Seeking bright ideas for Africa

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Scott Jagow: Can you imagine if almost every American had no electricity? In sub-Sarahan Africa, 250 million people are without power. Africans spend $17 billion a year on non-electric lighting — things like kerosene lamps.

Those aren’t exactly safe, or efficient, or pollution-free. So the World Bank wants to encourage businesses to come up with new ways to let there be light. Gretchen Wilson reports from Johannesburg.

Gretchen Wilson:
The World Bank’s new program aims to build a vast new market in Africa for lighting products that don’t use fossil fuels.

So it’s offering grants to those who can come up with low-cost alternative light sources. Some ideas include fluorescent bulbs and LED lights that can be powered by the sun, the wind and mechanical devices, such as foot pedals and hand cranks. The best inventions are likely to get orders in the millions.

For private companies, it’s a chance to tap into an unexplored market. For African communities it will make a financial difference, too, since fuel-based lighting can account for as much as 15 percent of total household income.

It will also mean longer reading hours for students and will extend the working day for small and medium-sized businesses.

In Johannesburg, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2007

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