Every day at around 6pm, 40 families living in a remote corner of Andhra Pradesh in southeast India – a 6km walk from the nearest road – would be swallowed by darkness. With no access to electricity, sunset was a non-negotiable curfew – going outside was dangerous, people couldn’t cook and children were unable to do their homework.
This changed in April 2015 when Liter of Light, a project that transforms plastic bottles into simple solar lights, introduced solar-powered street lamps to the villages. “Some of the children had never seen [artificial] light in their lives,” says Pankaj Dixit, co-founder of Liter of Light’s Bangalore branch in India. “They said we had added four hours to their lives every day.”
More than 1.5 billion people worldwide face darkness, candlelight or the toxic fumes that escape from kerosene lamps – known as the silent killer. Liter of Light is trying to tackle this at a local level by putting up lights in slums, remote rural areas, refugee camps and also areas that have been devastated by natural disasters such as typhoons.
Founded in 2011, the social enterprise is run by the My Shelter Foundation, a Philippines-based NGO founded by social entrepreneur and actor Illac Diaz.
Liter of Light’s solar-powered lights are in 20 countries (including India, Pakistan, Kenya and Brazil) and in 650,000 homes around the world so far, according to Diaz. Its considers itself a global movement – with volunteers tending to work independently of the Philippines branch.
Startup funds from Pepsi and the 2015 Zayed Future Energy Prize powered the recent expansion. In 2013, Pepsi funded the installation of close to 5,000 lights in Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia and Malaysia. By 2014, this number had shot up to nearly 24,000.
The daytime light, which illuminates dark rooms in slum communities, is made using only a plastic bottle, water and 10ml of bleach (to prevent algae growing). When the bottles are slotted into purpose-built holes in the roof they refract sunlight. Diaz came across the idea, first invented by Brazilian mechanic Alfredo Moser, while studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
For the night lights, LEDs are wired to a miniature solar panel, using the plastic water bottle as protective casing. The light needs to be exposed to three to four hours of sunlight to last all night.
In the Philippines the Liter of Light team asks residents to pay $1 (60p) or less to buy the daytime light. This is to “gain the people’s trust,” says Diaz. He claims people can save up to $10 each month and the company will return after two months to ask if the customer wants to upgrade the water bottle light for between $3.78 for the most basic model, to $56.70 for something brighter and more advanced.
Liter of Light volunteers credit much of its success to its open-source, online approach: designs and instructions are shared on YouTube, and users can share advice and experience on social media. Volunteers are also recruited online. By enlisting people globally on the ground, Diaz says he has created a model that can mould itself to the specific needs of each country.
Daytime lights can change lives in the slums of Nairobi, for example, but would have little effect in rural Pakistan. Vaqas Butt, a Liter of Light volunteer in Pakistan, says in his country the problems come in the evening when communities often use emergency lights that have to be charged at power points, costing between 10-30 rupees (10p-30p) each day. “They don’t earn a lot, so this is a substantial amount,” says Butt. His team brought street lamps and night lights to Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to illuminate communal courtyards and gave night lights to school children in Islamabad so they could continue to study after dark.
To counter concern that the project is simply shipping in overseas solutions, My Shelter Foundation insists it is encouraging the development of a local repair economy for the lights.
Clean energy technologies that are not inclusive of the community in their application and design “are bound to fail,” says Diaz. “Too many are based on prioritising the producer and manufacturer, not the beneficiary. An example is solar lights, which are designed to break down with parts not found in the country so they have this constant cycle of going into debt to buy a lamp that would break.”
Louise Bloom, a researcher at Oxford University’s Humanitarian Innovation Project, agrees Liter of Lights’s local-run business model is one of the more important aspects: “If solutions for poor communities are brought in from the outside, not affordable or locally maintainable, then a dependence is created.”
She points to solar power’s temperamental nature as a potential challenge. If there is limited sunlight or houses are situated under trees, communities with these solar lights may still have to rely on alternative sources of power, she says. But Bloom still believes the project has the potential to bring real and lasting change: “they are providing a very affordable, locally resourced solution – something which many lighting organisations have struggled to do.”