Innovative lighting technology helps illuminate lives | Global Ideas | DW | 19.03.2013
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Global Ideas

Innovative lighting technology helps illuminate lives

Electricity is taken for granted in industrialized countries where all it takes is the flip of a switch to light up a room. But for millions in developing countries, electricity is a luxury. LED lamps could spark change.

A lit kerosene lamp stands by the wall

Poor people in the developing world often use polluting kerosene lamps for their energy needs

In industrialized countries, access to electricity is a given for most. It often takes a power blackout to make clear what a luxury a readily available source of power really is. According to the United Nations, some 1.5 billion people around the world suffer from “energy poverty,” meaning that they aren’t connected to electricity grids. That means they’re unable to cook or light up or heat their homes.

The sun provides the only source of light during the day, but not to all. Shanty towns in Manila, for instance, are often built so close to each other that they have no windows or natural light even in the middle of the day. But new initiatives are finding ways to brighten even the darkest huts. An organization called “Liter of Light,” for example, installs water-filled plastic bottles on a hut’s roof, and the “bulbs” refract sunlight throughout the home.

A woman kindles a fire

Often, an open fire is the only alternative when the sun goes down

Still, when night falls most slum dwellers are forced to revert to conventional fossil sources of energy, especially kerosene. “Filling (kerosene lamps) generates so much smoke and toxins that it’s equivalent to consuming 40 cigarettes,” Chris Katsaros from the company Nokero says.

His organization is aiming to root out kerosene from households completely. In fact, the name “Nokero” is short for ‘No Kerosene.’ The harmful emissions from kerosene lamps are not the only danger: Nokero estimates that more than a million people die every year due to fires stemming from kerosene lamp accidents.

Not to mention the harmful impact on the environment. “Globally, the lamps are responsible for releasing as much CO2 as 30 million cars,” Katsaros points out.

Plenty of pay offs for the poor

The commercial US company is focusing on LED (light-emitting diode) lights as an alternative to fossil fuels. They consume less energy than conventional light bulbs and generate more light to boot – a massive economic advantage for poor families in developing countries, Chris Katsaros says.

Children hold LED lamps in the air (Foto: CC/Nokero http://www.flickr.com/photos/nokero/8030478918/sizes/h/in/photostream/ Lizens: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

LED lights are inexpensive and eco-friendly, and you don't need an electrical connection to use them

“These families spend 20 to 30 percent of their annual income on kerosene,” he says, money that he believes could be better spent on food, medication or education. The LED technology has been refined to such an extent that the lights can be produced in large quantities and at a low cost. In fact, Katsaros says, investing in an energy efficient LED light pays off in kerosene savings in just months.

What’s more, it takes very little energy to power an LED light - a few solar cells or generators operated by pushing pedals can do the trick. That means the lamps don’t require a connection to the public electricity grid.

Those benefits have made Nokero’s LED lights very popular. The organization says that in just 2 years, it has sold more than 500,000 lamps in more than 120 countries, often working together with partner organizations on the ground.

Nokero’s products have even become part of the medical aid package provided by C.U.R.E. (Commission on Urgent Relief and Equipment) as well as the “ShelterBox,” equipment used by international disaster relief organizations. They were put to the test for the first time in 2011, after an earthquake struck Turkey.

Muscle power for light

The South African company “Nuru Energy” is also a big believer in the power of LED lights. It plans to supply more than a million devices in the next ten years to developing countries, from Kenya to Uganda and Rwanda – all with a bottom-up approach.

Nuru recruits and trains entrepreneurs who can in turn sell the organization’s eco-friendly products in their own villages. One of those products is a pedal-powered generator where villagers can come and charge their phones and LED lights for a small fee. Nuru says just one minute of pedaling on the reclined bicycle-style generator can charge an LED lamp and make it emit light for 400 minutes.

WakaWaka is another project that champions LED lights. “A large percentage of people who don’t have access to electricity live around the equator where it gets dark at 6 pm in the evening,” Camille van Gestel, one of the Dutch non-profit organization’s co-founders says. “If you don’t have good lighting, your day is over.”

Lighting up the dark

Like Nokero, WakaWaka has developed solar-powered LED lights that are charged by inbuilt solar cells. Once they’re placed in the sunlight during the day, the battery capacity suffices to provide light throughout the night.

The organization started distributing its products in the summer of 2012. Much of its funding is generated by the WakaWaka foundation, which was able to raise funds through a variety of sources, including Crowdfunding (see infobox). “The money earned from the foundation helps us sell lamps to those who need them for a much lower price than normal, in some cases even for free,” van Gestel says.

An adult and child with an LED light (Foto: WakaWaka)

WakaWaka solar lamps are financed through crowdfunding

WakaWaka’s “Let’s Light up Haiti” campaign raised more than $700,000 to provide 10,000 LED lights to Haitian families who are still living in tent cities after a massive earthquake devastated the country in 2010. Van Gestel says his organization has previously also provided 800 lamps to a school in Kenya thanks to donations.

WakaWaka is now turning to buyers in industrialized countries to expand its business. Anyone who buys an LED light – which costs between 39 and 79 Euros – subsidizes crucial electricity for the poor in developing countries. “By using this form of micro-financing, we want to make LED lights affordable for people who have to live on just 2 US dollars a day,” van Gestel says.

Author: Po Keung Cheun/ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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