You wouldn't think it but Africa burns more candles, 25.7 billion of them, than drinks Coca Cola

The continent can save more than $12 billion annually by switching from candles, kerosene lamps and battery-powered flashlights to solar LED

IN the West – and in certain parts of African cities – candles and candlelight are associated with romance and fine dining, and the scented variety with aromatherapy and alternative healing.

But in the “people’s” Africa, candlelight has no such aesthetic pretentions. It seems almost superfluous to point it out, that candles are a major source of light, not just for poor rural households but relatively rich urban ones as well, thanks to the frequent power outages that plague African cities.

Now data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests that Africa’s richest industrialists could be the humble candle manufacturers, with the consumption of candles in excess of 25.7 billion candles every year in Africa, excluding North Africa.

That’s 27 candles for every person in sub-Saharan Africa per year, which is more than the per capita consumption of Coca-Cola in Nigeria, for example, at 26 bottles. In a country like Mali, it’s just 13.

So if the candle makers were a big multinational like Coca-Cola, they could give it a serious run for its money.

Less than 3 in 10 Africans are connected to electricity, and the poor in the continent pay a high price per unit of energy as they purchase it in small amounts – half a litre of kerosene here, a few candles and a pair of AA batteries there. Across Africa, consumers spend at least $12 billion every year on these inefficient sources of energy.

Surprising candle kings

But replacing the millions of kerosene lamps, candles and flashlights used to light Africa’s homes with modern solar lighting can provide a low-cost solution to reducing carbon emissions, indoor air pollution, respiratory problems, and boost green jobs, says UNEP.

Africa’s candle kings are quite the unexpected – Mozambique and Angola are the top two, with Mali, Zambia and Tanzania rounding out the top five. If Mozambique were to replace its candles with modern solar lighting, for example, it would save a staggering 3.4 billion candles every year.

Africa as a whole imported $103 million worth of candles in 2013, with Angola making up a fifth of that; surprisingly, it’s twice the value of what Africa spent importing weaves and wigs.

Kerosene use for lighting is dominant in Nigeria, Ethiopia and DR Congo, which have large rural, off-grid populations and the price of kerosene is subsidised by the government.

For instance, 39.8 million Nigerian households, and 3.8 million businesses own a kerosene glass-covered lamp. But if Nigeria were to switch completely to modern solar lighting, it would save 2.3 billion litres of kerosene every year.

Ethiopia’s striking case

Ethiopia’s case is particularly striking. Unlike in much of the rest of Africa, where most kerosene lamps are at least glass-covered, the majority (79.8%) of Ethiopian kerosene lamps are of the simple, open-flame wick variety, emitting massive amounts of soot into the atmosphere – and into people’s lungs. 

So switching to solar could save 1.2 billion litres of kerosene a year, as well as spare the environment 60,000 tons of carbon black emissions annually.

Again, Nigeria, along with Ethiopia and DR Congo lead the continent in the use of battery power for flashlights (torches). There is a potential saving of 314 million batteries for Nigeria by switching to solar; in Ethiopia, it comes to 210 million and in DR Congo, its 173 million – equivalent to a pair of batteries for each citizen in those countries.

Overall, the country that would see the biggest gains from abandoning fuel-based lighting is Nigeria, with a potential saving of $1.4 billion every year. DR Congo could save $1.2 billion, and Kenya is third at about $900 million every year. 

Though Ethiopia is about twice the population of Kenya, and is more rural, Kenya has more to save because it has a higher demand for light, which seems to be driven by the high literacy rates, enrolment and duration in school - just 39% of Ethiopian adults are literate, compared to 72% of Kenyan adults, according to data from the World Bank.

An average Kenyan student can expect to spend a mean of 6.3 years in school, compared to just 2.4 years in Ethiopia - which translates to at least three more years of homework, studying and exams, literally burning the midnight oil.

Although solar light emitting diode (LED) systems have a higher initial cost than traditional fuel-based lamps, the payback period can be very short due to the high running costs of fuel-based lighting systems. UNEP estimates that the solar LED can offset in as little as four months, depending on the cost of solar technology in a particular country as well as the relative contribution of subsidy to the retail price of kerosene.

In addition to saving money and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, phasing out kerosene lamps and candles greatly reduces risks from burns, fires, and respiratory illnesses caused by indoor smoke.

And eliminating the need for flashlights powered by disposable batteries will also reduce hazardous waste disposal in landfills, and related environmental damage.

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