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LED Lights' Digital Divide?

We were delighted to be included in a recent bid for a pilot rural electrification project using LED street lighting in India. What stood out about the RFQ was the high quality specs requested: the highest luminosity (lumens per watt) commercially available, top of the range LED light sources, highest CRI, high standard of water tightness, and electricity surge protection, 180 degrees illumination, etc.

This is great. It means that the prospects know exactly what they want and are familiar quality indicators of LED lighting. More importantly, it also shows that India is serious about extending the grid to the rural areas through maximum efficiency, durability/longevity, and sustainability by using the latest technology.

However there is a huge mismatch between the budget allocated for the LED project the high quality specs expected, and the quantities demanded. Even as the large LED systems manufacturers have adopted cost-down engineering ostensibly to make LED lighting more affordable in general, even as the cost of LED chips continue to decline on average about 30% year-on- year, the reality is that none of these leading manufacturers like Osram, Philips, Cree , etc., have adopted frugal innovation principles to produce LED products (e.g. LED modules) that are specifically tailored for resource-poor settings. This is especially true for high value LED products such as streetlights. This in turn cascades down to factories in China (which produces the most affordable LED lights) who typically use US and European LED systems for customers that demand high quality products; they have little incentive to produce good enough quality for resource-poor settings.

This means that good quality LED lighting may be beyond the means of those who need it most. With minimal budget, it is not unusual for local governments and agencies in Frontier markets in Asia and Africa to compromise on quality to introduce new lighting installations. In fact, these markets are replete with super cheap imported lighting products that don’t work ranging from solar lanterns to solar street LED lights. Example, many of the solar street LED lights in Baringo County Kenya (rural setting) failed shortly after installation.

In rural areas, the total cost of ownership of street lighting matters – there’s little capacity to fix constantly failing street Lights. Good quality LED streetlights can last for more than 30 years with little or no maintenance so the pay back should be compelling. But LED adoption at scale for rural electrification won’t happen if pilots designed to test efficacy fail due to bad quality streetlights, the inevitable consequence of limited budget combined with no innovation. This calls into mind a new type of digital divide where digital lighting takes off in urban areas (both Western and non-Western markets) but perpetually lags in rural areas. We hope it won’t come to that!

(This post was originally published November 01, 2014)

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