SociaLite Lighting Systems Inc

Engineering for the Middle of Nowhere

Background

In the industrialized world we take light for granted—it is always available at the touch of a button. In the middle of nowhere, when there is no sun and no moon, it is pitch black—you are blind, you navigate by touch. The smallest imaginable amount of light connects you to your surroundings; marginally more enables you to be productive. For the extreme poor who inhabit these remote, rural, forgotten communities, especially the women who form the human supply chains to collect and transport wood, food and water over distances of many kilometers, the day begins and ends with the availability of natural light.
IMGP1748
It is almost impossible to comprehend that over one in five of the world's population, about 1600 million people, do not have access to a clean, affordable light source. When the sun goes down, their light is often sourced from a 70,000-year-old technology—an oil lamp—a vessel containing local vegetable oil or animal fat into which a cotton wick is inserted to provide a miserable, smelly light. Kerosene, not a significant improvement, is rarely an alternative—its high price makes it unavailable. Only low cost products are at hand. Flimsy flashlights, pulsed on and off to maximize the life of sub-standard batteries, last a few weeks at best. Cheap solar-powered lanterns have all but disappeared—people have learned not to waste their money. Whilst recent years have seen rapid growth of businesses and organizations dedicated to the alleviation of light poverty, there remain communities in large areas of sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere who live too far off the beaten track and who are too impoverished to benefit from these artificial light sources.

Inception

To design a light source for this environment, you cannot just sit down in New York or London—you must first understand the needs and aspirations of these communities. Which types of light source are useful and what are they used for? How much can one family afford to spend on light and do all family members have equal access? How will they power their light source? Asking question after question brings you closer to an understanding of how to design and implement a product alien to those only familiar with combustible light sources.
7I5A3729

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. To be successful, our light source has to work under the most arduous conditions, be robust and simple to operate; it has to be technologically and financially sustainable, incorporate locally sourced materials, be open to local manufacture, distribution and operation. It has to be easily repaired, withstand being left in the rain, getting dirty and being partially eaten by goats. Useful solutions have to exceed a gold standard for engineering excellence—products have to withstand being used by individuals unacquainted with the baseline technology we take for granted. Finally, the lantern has to be sufficiently attractive for people to use their meager income to pay for it.

We learned that there is much more to light than a battery and an LED. Completely unexpected and unanticipated were the fistfights that arose when users were reluctant to release their prototype lanterns to the next family—police intervention was required to force the transition. Our design approach had failed to appreciate the enormous social impact of light and the consequential change in social dynamics, our mentors had missed this as well. Over the succeeding years, we have encountered numerous instances of behavior that is alien to those of us outside the communities—none bad, just turns of completely unexpected events and unanticipated outcomes.

Into the Field

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: once a week, users drop off their lanterns in the morning and pick them up charged in the afternoon.
P6152098

The SociaLite project is ultimately about material resources, energy, engineering education, true sustainable engineering, minimalist design, the principles of energy conversion, the critical relationship between the engineer and the end-user, poverty and the developed world, and entrepreneurship. The potential payout extends far beyond a source of illumination to include better-educated and healthier children, economic self-sufficiency, the empowerment of women, a reduction in the rate of rural depopulation, the introduction of entrepreneurship—all activities that can potentially contribute to a reduction in the rate of the spread of AIDS and more stable rural communities—both vital to local agriculture and the food supply. SociaLite is a project that seeks to change the paradigm of rural development in the less industrialized world—one that questions many of the currently accepted practices and models.

With light, women can pursue home businesses such as sewing, typing or manufacturing, increasing their income and extending their children’s schooling. Children, especially girls, have extra time at the end of the day to complete their homework and so gain a better education. "Girls who are more educated earn more income, have greater access to family health information and services, are more likely to delay early marriage and childbirth, and to have healthier babies.” (Nike Foundation and World Bank (2011), Smarter Economics: Investing in Girls: The Girl Effect. Girleffect.org., World Bank).

Founding 2016 (Ghana)

In 2016, Mustapha Osman founded SociaLite Enterprise to promote the installation and operation of SociaLite Lighting Systems in Ghana. The head office, pictured at right, is situated opposite the new Regional Hospital in Wa, the capital of the Upper West region, on the road to Nadowli, and serves as the headquarters for the final field trials throughout Ghana. In February 2020, SociaLite Enterprise became SociaLite Lighting Systems—a Ghanaian NGO.
789A2466

In the less-industrialized world, ventures such as SociaLite traditionally start in the capital city, home to the NGOs and international agencies, diffusing outwards through a slow and expensive process with uncertain outcomes. We have reversed the path—starting in the middle of nowhere and propagating to the cities where intermittent electricity supplies still create a large demand for rechargeable lanterns. We have sat transfixed listening to narratives that perfectly illustrate the social outcomes of a clean light source. Stories about finding lost goats, tending sick kids, avoiding snakes and extending the day for kids to read and do homework. We have learned that the acquisition of light is transformational in ways which those of us with light cannot begin to imagine.

Founding 2017 (USA)

SociaLite Lighting Systems (SLS) Inc. was established as a Connecticut non-profit corporation on 1st August 2017 to supply solar powered mini-grids, comprising portable light sources, mobile phone charging and community entertainment facilities, to impoverished, remote, off-grid communities in less industrialized countries: these facilities of benefit to the inhabitants by providing opportunities for education, communication and home businesses and, the system itself, providing opportunities for entrepreneurship through assembly, installation, operation and maintenance.