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Illuminating rural Cambodia

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Solar panels could provide a clean solution to Cambodia´s energy needs.

Photo by:

Hector Bermejo

JUST outside the tiny village of Sre Ampil, far from the bright lights of the capital, Kamworks’ director Jeroen Verschelling demonstrates the benefits of his visionary Moonlight.

A solar lantern that can be worn around the neck or left by the side of the bed at night, it is powered by two batteries that are charged by small solar panels during the day. If placed on the lowest of its three settings the Moonlight can provide sufficient light to last throughout the night, providing clean, cheap and safe lighting for villagers, who traditionally use kerosene lamps.

“People in the countryside like to have a small light on all night, especially if they have children,” says Verschelling. “Those [kerosene] lamps are dangerous, they are a fire risk and they have smoke.”

In addition to the clear fire hazard of having a naked flame within wooden houses, Verschelling claims the World Health Organisation equates keeping a kerosene lamp on overnight as the equivalent of smoking two packets of cigarettes a day. This represents a significant health risk, especially in a family with young children.

Together with co-director Arjen Luxwolda, Verschelling established Kamworks in 2006, settling in the country full time with his family two years later.

“We provide high quality energy solutions for off-grid people,” he says.

Verschelling says about 10 million people in Cambodia lack access to the main electricity grid, although only about 10 percent of them even know about solar energy. “This country needs a small solar industry in the country,” he says. “That is why we are here in an off-grid area trying to build technology for this place.”  

The major drawback with the Moonlight is its cost. At $25, Verschelling claims the lamps pay for themselves within 12 months, when compared with the cost of kerosene.

However he accepts that the lamps are still too expensive for most villagers.

“At the bottom of the market they are always choosing the solution that in the long run is more expensive, but requires the least amount of initial investment,” he says. “Our lamp has a very low operational cost, but has a high initial cost. We have to turn this around.”

Consequently Kamworks are piloting a rental scheme where one person in a village rents the lamps to villagers.

“In that way the villagers don’t have to make the initial investment,” says Verschelling. “They just rent the lamp for 300 riel per day, which is more or less what they spend on kerosene.”

Requiring little maintenance – the batteries need to be replaced every two years or so – the Moonlight has a life cycle of about five years.

Inside the village Teang Sophat, 42, has been using her Moonlight for a year. She has yet to have a problem with it, apart from when she forgets to charge the batteries.

“If I charge it during the day it can last two nights,” she says. “I use the lamp when we eat and through the whole night.”

Before she was provided her Moonlight by Kamworks, Teang Sophat used a kerosene lamp.

Once when she kept her kerosene lamp by the side of the bed, its flame set fire to the mosquito net. She burned her hand protecting her small child from the fire.

Not only was it unsafe, but also expensive.

“Each night I used to spend a lot of money on kerosene, about 500 riel,” says the poor widow. “Now I can spend that money on food.”

When she lacked the money to buy kerosene, her house went dark. “Now I have light all night,” she says. “When they gave me the Moonlight I was so happy I could have died.”

INTERPRETER: RANN REUY

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