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Bright ideas for the developing world: cheaper, superior lighting design
Designer Mike Lin knew developing countries needed better lighting, but he wasn't exactly sure how best he could help. Then he visited Uganda, followed by eight other sub-Saharan African countries and India.
While visiting cities and rural villages, Lin and his colleagues at San Francisco-based Fenix International saw people using candles and kerosene lamps. More surprisingly, they noticed others who made light in creative ways, such as by duct-taping AA batteries to motorcycle tail lights or constructing their own LED lights with found electronics.
Inspired by the improvised lighting he saw on the trip, Lin developed a new product: a portable battery that could be charged via a solar panel, bicycle generator or a household outlet. Called the ReadySet, the battery enables small business owners in Uganda and Kenya to earn money by charging other people's cell phones and to light their stores at night.
In partnership with telecom company MTN, Fenix launched ReadySet in 2012 and, late last year, began offering a "pay as you go" purchase method for home lighting.
"You have to take the time and actually set your assumptions aside … and be humble," says Lin, who still spends about half his time away from San Francisco. "When you understand the local context, it gives you an understanding of the local culture and how they use light."
Lin is among a growing number of designers and entrepreneurs making goods for developing countries, where the introduction of electrically powered lights can be life-changing. It's estimated that upwards of a billion people do not have access to reliable electricity, with about 65% of them in Asia, according to a World Bank Report in 2012. Often, off-grid households in Asia and Africa rely on kerosene lamps, which provide weak light, pollute and cause respiratory problems. Poor lighting also makes it difficult for children to study at night, hindering their education.
Solar lanterns – portable lamps that combine a small solar panel, battery and LED lights – are a common tool for bringing light to off-grid locations in developing countries. But a number of clever alternatives have emerged which could help accelerate the spread of off-grid lights. The International Finance Corporation of the World Bank last year cited an influx of solar lanterns, but noted that some products of "unknown quality" in Africa have begun to "undermine consumer and investor confidence".
One of these innovative products emerged from a challenge by charity SolarAid to make a solar lantern for less than $10. Two British designers took on the project, but over time they realized that a light didn't necessarily need a solar panel. With the help of crowdfunding, they designed a device, called GravityLight, which produces light from the small amount of power created by a heavy bag pulling on a cable. As the cable slowly drops from the weight of the bag, it creates light for 25 minutes before being reset. Deciwatt, the group making the device, began trials in Liberia, Guatemala, the Philippines and India late last year and will roll out the GravityLight in the UK and US later this year.
Another alternative to lanterns is the Liter of Light, also called the Solar Bottle Bulb, which provides overhead illumination without electricity. Originally designed by a mechanic during a prolonged power outage in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the light fixture is a plastic bottle filled with water and chlorine bleach fitted into a corrugated metal roof. The bottle refracts incoming sunlight into the building, providing the same amount of light as a 55-watt incandescent bulb.
A number of designers are looking at additions to the standard lantern model. LuminAid, for instance, is making a solar-powered light that combines a solar cell and battery with an inflatable bag. The design makes the light more compact and better suited to disaster relief situations. For every eight flashlights, relief organizations can send 50 solar bags. LuminAid was used during relief efforts in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Designers at Nottingham Trent University decided to make sustainability the focal point of their Eco-light, which will initially be sold to consumers in Sweden but is also suitable for developing countries, says Daizhong Su, the head of the university's Advanced Design and Manufacturing Engineering Centre, who headed up research on the project.
The light fixture consists of a series of cubes made from recycled PET, the plastic used for bottled water and soft drinks. The cubes can be rotated on a stem to alter the light direction and consumers can choose how many cubes to include. In addition to choosing recyclable material, Su designed the product so it can be assembled with clips, rather than screws, making it easy to disassemble and recycle at the end of its life.
"If our [light] product has the same light production and the same cost, people will purchase our product because it has less impact on the environment," he says.
Designers could use recycled plastic in many other everyday products, says Su, who is leading another project to make floor tiles with another type of recycled plastic.
In general, products for the developing world need to be very low-cost, rugged and easy to use and repair, says Lin, who was a lecturer in design at Stanford University before starting Fenix International. But he warns against fixating so much on lower cost that the product no longer meets users' needs.
"The vanguard of product design, especially for the developing world, is to design for extreme affordability," he says. "There's certainly a lot to be said for price point, but at the same time the most important aspect of the product design might not be price alone."
Plenty of room for innovation
In addition to product innovation, there's a great need for business model innovation, as traditional business models can sometimes hinder access to these new lighting products. While national utilities and government agencies distribute lighting products, they often still come with high upfront costs, which hampers the market's development. In response, entrepreneurs have started to offer pay-as-you-go or pay-to-own business models for lighting and energy-related products.
Mera Gao Power, for instance, builds and operates solar-powered microgrids in off-grid villages of Uttar Pradesh, India. Consumers pay a weekly fee for seven hours of power a night, which poor people in India prefer over buying a product, co-founder Nikhil Jaisinghani said last year at a seminar on energy for the developing world at Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy.
As a social enterprise, the company seeks to improve people's lives and, at the same time, earn a profit so that it can grow and impact millions of people. Initial customers reported that having light has led to children spending 50% more time studying, Jaisinghani says.
"We've had customers able to operate shops late into the night. We've had customers able to make saris at night and sell them to large retailers and wholesalers," he says. "We've got people who are simply happy to have a better environment in which to do their daily chores."
Martin LaMonica is a Boston-based reporter covering energy, technology, business and the environment. Follow him @mlamonica
Category: Business ideas