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For years cows were the most important thing in John Nyirenda’s life. In Malawi, as in much of rural Africa, a man’s worth is calculated by the number of cows and other livestock he owns.

Until recently Mr Nyirenda, who has nine children, was the proud owner of two cows, several sheep and goats and a flock of chickens that still peck away in the dirt outside his modest brick and corrugated iron roofed home in this tiny village in northern Malawi.

“We sold milk and other diary products and with that money I brought up my entire family,” the 63-year-old farmer told The Times. “When I saved enough money to buy the second cow I felt very proud, I was looking so successful.” Less than a year ago Mr Nyirenda’s life was revolutionised by a small solar panel not much bigger than a paperback novel. If it was left in the daylight for five hours or so it would provide enough power through two wires with crocodile clips at the end to light a small LED bulb, charge a mobile phone or two rechargeable batteries that came with the pack….

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