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DAKAR, April 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Access to off-grid solar energy in rural areas of Africa goes beyond lighting up homes - it also enables people to connect to the wider world and boosts their economic prospects, said the head of one of the continent's biggest solar companies.
Azuri Technologies' entry level solar system - for which customers pay a one-off installation fee, then use scratch cards or mobile phone payments to top up on a weekly or monthly basis - provides eight hours of lighting each day.
Having power at home for the first time encourages customers to also buy mobile phones, radios and televisions, giving them regular access to the media and the internet, said Simon Bransfield-Garth, chief executive officer of UK-based Azuri.
"This is about so much more than just providing light," Bransfield-Garth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "It is about changing expectations, raising aspirations, and empowering people to become part of the knowledge economy.
"One thing you can be sure of is that once people have solar power in their lives, they'll never go back to kerosene," he said.
Some 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa - nearly two-thirds of the population - are estimated to be living without access to the main electricity grid, one in 10 of whom are using off-grid clean energy, said the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
Home solar systems not only provide electricity to hard-to-reach households, but do so at a far lower cost than using diesel or kerosene for energy.
Swapping kerosene for home solar energy can cut African families' spending on lighting to two percent from nine percent of their household income, according to a 2016 report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK-based think-tank.
The pay-as-you go approach for home solar systems has proved successful as mobile money services are rapidly growing across Africa, allowing those without bank accounts to use their phones for everything from receiving remittances to paying bills.
While upfront costs are high compared to traditional fuels, the cost of producing power from solar mini-grids is expected to fall by at least 60 percent in the next 20 years.
"Solar has the power to completely transform the nature of the rural economy in sub-Saharan Africa," Bransfield-Garth said.
Rather than charge for the solar system and accessories such as radios upfront - which would be unaffordable for many people - Azuri offers its services on a pay as you go basis, with the users ultimately owning the equipment after about 18 months.
"People start off small with our service, but they soon want more technology - to be more connected," Bransfield-Garth said.
"By being online more often, and following the media, people can really boost their businesses," he said, adding how a person with satellite television in their household could make money by charging others to watch films or live sports matches.
Azuri also plans to launch pay-as-you go solar irrigation systems to help farmers grow more, and higher-value, crops.
Such ambitions may be restricted by the limited capacity of solar home systems - which are unable to supply enough power for heating, cooking and small businesses, according to Oxfam.
A fledgling industry just a few years ago, off-grid solar technology is now estimated to provide power to at least 500,000 households in East Africa, according to IRENA.
Industry experts predict that figure will soar continent-wide as solar costs tumble and West African nations invest more in renewable energy to catch up with countries in the east.
Solar home systems have fallen in cost by as much as 80 percent since 2010, while investments in off-grid solar systems globally grew by 15 times between 2012 and 2015, with $276 million spent on them in 2015, according to data from IRENA.
Renewable energy could therefore be key to helping sub-Saharan Africa meet a global goal of providing universal access to electricity by 2030, experts say. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)