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Solar LED Lamps Enhance Literacy, Livelihoods Around the World


Joining a list of legendary physicists that includes Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and former Obama administration Energy Secretary Steven Chu, physics professor Shuji Nakamura was one of three physicists who shared in the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in October awarded this year's physics prize to Nakamura, of University of California, Santa Barbara, and Nagoya University's Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amanao for their invention of the blue light-emitting diode (LED).

Enabling LEDs to produce white light for the first time, the invention of the blue LED in the late 1990s paved the way for a revolution in lighting. As is often the case with such groundbreaking innovations, the three physicists' invention led to a rising tide of interest and efforts to build on their work.

While Nakamura continues his research as a materials professor and chair of the Cree Center for Solid State Lighting and Displays, his innovation has been embraced at UC Santa Barbara and in the Santa Barbara community. Nonprofit Unite to Light is leveraging LED lighting, as well as the work of other university researchers in developing more efficient solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and battery technology, to deliver solar-powered LED lamps to organizations working to improve living conditions in under-served, developing communities around the world.

Solar LEDs, shoestring budgets and sustainable development

The invention of the blue LED has led to the use of LED lighting across a wide and still growing range of applications – from consumer electronics and portable hand-held lighting devices to household, commercial, industrial and public lighting. LED lighting is much more energy efficient, as well as less resource-intensive and polluting, than conventional lighting. It's also cheaper to manufacture than incandescent and fluorescent lighting.

Unite to Light is bringing clean, reliable and affordable emissions-free lighting to a growing range of under-served communities in less-developed and developing countries. In doing so, the Santa Barbara nonprofit is creating opportunities for children, students and families to improve their lives and living conditions – all without the need for power grid access, costly infrastructure investments, greenhouse gas emissions or other forms of environmental pollution.

Unite to Light was launched as a result of a visit by Dr. Osei Darkwa and Pastor Karl Fosuhene to UC Santa Barbara's Institute for Energy Efficiency (IEE). Sponsored by Santa Barbara nonprofit Pangaea and the Goleta Presbyterian Church, Darkwa asked the Institute's researchers to develop an affordable reading light for children, students and families in Ghana. They took up the challenge with relish. Led by co-founders IEE Director John Bowers and Santa Barbara attorney Claude Dorais, Unite to Light was born.

Unite to Light operates on a shoestring budget with a full-time staff of no more than a few. Charitable donations, along with the generous efforts of a host of volunteers, including the UC Santa Barbara chapter of Engineers Without Borders, keep the nonprofit organization going.

To date, Unite to Light has delivered some 61,000 solar LED lamps to organizations and communities in some 65 countries, including Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Nicaragua, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, Executive Director Dawn O'Bar told 3p in an interview. “Many of them,” O'Bar pointed out, “have been hand-delivered, so we know they reached their intended recipients.”

Breaking the cycle of poverty

Unite to Light's solar LED lamps directly benefit a much larger number of people in under-served communities. Shared among families and friends, Unite to Light estimates its solar LED lamps have a multiplier effect of three to four, which means that on the order of 250,000 people benefit directly from their use.

Affordable, reliable and emissions-free, Unite to Light's solar-LED lamps are helping to improve the literacy, education and lives of developing-world students, families and communities. Just one among the examples O'Bar cited during our interview, Unite to Light's solar LED lamps are changing lives and the environment for the better in a rural South African community.

Unite to Light delivered some 3,000 of its solar LED lamps, along with refurbished Amazon Kindles, to students living in a rural community that lacks grid access in the province of KwaZulu Natal. The use of solar LED lamps coincided with a 30 percent year-to-year increase in students' scores on a national matriculation exam in the first year following their introduction, O'Bar recounted.

Literacy, better lives and livelihoods

Unite to Light's solar-LED lamps are having numerous positive benefits that extend well beyond its primary goals of improving literacy and education, and alleviating poverty, in less-developed and developing-country communities.

