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Assessing Opportunities for Solar Lanterns to Improve Educational Outcomes in Rural Off-Grid Regions: Challenges and Lessons from a Randomized Controlled Trial

Mar 2018
SCID Working Paper
By  Ognen Stojanovski, Mark Thurber, Frank Wolak, George Muwowo, Kat Harrison

Most rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa have underperforming schools and tend to also be energy poor. As a result, solar lanterns have recently been promoted across the region as tools that both improve lighting in homes as well as educational outcomes. We undertake a randomized controlled trial in Zimba District, Zambia, to evaluate whether solar lanterns help children study more effectively and improve academic performance. We find no evidence that receipt of a solar lantern improved performance on important national examinations (even though an ex post statistical power analysis demonstrates that our research design should detect noteworthy impacts, if present). We also do not observe an impact on self-reported study habits. Several features of Zimba District—that are likely to exist in other developing regions—appear to drive our results. First, flashlights have become the dominant lighting source in rural Zambia rather than more traditional options like kerosene lamps or candles. In such environments, solar lights may hold only limited appeal for prospective users. In addition, children face other major barriers to educational attainment such as expensive school fees, lack of supplies, and being too busy with work or chores. These factors are likely to make improved energy access (whether through solar lanterns or otherwise) a relatively unimportant educational input.