WakaWaka: smart solar devices spread hope

The adoption of efficient solar devices is growing quickly off the back of the drive towards more renewable sources of energy. WakaWaka, a small Dutch company, believe it has managed to create the best solar charger and light on the market, while employing an innovative sales technique that brings power to those who need it the most. Molly Lempriere takes a look.


WakaWaka, meaning “Shine Shine” in Swahili, was founded by Camille van Gestel and Maurits Groen in 2012 to create and build solar-powered lights and chargers, which they claim are the most efficient in the world. Set up as a crowdfunded company, WakaWakas business model is humanitarian, using the buy-one-give-one method, which ensures that for every WakaWaka purchased in a developed country, one is given to someone living without access to electricity in a developing country.

The origins of the WakaWaka stem from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where a competition was created with the aim of making the massive sporting event climate-neutral. The idea posed by van Gestel and Groen was to replace lights with LED bulbs, hugely cutting the amount of electricity required to run the event, which attracted over 300,000 people. WakaWaka strategic account manager Emma Olde Bijvank explains: “They only came up with it one week prior to the World Cup and it was a huge challenge for them,” but ultimately they won the competition.

This move inspired them to think about the benefits of switching to green lighting, and ways in which this could be more widely implemented. But after travelling around South Africa, it soon became apparent to them that it was not in fact necessary to switch to LED bulbs for many people, as they had no light and no access to the grid to begin with. Thus the seed from which WakaWaka grew was planted.

The most efficient solar charger

From the very beginning the product had an environmental incentive. All three versions of the WakaWaka device use renewable solar power and are extremely efficient, says Olde Bijvank.

“These are the best solar panels in the world, they are the most efficient. There is no question!”

Within the devices is the Intivation Sunboast chip, a chip specific to WakaWaka, which Olde Bijvank explains “uses a specific algorithm to ensure the maximum efficiency is maintained at all times”. As such the entire product is built on efficiency, and this pays off in the battery life of the company’s products. The solar light, which has four settings and an S.O.S feature, can run for 80 hours on its lowest setting, off just 10 hours of charging time.

" The solar light, which has four settings and an S.O.S feature, can run for 80 hours on its lowest setting."

WakaWaka devices are a climate-neutral source of light and power, particularly in comparison to the alternative. For those without connection to the grid, kerosene is often the only option for light and heat at night and an estimated 77 billion litres are used per year domestically worldwide. The wick lamps predominantly used to burn kerosene are so inefficient that between 7-9% of the fuel burnt is converted to carbonaceous particulate matter, or black carbon. This black carbon is contributing to global warming as it absorbs light and heats the atmosphere. Kerosene wick lamps alone contribute to around 3% of all black carbon produced.

According to WakaWaka, its devices offset 97.672 tons of greenhouse gas per year. Not only does this cut down on greenhouse gases but it saves users vast amounts of money; the average WakaWaka household saves $237.57 per year. Over $30bn is spent per year on kerosene, so by WakaWaka’s calculations $63,161,403 is being saved each year through use of its solar devices.  

WakaWaka’s global effect

The WakaWaka product was always designed to be not only environmental but humanitarian. Not only is kerosene incredibly expensive, with many families spending more than a quarter of their monthly earnings on the dirty fuel, but it is incredibly dangerous. Every day 16,000 people are injured globally through the use of kerosene in the home, and it vastly increases the dangers of household fires. Breathing in the fumes is toxic, and can cause nausea and vomiting along with more serious long-term effects.

At the time of writing there are 274,087 WakaWakas in 54 different countries as part of 275 projects, which the company equates to 1,196,390 people’s lives impacted by the availability of clean, green energy. They say on average people in Nigeria who have been given a WakaWaka have gained an extra three hours of time a day in which they can cook and study. Globally this is providing more than 300 million hours of extra time in which to work and study for households with a WakaWaka. Because children’s eyes and lungs are no longer burnt by kerosene fumes there is a correlation between increased school results and the use of LED light. WakaWaka says it has seen as much as a 25% increase in grades, as well as a doubling of pass grades.

WakaWaka is quick to emphasise that the two goals of its business are intertwined. Global warming predominantly effects the poorest in the world, as those living in poverty and particularly in developing countries cannot afford to counteract the droughts and heatwaves that devastate homes and crops, leading to famines.

“People in unstable areas, people who have to leave their homes because of humanitarian conflict or natural disasters, we can see more and more that these are often disasters caused in some way by climate distruction,” Olde Bijvank says. When they are not caused by these factors they are often still exacerbated by them; Olde Bijvank highlights the drought that has affected war-torn Syria, killing many who were already living in impoverished, dangerous and isolated areas.

WakaWakas have been distributed in countries torn apart by war or devastated by natural disasters, including thousands distributed in Liberia, Haiti and the Philippines. But they are also having an effect in the west. As Olde Bijvank notes, they “also create awareness about solar energy in developed countries, and about the problems of lack of energy and the social-economic consequences of lacking that in developing countries.”

The future

WakaWaka has just started its tenth crowdfunding campaign to continue to expand its operations, as well as to fund greater technological development. This will ensure the company can increase the power of its products, improve the batteries within and expand the range of products available. WakaWaka’s success wouldn’t have been possible without crowdfunding; something Olde Bijvank is aware and proud of.

“For us crowdfunding is really important, not just because of the money but also because we were really able to engage with people and make them understand why this was so important and why it’s important that people who have money give it to the developing nations in the world,” she says.

"WakaWaka is beginning to use an alternative micro-financing model, a pay-as-you-go system."

Going forward WakaWaka is beginning to use an alternative micro-financing model, a pay-as-you-go system. Launched in Rwanda, a country where 90% of rural communities lack access to electricity, the payment system, called Virtual Grid, is designed to help people buy their own WakaWakas for a small amount of money over time. The system is scratch card-based; you purchase a scratch card for a dollar, then text the code from the scratch card and your unique WakaWaka code to the company, in order to receive an activation code. This code then turns on your device allowing you to use it for a week.

Already much cheaper and safer than kerosene, this system has a variety of other benefits. Not only does it give light and power to the family itself, but once the device is unlocked they can sell power as “they'll have access to solar light and power for free, from that moment onwards”, Olde Bijvank says. The WakaWaka creates an income and brings power to remote villages, allowing whole communities to benefit.

“This model is one way we want to grow our business and how we want to make light and power available in a sustainable way,” Olde Bijvank says.

Through crowdfunding WakaWaka has created something that works perfectly to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions through providing clean, safe electricity and light, and provide benefits to those who truly need them. With more to come, solar energy is going to continue to make an impact in the poorest parts of the planet.