Significant in terms of improving health, safety and ecosystems conservation, the nonprofit is reducing the use of kerosene lamps and burning wood for light. That means less in the way of smoke and carbon dioxide emissions that cause health and safety problems throughout the developing and less-developed world. It also means less in the way of deforestation, which helps conserve the dwindling forests and waterways.

Much remains to be done in order for developing and less-developed countries to be able to take advantage of advances in clean energy, energy-efficient LED lighting and energy storage technologies. It will also take a while for these communities to forge sustainable development pathways that don't require ecosystems destruction and the depletion of their natural capital and resources.

It's estimated that some 1.5 billion people worldwide lack access to a reliable source of electricity. Some 14,000 students in the KwaZulu Natal community where Unite to Light has delivered some 3,000 solar LED lamps still lack access to a reliable source of electricity, O'Bar noted.

Cheaper and more efficient than ever, solar energy devices, appliances and equipment, along with other locally-appropriate forms of renewable energy, afford developing and less-developed countries the opportunity to “leapfrog” ahead and break the cycle of fossil fuel dependence, natural resource extraction and foreign debt that has consumed their natural capital and weighed them down.

Nonprofits and the "overhead myth"

For its part, Unite to Light is looking to expand, as well as refocus its activities on a smaller number of countries, key issues and interest groups by developing partnerships with other like-minded organizations involved in mutually supportive endeavors. With public- and private-sector funding tight as ever, the Santa Barbara nonprofit is exploring ways to assure its financial sustainability.
The common perception among the U.S. public is that a nonprofit should be able to do everything it aims and needs to do on a shoestring budget, simply by covering its overhead from charitable donations and relying on the contributions of volunteers, O'Bar told 3p. Yet, like any sustainable enterprise, nonprofits, including Unite to Light, “have a lot of money invested in infrastructure, as well as the expenses associated with delivery of the end product or service to the people that need it.”

Dubbed by nonprofit insiders as the “overhead myth,” it's a conundrum Unite to Light is keen to resolve. At present, Unite to Light is wholly reliant on donors-- individuals and foundations – to sustain its operations. Though it prices its two models of solar LED lamps slightly above manufacturing and logistics, that still leaves a substantial budgetary shortfall. Buyers pay for shipping, customs charges and duties. As well as running contrary to its fundamental principles, building in a higher margin could jeopardize its ability to deliver affordable products to countries and communities where incomes can average $1 or less per day, O'Bar pointed out.

Unite to Light explored the possibility of registering as a certified B Corporation a couple of years ago, but its board “decided to hold off until all the ramifications – tax implications, etc. – were more more clear,” O'Bar recounted. “I expect we'll be revisiting the issue soon,” she added. “We might have to make the jump into the for-profit world, but significant issues need to be resolved.”

In addition to looking for ways to increase fund-raising, what Unite to Light is doing is making a greater effort to reach out and build alliances and partnerships with other like-minded non-profits and social enterprises such as the Clinton Global Initiative.

Through the Clinton Global Initiative, Unite to Light is participating in Commitment to Action, a project in Nicaragua that aims to provide 10,000 solar products to women in rural areas. Doing so opens up substantial new income-generating opportunities for these women, their families and communities, O'Bar explained.

Women in these Nicaraguan communities walk 2 to 3 hours to have their cell phones charged, wait in line for another hour or so, then walk the same distance back to their homes. Equipping them with portable solar power generators will not only free up this time, it will enable them to start small businesses in their own communities.

The economic, as well as human and environmental health and safety, benefits to these women are huge, O'Bar elaborated. “They're able to earn [60 cents] per day by charging cell phones ... Now, that's nothing to us, but it's significant to them, where those at the 'base of the economic pyramid' earn $1 a day.”

Unite to Light has also joined with U.S.-based Business Connect to roll out a project that entails distributing Unite to Light solar LED lamps with water filters. “It's a nice pairing – providing water and light,” she commented. Based in the U.S., Business Connect works with local distributors to deliver water filters across some 15 countries, “and they're expanding their business,” O'Bar noted.

*Images credit: Unite to Light

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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