Around 6 p.m., the sun begins to set and darkness blankets the nation’s capital. The streetlights flicker on, illuminating the walk home for the city’s commuters. As darkness falls, a surge of electricity powers the light bulbs in homes and apartments in and around the Beltway.
But on the other side of the world, in many low-income communities in India, 6 p.m. marks the beginning of the scent of gas. It marks the release of fumes that are inhaled by the men and women working on fishing boats, the children studying for school and the parents cooking dinner. Nighttime marks an increase in the release of pollutants and risk of a fire. It marks another payment for fuel that a resident must make just to conduct a basic evening routine that so many of us take for granted.
The darkness marks another night that a low-income community’s need for kerosene stands as a barrier to achieving independence from this dangerous, hazardous and expensive energy source.
But night doesn’t need to keep communities chained to kerosene. Vort Port International (VPI), a DC-based international development nonprofit, incubates social enterprises to lead the way for low-income communities to participate in the energy revolution. At VPI, the Solaii project (previously known as India Solar Lamps or ISL) has been developing a solar-powered lamp that will not only light the night, but also empower these communities to work towards a brighter future
What separates VPI from the typical firm in the international development field is that it is 100% volunteer driven, with a mission that is directed by a passion to continuously develop sustainable tech-based solutions for communities in need. VPI isn’t a group of idealistic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but a team of experts working together towards tangible results. In 2011, VPI installed a solar-powered computer lab in the heart of southern rural India. During the day, more than 1,500 students and teachers are able to use the lab while at night, the lab turns into an Internet café, maximizing the potential of the technology.
Solaii is working to scale its successes and build on its experience with solar energy by creating a multi-use solar lamp. More than two billion people lack access to adequate electricity in the developing world, and building the infrastructure to improve these conditions is difficult for many reasons, including resource constraints, political obstacles and corruption. Currently in India, 840 million people live in villages, and kerosene is the main source of fuel for 60% of rural communities. Unfortunately, kerosene is also a non-renewable source of energy that is increasingly expensive and harmful. Chronic exposure to kerosene fumes can lead to lung cancer*, skin conditions and accidental poisoning among children. (*The World Bank cites that 67% of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.) In addition, because it is highly flammable, kerosene is inherently a fire hazard for communities that utilize these lamps indoors without proper ventilation.
VPI’s Solaii team believes that micro-solutions can begin to alleviate this desperate situation, and our goal is to create a solar lamp to replace the dangers of kerosene lighting. Our second prototype is near completion and elevates current market standards. We have worked to incorporate the voices of local communities by designing through an iterative ask-build-test-deliver model. The final product will be multi-functional, durable, waterproof and affordable, and the project will include an education component to ensure lasting benefits and increase economic activity. We plan to leverage established distribution channels by partnering with on-the-ground trainers from local NGOs in order to teach community members how to use and sell the lamps, eventually enabling them to create their own business.
Solaii will start delivering its solution in India and then expand to rest of the developing world. Based on estimates, the project will become profitable by its second year. Over five years we aim to replace more than 10 million kerosene lamps with solar lamps, and reduce over 76.5 million kilograms of carbon emissions.
Solaii is working to redefine the 6 p.m. hour around the world, one lamp at a time.
This blog post was written by Eric Shu, Educational Analyst for the Solaii Project
Vort Port International (VPI)’s Nick Imbriglia (Electrical Engineer) and Merry Walker (Executive Director), flew from Washington, DC to Chennai, India to meet India Solar Lamps (ISL) team director Chandni Shah. In Chennai, the three met with potential microfinance institutions (MFIs) and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners, including a visit to the remote village in which the team will pilot the ISL project. Since development started in March 2010, the team has grown rapidly from one director (Chandni Shah), adding three business analysts (Charu Vijaykumar, Leena El Seed, and Chris Yoder) and four engineers (Alrick Nelson, Pritham Prabhakher, Nick Imbriglia, and Merry Walker). The team has been working hard to bring alternative and sustainable lighting technology to rural communities in India. They have developed a robust and affordable solar lamp, seen here below, that requires only about one watt of power to light a four by four square foot space for six to eight hours.
The light is critical for families in the village, where children currently use kerosene lamps to do their homework at night, causing them to inhale harmful fumes. Additionally, the fishermen of the village rely on the small kerosene lamps (seen below) as they fish during the night.
