Light services: energy poverty reconsidered 

by Saska Petrova, University of Manchester.

Much of the academic and policy debates on energy poverty – defined as a situation when a household lacks socially- and materially-necessitated levels of domestic ‘energy services’ (Bouzarovski & Petrova, 2015) – is focused on a rather limited set of residential energy end uses. In this context, energy services can be understood as the benefits that energy brings to a household’s wellbeing. Energy poverty is mostly linked to the lack of heating services in the home in the Global North, while cooking and space cooling have been identified as key domestic energy services in the Global South.

Part of the energy poverty debate in the Global South has focused on lighting, not the least because approximately 1.3 billion people live without electricity worldwide, and they are principally concentrated in developing countries (Vozzi & Ramponi, 2016). The situation in Africa is particularly urgent: it is being reported that approximately 70 per cent of people who live in sub-Saharan Africa are without access to electricity. Many of these people are forced to use candles or kerosene lamps for illumination of their homes, which are known to have serious effects on health and well-being (Lam et al., 2012).

The inability to access or afford adequate levels of lighting and illumination on the home is sometimes termed ‘light poverty’. Light poverty is mostly linked to limited or no access to ‘clean light’ (which mainly means electric light) in developing countries. Light – whether natural or artificial – plays multiple roles in the home: from being a physical enabler of everyday life, to a device that underpins economic production and social relations. In recognition of the importance of light and lighting in everyday life, UNESCO proclaimed 2015 the ‘International Year of Light’.

Access to ‘clean energy’ and ‘clean light’ has been high on development agendas in most developing countries including all African states. The issue has been a central component of traditional electrification efforts in this part of the world, focused primarily on expanding conventional power grids. In recent years, there has been a movement towards off-grid solutions, led primarily by non-state actors such as corporations or voluntary organizations. Examples of such ‘clean light’ initiatives includes work by Philips Lighting – their declared objective of ending light poverty by 2030 calls for support and common actions with governments. Among other activities, this company ha been developing ‘Community Light Centers (CLCs)’ that allow ‘healthcare services and businesses to operate after sunset as well as encouraging sports and other social activities’. At the same time, SolarAid’s social enterprise – SunnyMoney – is driving the ‘African solar revolution’ via the sale of distribution of solar lights in Africa. A reported 10 million people have benefited from these efforts, which are accompanied by an effort to create a sustainable market for solar lights in Africa.

My own research on light poverty has emphasized how illumination-related hardship is embedded in the norms, meanings and expectations associated with broader patterns of infrastructural service provision (Day et al., 2016). A key aspect of this relationship is the extent to which light services in the home can satisfy household needs, allowing people to participate in the customs and practices that define membership of society. It has focused on Greece – a country that has experienced extreme levels of economic austerity since 2008. In Greece, dynamics of light deprivation are bound up with the economic crisis (as a result of constrained household finance) as well as wider infrastructural issues, such as power cuts and the loss of conventional grid access.

When situated within the broader literature on light poverty, my research findings hold at least two lessons that can be extended to the African context:

  • The infrastructurally-enforced lack of domestic illumination is more than just an economic and technical issue. Work on ‘cultures of lights’ (Kumar, 2015), suggests that lighting at the home has multiple material and affective dimensions. Thus, the quality and quantity of light ‘indicate the material possessions of the household’ and by ‘contributing to hospitality, create a non-material effect, honour’, just as ‘the materials used for light contribute to the materiality of light – its purity or impurity – but ultimately contribute to non-material notions of belief’ (ibid, p. 67). When developing initiatives aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of light services in the home, it is important to consider the diverse role that light and illumination play in sustaining everyday life.
  • Different socio-technical modes of access to light create divisions and inequalities that may reinforce existing forms of social exclusion. If off grid solutions are disproportionately concentrated among income-poor households, this can reproduce other types of disadvantage. It has been shown that ‘the development implications of solar electrification are closely linked to its role in enabling the use of “connective” devices’ (Jacobson, 2007, p. 144) – televisions, radios and mobile phones. The take up of solar technologies is also affected by financial exclusion, practices of governance, as well as NGO and household involvement.



Bouzarovski, S., & Petrova, S. (2015). A global perspective on domestic energy deprivation: Overcoming the energy poverty–fuel poverty binary. Energy Research & Social Science, 10, 31–40.

Day, R., Walker, G., & Simcock, N. (2016). Conceptualising energy use and energy poverty using a capabilities framework. Energy Policy, 93, 255–264.

Jacobson, A. (2007). Connective Power: Solar Electrification and Social Change in Kenya. World Development, 35, 144–162.

Kumar, A. (2015). Cultures of lights. Geoforum, 65, 59–68.

Lam, N. L., Smith, K. R., Gauthier, A., & Bates, M. N. (2012). Kerosene: a review of household uses and their hazards in low- and middle-income countries. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part B, Critical Reviews, 15, 396–432.

Vozzi, C., & Ramponi, R. (2016). 2015 International Year of Light and beyond. Journal of Optics, 18, 010201.

Wong, S. (2012). Overcoming obstacles against effective solar lighting interventions in South Asia. Energy Policy, 40, 110–120.