“production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life.”    E F Schumacher



You could call this the mother of all light bulb moments: a piece of African technology transfer that would have been right up E.F. Schumacher’s street (Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered). Of course light bulbs aren’t much use to people whose politicians have failed to connect their villages to the national grid.  One might also assume that a blown light bulb isn’t of use to anyone anywhere. But well,  think again. Here we have the proof of it: some very natty Tanzanian recycling. And in case it is not entirely obvious from this photo, here we have a used light bulb, and a remodelled tin can made into a very handy carrying lamp. The cap that holds the wick in place, can be removed to refill the bulb with oil as needed.


And talking of E F Schumacher, his book Small is beautiful  has been rated one of the 100 most influential books written since World War 2. It has inspired highly inventive  Intermediate Technology Development projects around the world, low tech solutions that use the kinds of materials and spare parts that can be maintained, replaced  and replicated locally. Adeyemi’s floating school in Lagos (see earlier post Floating not flooding) is a good example of such principles in action.

This particular light bulb lamp was bought in the market in Tabora in central Tanzania. Graham lived there two years in a house beside the old Arab slave route, while working as an agricultural extension officer for V.S.O  (Voluntary Service Overseas). These were in the days TBT – Time Before Tish. 

But then much later there was another light bulb moment. When we were in Kenya doing fieldwork on the Central Province farms ( Looking for smut: work on Kenya’s highland farms ) I came across quite another use for a cast off bulbs. We had been invited into a Kikuyu farmer’s home for tea and cake, and there it was hanging on the sitting room wall. Our hosts had already told us the sad tale of how they and their neighbours had made financial contributions to  a political candidate who promised to bring electricity to their community, but then conveniently ‘forgot’ once he had been elected. I wrote a poem about it.



Joe Maina, small-time farmer, says

before the polls he paid

some local boss three thousand bob

to bring the power lines down the Rift.

The big man won the vote,

but now, as ever,

Faith Waithera Maina cooks githeri,

bending at her hearth,

three rocks to hold the pot,

sleek skin cured hide in smoke-house fug.

Next, slogs like an ox on cow-track paths

to fetch more wood  to feed the fire.

“Our days’ career,” she shrugs.

Till dusk she lights her

sofa room with fumy lamps,

where, hanging on the wall with

keep-safe snaps and family memorabilia,

a cast-off city sixty-watt has second lease;

recharged of course,

a perfect vase

for garden sprays of purple




Flickr Comments ‘I’ words

A Word A Week: technology


  1. Tish you know the story of politicians making promises and not fulfilling them is so bad here that I think it would fill rims to just write about all of them.
    One politician even brought poles and after he won he had them taken away. It is all so pathetic I don’t know what to say.
    Thanks for sharing

    1. But then there are those moments, Noel, when technology serves the people in such a way that it enables them to side-step the authorities – corrupt and otherwise. I am just thinking of the cell phone and M-pesa innovations and how these developments have changed/empowered the lives of so many people. All of us on the planet need the kind of low-tech technology that allows us to be self-sufficient, thus putting the power (in all senses) back into our hands. This is not impossible. In the rich world we are mostly too comfortable to be bothered, even though we do not like what our governments are doing. But when politicians realise the risk of imminent redundancy, they might start doing the work they have been elected to do, instead of using office as a sabbatical wherein to spend their time feathering their nests. That applies to politicians everywhere, not just Kenya’s. Cheer up, Noel. As the brilliant Lucky Dube song says “We’ll find a way”.

      1. You right Tish, whenever politicians see that the electorate have become too clever for their charade, they actually do something.
        This post just reminded me of the tricks the politicians use daily in their campaigns.
        Great post good friend.

  2. That was fascinating – what a clever use for a blown light globe. A sad story about the political corruption though.

    1. Yes, indeed. The problem with corruption in poor countries is that it hurts so many ordinary people in a life and death way. In the rich world we either don’t notice it, think we don’t have it, and otherwise let corporations rule government policy. Of course the same corporations often play significant, though barely visible roles in supporting the corruption in the developing world. A vicious circle all around the globe. It’s why I think the light bulb lamp deserves a big HURRAH – the triumph of individual ingenuity over oppression.

      1. I totally agree with everything you say here. Big corporations need to act more responsibly all over the world I think – I wrote about it today in my post ‘Walking the dog trails’. 🙂

  3. I’ve been thinking about windmills. You know, I’ll bet a single wind turbine could power a whole little village. They aren’t even particularly expensive to build … They don’t need a national grid. Wind turbines can stand alone. Just a thought.

    1. Absolutely, Marilyn. On TED Talks there are a couple of presentations by a Malawian boy who after he had dropped out of school because there had been a drought and his farmer father could not afford school fees, made his struggling family a windmill out of old scrap. He lit up the home, powered radios, cell phones etc. He taught himself mechanics from a book he got in the local library, and became a local hero. He has since been developing wind-power to pump water to irrigate his family’s farm. So yes, if he can do it, we could all have them. We could even make them ourselves. Lots of info vids on YouTube about how to.

  4. What an ingenious use of an old lightbulb and tin can! It reminds me of the book I read about the young man in Malawi who built a wind tower from town dump scraps – just so his family wouldn’t suffer from the kerosene fumes in their hut anymore. Thanks for the reminder of E. Schumacher’s book – I was actually trying to get it from the library recently but it wasn’t available. I have to try harder. The quote so accurately expresses the hard lessons we (well, some of us) learned from all the multi-national industries; now we are coming full circle again to local production.

    1. Yes, local production, it’s the only way to go, if we want to claim some autonomy and quality of life. And yes great minds thought the very same thing re the Malawi boy and his windmill.

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