanterns because they are members of a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), an entity very similar to FINCA’s Village Banks. The VSLA is supported by WINEPS, a Ugandan NGO with which FINCA partners.

Esaya was one of the first members of the VSLA to purchase a lantern, back in 2019. Flavia shared Esaya’s lamp for several years. She purchased her own more recently.

The lanterns cost less than $3 wholesale. But getting them deep into the countryside and setting up the infrastructure to support maintenance and the return of faulty lanterns means that they’d need to retail for about $8. For the people in Akokoro, $8 is just too much. Since FINCA seeks to create long-term, sustainable solution, not just give lanterns or other items away, the best solution was to work with WINEPS to provide a subsidy. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. People pay the $3 wholesale cost, and FINCA (through donor support) covers the rest. At present, FINCA and WINEPS deliver 2,000 to 3,000 of these small solar lanterns per month.

FINCA and WINEPS view the project as human-empowerment project as well as an environmental and health project. People save money by not having to buy paraffin, candles and batteries, as much as 10 or 15 cents per week. Not burning paraffin reduces (however slightly) greenhouse gas emissions, and it definitely improves indoor air quality. It’s a winning proposition for all involved.

Providing Hope Beyond Akokoro

The work in Akokoro is just the beginning. 500,000 households in Western Uganda do not have access (or do not have reliable access) to the grid. Even if FINCA and WINEPS double their pace of distribution to 6,000 lanterns per month (far from a certainty), it would take seven years to reach everyone. And since the lanterns have a 5-year lifespan, they’d need to scale to 10,000 lanterns per month to provide a reliable long-term lighting to the entire region.

But the imperative of the project is clear. As Flavia and Esaya note, these little solar lanterns are much more than they appear. “The light,” they say, “gives us hope.”