Other lighting options include 60 or 100 W incandescent light bulbs fixed to the side of their huts and costly, battery-powered flashlights to light their path. The team noticed that the incandescent bulbs were haphazardly tied to the side of the hut with exposed wires that tapped into the intermittent grid. Grid power fluctuates based on availability; frequently, if nearby cities use more electricity, it is diverted away from the village, leaving the inhabitants completely in the dark. Furthermore, relying on grid-dependent light sources is extremely costly to families in the fishing village. The villagers were understandably enthusiastic about the ISL team’s prototype which was demoed during the visit. By visiting the site, the team was able to realize several design changes that they hope to implement prior to the pilot program. Furthermore, ISL envisions preparing material for teaching the villagers about concepts such as energy efficiency and why an LED-based solar lamp is more efficient than an incandescent bulb. Currently, the villagers view a bulb as a bulb, and they simply want something larger, not necessarily more efficient. However, the partner villagers seemed eager to learn new concepts and work with VPI/ISL on understanding solar energy and energy efficiency. The team looks forward to working in India with the villagers, including explaining solar technology and the economic and environmental potential it will bring to their community. ISL plans on collaborating with MFI’s to create economic opportunities for local women by enabling them to build and sell the lamp in neighboring areas.
The meetings with the NGOs and MFIs were promising: they showed interest in the technology and theorized how interactions between VPI/ISL, the local women entrepreneurs, and the villagers could play out. ISL and local MFI’s are still in discussion and working collectively on creating a comprehensive plan for the immediate future to ensure that the technology is appropriately disseminated to the communities that need the lamps the most. Overall, the excitement exhibited by all parties from this trip has been brought back to the team and will motivate us through the next phase of development as we continue to refine the design and implementation. The team is grateful to have been a part of this experience and looks forward to continuing this journey with partner NGOs, the villagers, and Vort Port International.
Hello from your new VPI blogger, Nick Imbriglia. Though I work with the engineering side of things, my goal is to ensure that anyone, technically inclined or not, can enjoy these entries and take something from them (I plan to write in English, not math equations).
A little background: I studied Electrical Engineering at school and have been with VPI for a few months now. I currently work on the Solar Lamps in India project, designing the lamps and solar charging system. My passion lies with sustainable and appropriate technologies that can drastically improve the quality of life for those on the bottom of the pyramid. As a young lad, I was an avid Lego architect. I also enjoy midnight strolls on the beach and fine wine.
Too much information? I suppose you’re right… after all, I am the tech guy; I should just talk nuts and bolts, silicon and semiconductor, joules and jigawatts. That’s all there is to technology. Right?
Given our current technology driven society, I would sometimes feel inclined to agree. What comes to mind when one thinks of modern tech? Space rockets. Sleek smartphones. Nuclear power plants. Yup. Cold, lifeless technology.
But peer a little deeper and you will find this is not the whole truth. As impersonal and emotionless as these items might seem, each new machine has a soul, bright and burning. Behind every product, there are human designers and users that shape it, defining how the item itself will shape lives.
In this modern age, it’s easy to be a pessimist when it comes to technology. When everyone and their mother has a phone that can keep us constantly connected, provide a never-ending flow of social media, and virtually fling disgruntled avians, it’s easy to see that these devices are changing our lives. But are they changing them for the better?
That, perhaps, is an issue for another post. What I can say for a certainty is that technology can improve lives for the better. The tireless work performed by organizations like VPI proves this beyond a doubt. In India, technology can replace harmful, kerosene lamps with sustainable, smoke-free alternatives, literally lighting the way to a brighter future. In Madagascar, human innovation can provide powerful biodigesters that produce much needed energy while simultaneously eliminating sanitation concerns. When I picture the souls of the projects we are working on, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with a very human emotion.
So the next time someone mentions the limitless possibilities of technology, think not of the monolith-like slate of a new tablet computer. Instead, try and imagine how even the simplest device could mean the world to someone. Try and conjure up the faces of those who might design and benefit from its function, those who comprise the soul of a machine.
Raj Vable just sent us this email from India. We are very excited for him!
“On Thursday, we had the inauguration of the new computer lab – attached are a couple of the pictures from the event.On behalf of all 1050 students + teachers + everyone, and particularly, me, thank you.
The project is close to completion – the solar panels are installed, the computer lab is up and running, and the back-up batteries are purchased. We have one remaining hurdle: right now, the batteries and computers are still running on the grid, so we need to raise money for the power system to connect the solar panels to the batteries/computer lab. Slowly but surely, right?
It feels good to make steps towards a brighter world.”
And here are some photos:
If you’ve never watched a TED Talk, you’re missing out on some very inspirational and innovative thought leaders tell the stories of their research and experiences all over the world. I watched this one over the weekend and decided it greatly relates to the mission Vort Port is currently taking part in.
The speaker is Sugata Mitra, and he spends a few minutes talking about the educational effect that computers have on children. His research is simple: put computers in front of children and see what happens. In a lot of the cases, the children have never had the opportunity to handle a computer before, but they still learn within minutes to play games, look information up, and thus, become empowered. There are some very interesting results to Sugata’s studies. But enough from me! Watch it:
This is the very reason we’re trying to bring computer labs to rural villages in India. IT is a very big industry in India, but still the people int he smaller villages have never touched a computer. By providing a solar-powered computer lab, we’re giving these small villages a chance to compete for the IT jobs in the bigger cities, thus improving their own and their families lives.