A solar solution for 1.2 billion people without electric light

Goodbye dirty kerosene lamps, hello MPOWERD's solar-powered Luci lantern

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In the developed world, access to electric light is a given. But for 1.2 billion people around the world, electricity — and the light that comes with it — is a tenuous and treasured resource. Without it, store owners close shop early, students can’t do their homework, and productivity drops.

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In West Africa, where three-quarters of the population lives without electricity, households spend as much as 20 percent of their budget on kerosene, a combustible fuel burned for lighting. Not only is kerosene expensive (the UN estimates the global population spends $23 billion each year on the stuff), it also poses serious risks: fires, burns, and pulmonary disease. The World Health Organization says that 4.3 million people die each year as a result of household air pollution created through the burning of solid fuels.

Developing communities need a better option. Can solar energy — free, clean, and readily available — be a viable lighting solution?

4.3 million people die each year as a result of household air pollution created through the burning of solid fuels

On January 12th, 2010, a massive earthquake tore through the island nation of Haiti. It left hundreds of thousands dead and many times that number without a home. The country’s already weak electrical infrastructure — less than a quarter of the 10 million people here have access to power — was demolished.

In the aftermath of the quake, Jacques-Phillipe Piverger, CEO and co-founder of MPOWERD, took to Haiti seven delegations of influencers he thought could make a serious impact on rebuilding efforts. On one of those trips, Piverger brought John Salzinger, a longtime friend who would become the co-founder and chief business development officer of MPOWERD.

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"We were actively looking around," recalls Piverger. "In a place like this, what could we do to truly effect change?" With so much of the population already off the grid, and so many people using harmful kerosene, Piverger and Salzinger struck on the concept of developing a rugged, low-cost solar lantern. The lantern would sell in camping supply and outdoor stores in the US, Western Europe, and other developed markets, and those proceeds would enable MPOWERD to make the very same products accessible and affordable to developing markets.

Piverger and Salzinger turned to Jason Alan Snyder, the company’s original chief technology officer, to design a lantern that could serve both developing and developed markets. Snyder invented a lantern that could meet and exceed the capabilities of a kerosene lantern at a lower price-point.

Mike Muehlemann, vice president of engineering at MPOWERD and the founder and president of design and research lab Illumination Technologies, Inc., further refined the lantern. Other solar lanterns existed on the market, but they were either inefficient, too fragile, or too expensive. Muehlemann says that for many years, the three components necessary for a rechargeable solar lantern — batteries, solar panels, and LEDs — were available, but not at a price that made them viable for a mass market.

Luci was born: a 4-ounce lantern that can light up a 10 square-foot space for 12 hours on an 8-hour charge

"All three of those, even five years ago, did not have the price-performance ratio that would’ve made this product possible," says Muehlemann. "But within that period of time, all these technologies converged and you had, for the first time in history really, the ability to put together these technologies that could deliver the performance that they had dictated, and you could do it at a price point that some of the poorest people on the planet could afford."

Muehlemann designed a prototype that encased the lighting hardware in an inflatable plastic sleeve, and Luci was born: a 4-ounce lantern that can light up a 10 square-foot space for 12 hours on an 8-hour charge, and collapses to be an inch thick. Unlike lanterns made of molded plastic, Luci has no parts that can break or snap off. Because the lantern is fully waterproof, it’s even viable in emergency situations like floods and storms — unlike kerosene.

"The things that resonate with the base of the pyramid" — electricity-poor communities—  "resonate with the whole pyramid," says Piverger. "The campers, the thousand-dollar galas at the top, you name it: people have reasons for wanting a Luci." The company now has four iterations of the lantern and other solar-powered products are in the pipeline. Thanks to its versatility, Luci has shipped to 70 countries and is sold in over 700 retailers around the US. Through the Give Luci program, customers are encouraged purchase additional lanterns at a discounted price that the company distributes through NGO partners.

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The basic Luci light retails for $14.99, a sizable sum for a family scraping by in a developing nation. But because the operating cost of a solar lantern are zero, MPOWERD estimates that switching from kerosene to Luci can pay for itself within six months.

"The impact of these lights is real and positive," says Jean-Michel Voltaire, founder and chairman of Reunion Sportive d’Haiti, Inc. Voltaire’s nonprofit, established in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, offers a free soccer camp and meals to 800 at-risk youth in Haiti every summer. The NGO also partners with other organizations to build schools and develop sanitation projects. In the rural area that RS Haiti serves, the grid is almost nonexistent. And without electric light, Voltaire says, "the day ends at 6PM."

Last year, MPOWERD donated 200 Luci lanterns to RS Haiti, which the organization distributed to children who attended the camp as well as local business owners. In September, Voltaire traveled to back to Haiti.

"I witnessed firsthand the importance of these lights for the children and their families," he says. Kids were using Luci lanterns to do homework at night; families were saving money that would otherwise go to kerosene. "As someone who was born and raised in a village with no light, I can attest that these lights are life-saving."

Correction: an earlier version of this story didn't properly account for the role of Jason Alan Snyder, the company's original CTO, in designing the Luci lantern.