Alternatives to Fuel-based Lighting for Night Fishing

By Tim Gengnagel, Philipp Wollburg, and Evan Mills
This post summarizes a major new study, just released.
The full report - and photos - can be downloaded HERE.

Many of the 12 to 18 million artisanal fishermen in the developing world fish at night using kerosene lanterns to attract fish to their nets. The lakes and ocean areas of Tanzania are a major center for this activity, involving over 100,000 lanterns used in 17,000 boats. While conducting fieldwork in these locations, we interacted with 113 individuals, including fishermen, boat captains, boat owners, traders, and local experts to determine current practices. We also conducted user-centered tests of LED-based system usability, performance and energy savings potential in the field (including 121 netting rounds over multiple nights: 73 with LED lighting and 48 with kerosene), and estimated the market sizes for today’s fuel-based lighting and scenarios of transition to improved products in these waterways.

Night fishermen in the areas we studied spend 35% to 50% of their take-home pay on lighting costs (fuel plus lamp maintenance). We found that similar catches could be obtained with battery-powered LED lighting systems, while eliminating fuel costs. The simple payback time for amortizing the LED system investment would be only three to four months. Our results are far more definitive than prior studies, and provide a clearer roadmap for product manufacturers and others interested in deployment.

Due to the combination of higher intensity pressurized lanterns, and longer operating hours, Tanzanian fishermen use as much lighting fuel as would about 1 million ordinary household lanterns (equivalent to one lamp in every sixth home in Tanzania). The corresponding CO2 emissions are on the order of 85,000 metric tons per year, or about 1.3% of the total energy-related CO2 emissions from Tanzania.

We identified a significant market potential for the uptake of LED lighting by night fishermen, which could justify retooling and marketing investment on the part of lighting manufacturers. We estimate an existing expenditure on the order of $70 million per year for fuel and lamps by fishermen across all of Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and the ocean coastline on Mainland Tanzania.[1] The retail value of LED systems that would provide the same service is $17 to 21 million, plus $6 to $7 million per year in replacement expenditures. A quarter of this market is relatively easy to reach and viewable as a medium-term target. The extent of fuel-based lighting for night fishing around the world is not known, but if even 10% of the artisanal fishermen worldwide night-fished, the global market would be 3- to 5-times larger than Tanzania’s.

Many of those we interviewed indicated a willingness to pay on the order of $250 for a system replacing a single pressurized kerosene lantern (more than the likely actual cost). That this is approximately six-times the cost of the conventional pressurized lantern provides a strong indication of user dissatisfaction with their current lights, and of how highly they value the prospect of improved lights. However, this stated price level is only a general indication; structured market tests using real products are needed to determine true willingness to pay.

While smaller in aggregate, the fishing market is in many ways easier to reach than conventional household customers. It is more concentrated geographically (around lakes and shorelines). Given that a subset of individuals (boat owners) purchase lamps and other fishing equipment, a relatively small buyer pool makes investment decisions (perhaps 20,000 individuals in the market we studied, or, a hypothetical lamp purchase of $1,000 per customer).

Solutions are available for the well-known challenges of “last-mile” distribution and financing. Existing well-established supply chains between population centers, and fishing areas and between boat owners and their crew—together with the presence of community based fishery co-management organizations with a mission to improve conditions for fishermen—provide ready-made distribution channels for LED products. Existing financing mechanisms could be readily adapted to help pay for replacement lamps.

This market is particularly ripe for LED lighting alternatives.  Night fishermen have exceptionally high baseline costs both for fuel and lamp purchase and maintenance, and the cost of lighting is a much larger burden than in a household context.

The fishermen were almost universally pleased with the concept behind the prototype lights, and eager to purchase them provided the right price and performance. Given that much of the 1,000 lumens of light produced by a non-directional kerosene lantern never usefully reaches the water surface, we found that the performance could be matched with above-water replacement LED systems producing one-quarter to one-third as much light.

