Solar lesson #1: The kerosene monster

Every day, we have a button to switch on and off for light and electricity. But did you know 1 in 10 persons live without access to electricity in the world? It represents over 780 million people in total. Most of the people living off the electrical grid live in the Global South, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. There, over half of the population is lacking a source of reliable and affordable energy.

To overcome this lack of electricity, families have to rely on other ways to light their homes to pursue their activities at night and cook their food. Unfortunately, the common source of lighting for people living without electricity is burning toxic fuels, such as kerosene, propane, candles, and biofuels. In this lesson, we will learn about the most widely used lighting fuel, which is kerosene. We will discover how families use kerosene, how it is made, the negative consequences it has on both health and environment, and which sustainable alternatives are available.

Kerosene lamp versus solar lamp


What is kerosene?

There are no natural sources of kerosene in the environment. Kerosene is a liquid fuel, similar in composition to diesel, and made from the distillation of petroleum (also called crude oil). Petroleum is found in geological formations and is the result of fossils, which is why we call it a fossil fuel. If we run out of petroleum, we will not be able to produce power from this source anymore. This is what we call a non-renewable source of energy! In some parts of the world including the UK, Chile, and Southeast Asia, kerosene is also known as ‘paraffin oil’. Its color can look like a pale yellow.

How is kerosene used?

Kerosene is widely used to power jet engines of aircraft, as well as some rockets. In parts of Asia, kerosene is used as a fuel for mopeds and motorbikes. When people do not have access to electricity, they commonly use kerosene for lighting, heating, or cooking fuel. The estimated total kerosene consumption in the world is equivalent to about 1.2 million barrels per day. To build a candle made from kerosene, you only need a container that you fill up with kerosene. You put a string in it and can light this up like a candle.

Why is kerosene harmful?

    • Kerosene causes burns and house fires

Kerosene is highly flammable, causing accidental burns and house fires. In South Africa alone, over 200,000 people are injured or lose property each year due to kerosene related fires. Three multi-year reviews of admissions to Nigerian hospitals attributed around 30% of all burn cases to kerosene. Kerosene lamps release toxic fumes, which cause not only eye and skin irritation but also respiratory problems.

    • Kerosene does not look as dangerous as it is

Appearing as a clear liquid, kerosene fuel can often be mistaken for water by children, and when drunk, causes severe poisoning. In 2012, 79,750 very young children in South Africa were reported to have unintentionally ingested kerosene (in 3.6% of all households), of which 60% develop a chemically induced pneumonia.

    • Kerosene causes health damages

Kerosene lamps produce poor illumination levels, only 1% to 10% of those recommended by lighting authorities in industrialized countries. This causes eyestrain and long-lasting visual impairment.

In areas lacking access to reliable electricity, there are compromised health services and outcomes in facilities lit only with fuel-based light like kerosene lamps. It is difficult to treat people in emergencies at night when there is only a dim, smoke-producing light to see by.


    • Kerosene affects mostly women and children

Women and children spend a larger proportion of their time indoors and so experience greater exposure to kerosene pollutants than men. People living in rural areas also often have to travel long distances to buy kerosene.

The World Health Organisation reports that over 4 million people per year die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution.


    • Kerosene contributes to climate change

Fossil fuels are the dominant contributor to climate change.

Inefficient kerosene lamps emit extremely high levels of black carbon. This contributes to global warming because incomplete combustion of the lamp fuel produces black carbon that absorbs light, thereby heating the atmosphere. 3% of global black carbon emissions come from kerosene lamps. Kerosene-fueled lighting contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming at a rate equivalent to 240 million tons of CO2, which is 0.5% of global emissions.

    • Kerosene is expensive

Kerosene lamps and other fuel-based illumination are more expensive than renewable energies like solar power. The millions of people around the world who earn approximately one dollar per day pay a much higher percentage of their income for low-grade and polluting fuel-based lighting (approximately 10-25% of their monthly budget) than people who have regular access to electric lighting.

Today, more people than the world’s population at the time Thomas Edison introduced electricity in the 19th century, spend nearly USD 40 billion annually (100 times the cost an equal amount of electric light) to operate highly inefficient and dangerous kerosene lamps.


The solution: switch to renewable energy!

A solar lamp is the first step on the energy access ladder and has a great impact on families living without access to electricity! Children can play and study safely after dark, babies can be delivered safely, and individuals can keep socializing. Instead of using a non-renewable source of energy, they can use free and limitless power from the sun, which means they can produce energy at no cost. This is why it is so important that everyone in this world should have access to clean, affordable, and reliable energy: it would allow both human beings and the Earth to keep striving, sustainably. As we work a lot in Sub-Saharan Africa, let’s take the example of Burkina Faso. Did you know that this country has a great solar potential? With approximately 3,000-3,500 hours of sunshine per year, the sun seems like the perfect source for sustainable and affordable energy in the country. Let’s speak up for solar and improve livelihoods worldwide!

The Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the world’s leaders came together to agree on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of those goals, the SDG 7, calls for us to secure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. To achieve this energy target, we need to replace the harmful, inefficient lighting fuels like kerosene with clean fuel and technologies. If this target is met, it could prevent millions of deaths and improve the health and well being of the billions of people relying on polluting fuels and technologies for cooking, heating, and lighting. Energy-efficient, off-grid solar lighting solutions offer the most promising and scalable means to eliminate the adverse health outcomes associated with fuel-based lighting. Solar power is also a cheaper alternative, and drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions and prevents kerosene lamps and therefore, climate change.

At Little Sun, we try to make our Earth a better place, solar lamp by solar lamp. If you agree with us it is now time to act for our planet, try to answer this quiz below and challenge your friends to beat your solar knowledge!

Did you enjoy this lesson? Subscribe to our YouTube channel if you would like to have more solar fun, and check out our website for other fun activities! Would you like to learn something in particular? Tell us in the comments!


*Have you ever asked how the electricity in your home is being produced? Check with your family or landlord to ask where the electricity comes from. It might also be coming from fossil fuels. If yes, check if there is a way for you to switch to renewable energy instead!