More than one billion people in the world do not have access to stable electricity and rely on kerosene, candles or firewood for lighting, all of which are expensive and provide inferior light for reading. Lack of suitable home lighting is directly linked to illiteracy, poverty and health problems. Women in particular are often deprived of schooling and job opportunities.
I met with Claude Dorais, President of Unite-to-Light, during my trip to Santa Barbara last week. He recounts that when the pastors asked for a better reading light, some of the church members thought to contact Dr. Bowers, who heads the Institute for Energy Efficiency at UC Santa Barbara. His first reaction was that someone was already making solar flashlights and it was merely a question of volume pricing.
Dr. Bowers looked for a simple, clean, affordable and rechargeable reading light and, to his surprise, he could not find one. So a local team of engineers and students decided to build a better reading light. They picked an energy-efficient LED (100 lumens per watt), selected a robust solar cell (weather resistant), and designed a small integrated circuit, so a single AA battery could power the light.
After going through a few design iterations, the first samples were sent to Ghana and met with great enthusiasm. A simple 8-hour charge during the day can provide 4 hours of reading at night. One mother reported that her children "no longer sneeze black gunk." Using kerosene lighting for three hours a night corresponds to smoking two packs of cigarette a day.
Unite-to-Light was formed and distributed additional lights to Ghana in partnership with Pangaea and the Presbyterian Church. They realized that kerosene lights are quite expensive to run in Africa: $6 represents one month of reading. They decided to sell the clean solar-powered lights for $12. Donations to buy 1,000 lights will turn into 19,000 lights if United-to-Light sells them at 95% of their cost.
The question of selling vs. giving is a critical one. Claude explains that the purpose of selling the lights is not to make a profit, but rather to make a bigger impact and to fight illiteracy. “If you give 1,000 lights, you improve the life of 1,000 families. Now, if you sell 1,000 lights, you can use the funds to start a cycle and improve the lives of many more families.”
Claude took the example of an orphanage in Kenya, the Flying Kites Leadership Academy. They originally donated lights to their 150 students. Half of them live off-campus and the lights caught the attention of people living across the countryside. It turns out that kerosene is very expensive in Kenya and the orphanage has the opportunity to act as a distributor. A local donor bought 250 lights and the school will use the profits to buy more lights. When there is stable demand, they will able to use the reasonable mark-up to grow their facility and host more children.
Unite-to-Light has shipped 10,000 lights to date to Ghana, Uganda and Kenya and has responded to disaster relief requests in Haiti and Japan. They are on schedule to produce 100,000 lights by the end of the year and they have worked with various third-party distributors: churches, non-profits, and local store owners. They have not implemented micro-financing yet but Claude Dorais thinks it will likely come as the project grows.
I challenged Claude by asking if the goal for next year is to ship 1,000,000 lights. “Well, we have more than 50 volunteers involved, including a Nobel Laureate and CFOs of tech companies. We have a lot of busy people and we would not be doing this if we did not think we had a chance to make an impact that could be measured in millions or tens of millions.” One of the principles guiding Unite-to-Light -- access to education -- is dear to the heart of Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn, who wants to see more girls and women have the opportunity to pursue carriers in science.
Olivier Jerphagnon is a serial entrepreneur. You can find him at Green Frog From Silicon Valley.