However none of the existing LED systems we tested were adequate for this use—although one was expressly intended as such. Essential product modifications include improved durability and performance in harsh fishing environments. Diverse fishing conditions such as calm/rough and clear/turbid water call for different designs, while varying fishing techniques pose different constraints on factors such as weight and bulkiness. Independent testing and certification would encourage product quality and support consumer confidence as they adopt these highly beneficial new technologies.

The full report - and photos - can be downloaded HERE.

[1] Key assumptions based on field research: lamps in use 99,000 to 123,000; kerosene price $1.40/liter; 1.25 liters per night per pressurized lantern; 20 nights per month spent fishing; duration of fishing period 10 hours; lantern cost $40; adequate replacement LED system cost $175; service life 3 years.

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Comment by Odinga on June 12, 2015 at 3:50am

I know the story of OmniVoltaic fishing light because I was one of the fishing guy in the original experiment. They plagiarized the idea, design and data from another engineer. But they are lucky in that case.

Check this:

Comment by Evan Mills on June 11, 2015 at 11:50am

Thanks Tom,

In our Tanzania study (subject of this original blog thread) we found use of kerosene lamps for ocean fishing as well.  But, of course, practices will vary regionally.  We also found that above/or submerged depended a lot on water conditions (turbidity) and type of fish one is going for.

I wonder if OminVoltaic is the decendent of Trony.  We did try Trony's in Tanzania and they definitely had water-tightness issues, even in fresh water.

I'll try to contact OmniVoltaic and see if they will share any info.

Thanks for the tip.

Comment by Tom Adamson on June 11, 2015 at 11:45am

Evan, There is not a lot of fresh-water fishing done in Haiti to my knowledge.  What few lakes we have tend to be either brackish or over-fished or both.  I am pretty sure that these lamps are not designed for brackish or salt water so I haven't tried importing them.  It would be good to see a lamp that is designed for salt water.

One interesting aspect that I learned in conversations with OmniVoltaic, they explained to me that by keeping the lamp up above the water you get much more area covered to attract fish from because when you submerge the lamp the light doesn't go so far.

Comment by Evan Mills on June 11, 2015 at 11:35am

Thanks, Tom.  Are fuel-based lanterns used for any sort of night fishing in Haiti?

Comment by Tom Adamson on June 11, 2015 at 3:24am

OmniVoltaic also has a lamp specifically designed for fishing.  It comes with a 12W panel, 8800 Lithium battery and puts out 300 lumens for 12 hours.  This is the same company who won 2 out of 3 first prizes at the Lighting Africa Conference in Dakar in 2012.  I haven't tried this lamp but I can attest to the high quality and reliability of their Beacon and ovPilotX lamps.


Comment by Evan Mills on June 9, 2015 at 9:18pm

Comment by Evan Mills just now Delete Comment

Nokero seems to have come out with a light tailored to night fishing.

It would be nice to see if there are any concrete results from the field.

My guess is that Tim and/or Philipp may have been involved in the field tests ;)

Comment by Evan Mills on August 11, 2013 at 8:46pm

Around minute-7 of this video is a passage about rechargeable lanterns being used by night fishermen on Lake Victoria.

Comment by Gijs Opbroek on January 30, 2013 at 11:54pm

Hi Evan, Yotam,

might be a good idea to look into. Depending on the needs of the fishing communities this could be something that will actually help them get continued access to the services needed. 

Comment by Yotam Ariel on January 30, 2013 at 10:33pm

Good idea..
An improved version of this --

Comment by Evan Mills on January 30, 2013 at 10:31pm

Sellers of next-generation lighting systems might consider "floating stores".  Boats could be used to hold inventory, provide warranty/repair service, etc.  Ready access to roadless fish camps, etc.  This would bring the distribution chain right to the customers.  During nighttime hours, these boats would also serve as  demonstration of the various lighting systems.


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