SociaLite Lighting Systems Inc

Engineering for the Middle of Nowhere…

SociaLite Lighting Systems (SLS) Inc. is an American non-profit organization established in August 2017 that started life in 2006 in a first year, first semester engineering class, EID101—Engineering Design and Problem Solving, at The Cooper Union in New York City. Students were challenged to design a lighting system for the poorest of the poor—with all the ramifications therein. At the time, no one imagined that the project would be alive 13 years later, and that a company would be formed to promote the idea and install systems.

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Mission


In every country the world over, there are regions without access to electricity: for most, the decision to be off grid is determined by lack of infrastructure. The voices of the extreme rural poor in the less industrialized world are largely unheard—their fleeting impact on the political and financial landscape has consequence only on the day of the ballot and none thereafter. Yet it is these forgotten communities who inhabit the, as yet, underutilized breadbaskets of the world, the key to the survival of humankind.

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SociaLite Lighting Systems’s primary mission is to work towards simultaneously alleviating and raising awareness of light poverty. We develop and install affordable, solar powered mini-grids to charge portable light sources, charge cell phones and power audiovisual entertainment systems to impoverished, remote communities in less industrialized countries. The product's unique and highly-accessible simplistic design mechanic allows for unskilled labor to assemble these systems close to the point of end use. SLS believes that by gaining access to these valuable, life-improving resources, light and electrical power, communities have greater opportunity for advancement through increased access to education and business opportunities at a local level. We work with these communities to manufacture and operate these systems so providing opportunities for entrepreneurship through sub-system assembly, installation, operation and maintenance.

Beginnings


Already acquainted with the community of Nambeg in Ghana’s Upper West region, we sought their help with evolution of the lighting system. In June 2007, we stood together under a mango tree and watched, exalted and humbled, as everyone exuberantly voted to collaborate with us. With the delivery of three, extremely rudimentary LED lanterns supported by an equally rudimentary, shared charging station, comprising a solar panel and a car battery, we took our first steps towards a solar-powered community lighting service—users drop off their lanterns in the morning and pick them up charged in the afternoon.

We thought the lessons to be learned would be straightforward and comprehensible but a successful philosophy is one thing and full cultural adoption another. We continue to encounter situations that are incomprehensible to us. We have learnt that making something work in remote, rural communities is very hard, that there is more to learn than we ever imagined.

So started the long journey of what it really means to light up the middle of nowhere—a much more difficult task than we ever envisaged. We asked the Nambeg community to use the lanterns, provide feedback and pass them on to their neighbors. We imagined control of the light intensity would be appreciated—the men liked twiddling the knob but the women said keep it simple—a high and a low setting—we took the women’s advice. Nambeg, a community of potters, built lantern housings from clay, more durable than our sustainable bamboo which easily split in the dry season—a valuable lesson in materials usage.

Current Technology


Our initial system, a solar powered charging station and portable lanterns has evolved into a more versatile community resource with facilities for cell phone charging, video projection and high power audio. The most comprehensive system, outlined on the left, comprises 2 x 100W (appropriately sized for cost, availability, transport and installation) photovoltaic panels connected to 2 x 75Ah deep cycle, lead acid batteries, cell phones, lanterns, and an audiovisual system through a 20A charge controller. The system is capable of charging up to 8 cell phones and up to 20 lanterns, in addition to powering the audio amplifier and video projector for limited periods during the day.
SociaLite System

The technological and operational aspects of SociaLite have been proven—an engineering methodology and a philosophy for a robust lighting service created to address specifically the needs of the extreme rural poor: a self-sustaining system designed for manufacture close to the point of use, affordable at real cost, and easily operated and maintained. SociaLite systems have been built, installed and operated by people with no prior exposure to this type of technology; community interaction, including a sense of ownership and shared responsibility, has increased through the delivery and collection of lanterns. Charging stations are operated correctly, deposits and charging fees have been collected.

Operation


SociaLite lighting and charging systems are not free. Users pay a small deposit on acquisition of a lantern, followed by a monthly charging fee—adjusted to match community assets. Users pay on a per use basis for cell phone charging and use of the entertainment system. These income streams pay off the capital cost of system components, installation, day to day operation and maintenance. Locally sourced components include the charging station and lantern batteries, solar panels, lantern housings and charge controllers and mobile charging system cart; any excess is used for lantern battery replacement and recycling.
Value Chain

How does the financing work? Someone, somewhere needs to purchase the components and the end-user has to pay the real price—with perhaps a subsidized rate of interest. Homer Atkins, in The Ugly American, said “Whenever you give a man something for nothing the first person he comes to dislike is you.” [W. J. Lederer and E. Burdick (1958), The Ugly American, New York, Norton] Users pay an initial deposit of approximately 4USD followed by a monthly charging fee of about 2USD to clear the capital cost. Without the advantages of bulk purchase, the cost of an installed eighty lantern system is 30USD per lantern (with bulk purchase this approaches 10USD)—allowing compensation for those who assemble, install and operate the system.

Current Goal


Funds are solicited to light a cluster of 50—100 communities in the North Western, North Eastern and Volta regions of Ghana. Field trials over the past decade have proven that such clusters can be locally assembled, installed and operated. In total, we seek $100,000+ for this major field installation, a large scale demonstration of a lighting service for impoverished communities. In the USA, these funds are used to procure and ship electronic components—a very small proportion used for system tuning. Remaining funds are transferred to our partner in Ghana, SociaLite Enterprises, principally to purchase components in Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso, with a small component used to pay for the training, assembly and installation of these systems.

The most economic way to donate is through Facebook—we receive the funds in 60-75 days with no deductions through Network for Good. If you are happy paying directly into our bank account, please send an email to [email protected] and we'll send you our account details. If you want to give now, please click on the Donate logo at the bottom of this page and you will be taken directly to our PayPal page.

Thank you.