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Bright ideas for the developing world: cheaper, superior lighting design


The Eco-light consists of a series of cubes made from recycled PET, the plastic used for bottled water and soft drinks. Photograph: Eco-light


Powered by article titled “Bright ideas for the developing world: cheaper, superior lighting design” was written by Martin LaMonica, for on Monday 10th February 2014 17.18 UTC

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.

LuminAid Light

The LuminAid light, which combines a solar cell and battery with an inflatable bag, aided relief efforts in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Photograph: LuminAid

Solar alternatives

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.


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