And then there was light... Solar power brings safety

A solar light placed beside a house in Toek Laak village.
A solar light placed beside a house in Toek Laak village. Vireak Mai

And then there was light... Solar power brings safety

After automated solar lights were installed at Toek Laak village, Kampong Chhnang province, residents started calling their home “friendly village”.

On a recent evening, neighbours chatted while washing their clothes in the well – an area that has become a safe spot in a community where the fear of accidents and attacks after dark once felt very real.

Singaporean company Commlight installed 16 lights around the village earlier this year, targeting places where vehicle accidents and violence occurred, after raising $8,000 though an Indiegogo campaign.

“Our approach was to bring light to the 1.4 billion [across the world] who are disconnected from the grid, and increase safety, life standard, all these things,” said Robert Haendel, founder and chief executive of Commlight.

According to the Asian Development Bank, at the end of 2012 the rate of households with access to grid electricity in Cambodia was 35 per cent, making it the lowest in the region.

The well has become a place for socialising after darkness falls.
The well has become a place for socialising after darkness falls. Vireak Mai

Rural areas are particularly cut off, and the shortage of light can have serious effects, from reducing potential household income and educational opportunities to an increase in crime, including theft, sexual violence and rape. 

“We put this light here to prevent vehicle accidents,” said village chief Yan Sarith, 45, pointing to a lamp post on a sharp bend. “We also put three near the well because that is where most people go to shower, wash the clothes and get water.”

Keo Phon, a 55-year-old community leader, said she feared for her daughters’ safety before the lights were installed. Once, stumbling around in the dark, she was bitten by a snake.

“Before, when I went to shower and wash the clothes, I was afraid of animals. I have daughters, so when they went to shower or wash at night I was afraid of them being raped.”

Her neighbour, 65-year-old grandmother Pot Phoeun said thieves used to steal her chickens – her sole source of income – at night.

Village chief, Sarith, said crime had gone down since the installation. “If there is a thief or stranger coming to the village, we have a light to see them.”

The new lights have brought a boost to the local economy, too, with residents able to stay out later – doing business, making visits and buying chickens, rice and other necessities.

“For my business, I always drove my motorbike to the market which was far from my village,” said An Phally, who sells palm sugar at the market. “But I needed to get back early because the road back home was dark and unsafe.”

Solar lights illuminate this bend after dark.
Solar lights illuminate this bend after dark. Vireak Mai

“That was the reason that we were not happy to do anything,” he added.

“The villagers call this place ‘friendly village’ because people are kind to one another,” Phon said.

“I lived in this village since I was born, but this is my first time to see people happy,” she added.

This week the French Development Agency signed a deal with three Cambodian microfinance institutions (MFIs) to loan $6 million to rural Cambodian households to provide solar panels and electricity, commencing early next year.

Preap Piseth, who is the senior operations manager at one of the microfinance institutions, Vision Fund, said: “This will help more people have access to power, increasing productivity and helping children to study.”

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