By Dr. Oludayo Dada and Dr. Wondwossen Sintayehu Minamata Convention Advisors to the Africa Region
African Governments Adopt Green Economy Initiatives
As climate change and rising energy demands destabilize communities, governments around the world are pursuing policies to support the transition to green economies. Across sub-Saharan Africa, from South Africa to Nigeria, ministries are implementing short to medium terms plans to ensure future stability and prosperity in a changing climate and uncertain energy future.
The green economic transition also presents a unique opportunity for new, clean energy and technology industries. A critical component of the clean energy-based economy is the transition to energy-efficient LED lighting technologies. As African governments develop national plans to accelerate access to clean energy and mitigate the effects of climate change, local manufacturing of LEDs could stimulate local economic growth, generate jobs, and safeguard consumers from inefficient, toxic lighting products.
Governments across Africa are rejecting toxic fluorescent lighting and leading the global transition to energy-efficient, mercury-free lighting products. In May, representatives from Africa proposed an amendment to the Minamata Convention on Mercury to eliminate special exemptions for mercury in lighting. If adopted, the amendment would safeguard public health, ease the energy-burden on increasingly strained national grids, and stimulate local economic growth.
Phasing-Out Mercury in Lighting
A decade ago, fluorescent lights were viewed as an energy-efficient alternative to less-efficient incandescent and halogen lights, and risks associated with mercury in each bulb were tolerated as a necessary trade-off for the efficiency benefits. Today, thanks to major advances in light-emitting diode (LED) technology, LED lights are a cost-effective, safe alternative that can replace fluorescents in virtually all applications.
“The technological advancements in LED lighting over the past decade have far surpassed even the most advanced mercury-containing fluorescent bulbs,” explains Shuji Nakamura, Nobel Prize for Physics (2014) and Inventor of the blue light LED.
“My work on blue LEDs enabled innovative bright and energy-saving lighting products to reach markets across the globe. With the proposed amendment to the Minamata Convention and implementation of national-level regulations to phase-out fluorescent lighting by 2025, countries can accelerate the transition to LED lighting technology to benefit people and the planet.”
As governments in wealthier countries like the European Union and United States phase-out mercury lighting products, un- and under-regulated markets, primarily in Africa, are at risk of becoming dumping grounds for low-quality, inefficient fluorescent lighting products. Without government action, African consumers will be left with dangerous, energy-intensive lighting options.
Proper disposal of end-of-life mercury bulbs remains a main concern in African countries. A recent report found that the collected and properly recycled e-waste (not just lighting products) was at 4% in Southern Africa, 1.3% in Eastern Africa and close to 0% in other regions. Most bulbs are disposed with general waste, where due to their fragility, the bulbs easily break and disperse mercury vapor into the environment. Mercury released from broken bulbs can travel hundreds of kilometers, then are deposited into land or water sources—contaminating vulnerable communities along the way. The mercury may then be converted into a bio-available methylated form, which enters the food chain.
LEDs remove unnecessary risk of exposure to toxic mercury vapors for people and workers when light bulbs break in homes, offices, schools, and businesses. They also reduce the amount of mercury contamination at landfill and waste sites by cutting the risk of hazardous waste at the source.
LEDS Present a Business Opportunity in Africa
The transition to clean LED lighting is possible in the short-term in Africa because all countries are importers of fluorescent lighting. With no local production of fluorescent lighting there will be little impact on local jobs, on the contrary, there is an opportunity for localized production.
LED lamp assembly offers an excellent opportunity for local businesses and entrepreneurs to establish new operations in the assembly and manufacturing of LED lighting products. Significant production is already taking place in East, Southern and West Africa to supply national markets and export to neighboring countries. With synchronized lighting regulations and investment in new LED businesses across the continent, Africa can supply its own growing demand for energy-efficient lighting products.
In Zambia, for example, Savenda Electrical employs approximately 30 people in the manufacturing of general service lamps, as well as street lights and off-grid solar products. Lamp assembly is taking place in an industrial park outside of Lusaka.
In Rwanda, Sahasra Group invested $3 million USD in a state-of-the-art LED manufacturing facility in Kigali Prime Economic Zone. The Rwanda Development Board called the business a ‘strategic investment,’ as Sahasra aims to support Rwanda transform its energy landscape by creating jobs, accelerating the transition to energy-efficient lighting and enabling the lighting market to become self-sufficient. Local manufacturing also allows import substitution, generates exports and gives impetus to locally made and sourced African products.
Global Efforts to Eliminate Mercury in Lighting
Earlier this year, 36 African countries proposed an amendment to phase-out the most common types of fluorescent lighting under the Minamata Convention. If adopted at the upcoming Convention of Parties (COP4), the amendment would lead to a global phase-out of most fluorescent lighting products by 2025, resulting in massive cost savings, reductions in mercury pollution and cuts to global electricity consumption of up to 3 percent.
Accelerating the transition to LEDs in Africa also presents an opportunity to alleviate the energy-burden on increasingly strained national grids. Rolling blackouts and energy shortages have come to characterize electrification across Africa. Because leading LED technologies consume about half as much energy as mercury-laden fluorescent alternatives, transitioning markets to LED would reduce energy-costs from the household to country level.
In contrast, governments who drag their feet on this issue will experience major losses. In the EU, an estimated €5,5 billion is lost each year the European Commission fails to act on mercury-based lighting ban.
By leading this global transition, African governments are signaling that it is time to stop using the continent as a dumping ground for the world’s hazardous fluorescent lighting products. LED lighting technologies will only become more energy-efficient over the next decades, but policy measures must support technology advances. A wave of policy action, starting with the proposed amendment, and supported with Minimum Energy Performance standards (MEPs) in the lighting sector, will stimulate local LED industry growth and respond to consumer demand for higher-quality products.
The Clean Lighting Coalition is a coalition of technical experts, industry stakeholders and advocates working to end toxic lighting by eliminating exemptions for mercury in lighting products under the Minamata Convention. To advocate for the clean lighting transition in your country, reach out.