The Impact of Lighting Poverty on Children

With minimal alternatives for lighting, parents and children from rural areas in developing countries are often caught in the cycle of poverty. In particular, fuel-based lighting (kerosene) is expensive, dangerous and unhealthy while providing poor illumination and contributing to carbon emissions.

High Cost

The dependency on imported oil is generally high in developing countries and governments must often provide large subsidies to consumers. Supplies of kerosene are subject to restrictions and the price can escalate several folds as villagers often buy from black markets.

A typical household kerosene lamp is used three to four hours per day with weekly fuel consumption of about one litre. At this level of usage, families can spend up to 40 percent of their income on kerosene. A survey in Rwanda showed that rural and urban families spend over $8 per month on kerosene even though most of the population is well below the poverty line earning less than $2 per day.

Health Risks

The World Bank estimates that 780 million women and children breathing particulate laden kerosene fumes inhale the equivalent of smoke from two packs of cigarettes a day. The result is that two-thirds of the adult female lung cancer victims are non-smokers.

In addition, many homes have poor ventilation and fuel-based lighting poses serious debilitating health hazards such as respiratory and eye problems. In developing nations, acute respiratory infection, influenza and pneumonia kill nearly two million children annually.


Many families cannot afford a proper bottle and wick and rely on a fragile glass bottle and a piece of rope for a wick. In India alone, 2.5 million people (350,000 of them children) suffer burns each year, primarily due to overturned kerosene lamps. Each year, many homes and entire communities burn to the ground when lamps are accidentally knocked over.

Poor Illumination

The light provided by a kerosene lamp is not very bright and is highly inefficient. Each kerosene lantern produces about 0.2% of the light that one would get for the same price in industrialized countries - about 2 to 4 lumens compared to 900 lumens produced by a 60 watt bulb.

Carbon Emissions

Kerosene lamps produce carbon dioxide (CO2). It is estimated that each kerosene lantern with a weekly fuel consumption of one litre of kerosene produces 0.1 tonnes of CO2 each year. In general, fuel-based lighting in the developing world is a source of 244 million tons of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere each year. This amounts to 58% of the CO2 emissions from residential electric lighting.

The Lighting Poverty Problem

About 1.7 billion people or more than a fifth of the world’s population are without access to electricity and modern lighting. The problem is most severe in rural areas or on the fringes of cities. , however the extent to rural electrification varies widely from country to country.  For example, 90% of Africa is not served by grid electricity versus 20% of Mexico. In fact, some African countries, for example, Rwanda and Burundi have barely passed the 1% electrification threshold!

Countries that one would consider to be well electrified (for example, India) frequently suffer from unreliable and intermittent supply. In some cases, they only get electricity for a few hours a day either erratically throughout the day or only at night when they are asleep.

Access to electricity and poverty are closely linked, countries that have the lowest levels of electrification also have the highest levels of poverty. Without adequate electricity and lighting, adults are unable to continue income generating activities into the evening that may lessen the burden of poverty. At the same time, children are unable to study, read or do school work. Rural communities need a reliable and sustainable solution for lighting to give them hope for a brighter future.

Current Lighting Options

A wide variety of fuel-based light sources are used in developing countries, including candles, oil lamps, ordinary kerosene lamps, pressurized kerosene lamps, bio-gas lamps and propane lamps. However, worldwide, an estimated 1.6 billion people use kerosene or oil as their primary source of fuel for lighting.