How a local non-profit organization is making a big difference with a little light bulb
From a little white house nestled amongst the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary, local non-profit organization Light Up The World is attempting to conquer a hefty goal: to bring light to the roughly 1.4 billion people across the world who have no access to electricity.
Working in remote villages in more than 50 countries across the globe, Light Up The World and its partner organizations work with communities to implement a sustainable energy system using LED lights to brighten the homes and the lives of local families.
"Energy and light are a basic service, like water, that is integral in the daily lives of people," says Ada Yee, manager of Light Up The World's regional office in Peru.
Bright light now bursts from the 27,000 homes that the organization has touched, replacing the flickering candlelight and kerosene lamps that many families use in the absence of electricity with solar powered LED lighting systems.
Such a simple change has been proven to have huge effects on the community — boosting the economy, allowing for better educational opportunities, and improving health, all while doing right by the environment, Yee says.
"The technology exists to give a better quality and higher quantity of light in a safe, environmentally friendly, efficient and cost-effective manner to countries that may possibly never have access to the type of electricity that we are familiar with," says Yee.
An eye-opening experience
The organization got its start when Dave Irvine-Halliday, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Calgary, stumbled across a dimly lit classroom in rural Nepal in 1997. Children could be seen hunched over books trying to study by candlelight, their eyes squinting as they struggled to read.
"The issue that he was trying to address was not the fact that they didn't have light, but that they were using kerosene, which is very polluting and still doesn't produce a lot of light," says Christoph Schultz, the organization's program director.
Irvine-Halliday had heard about advances in LED technology that made it possible for LEDs to be used for general illumination instead of just indicator lights, and saw this as a solution to the children's problem, Schultz says.
After the organization was officially formed in 2001, Light Up The World focused on the development of hardware that could be brought into communities easily, inexpensively, and sustainably.
Today, 14 years since Irvine-Halliday's eureka moment, Light Up The World has expanded upon the professor's original goal by acting as an intermediary between the companies that make LED technology and the communities that express a need for it.
Working with partner organizations that have ties to the local community, Light Up The World begins the process by talking to local people and learning about their energy needs.
A completely different world
Careful consideration goes into the development of an electrical system, as the organization analyzes the community's resources, economic capacity, culture, and other social aspects that may challenge the project's successful implementation, Schultz says.
"We try to work with communities and encourage them to be a part of the decision making process," Schultz says.
"If you just donate systems, it doesn't work. If you don't focus on training and building systems that match what people are already using for energy, and get people to make contributions to the project themselves, it isn't sustainable."
Yee remembers the sight of llamas, alpaca, and sheep giving the Light Up The World team puzzling looks as they passed through the village in their 4x4 trucks, full to the brim with the equipment needed to execute the installation. The local people greeted the team warmly, their eyes widening as the gear was unloaded.
"We go into some areas where people have never even seen electric light before," Schultz says. "We explain the technology to them using analogies they can understand, relating light to water."
"What we do as an organization is give people the means to give themselves a good life, give themselves a hand up."
— Christoph Schultz, program director, Light Up The World
If families decide to have the system implemented in their home, they are required to make small contributions to help with the installation. The remainder of the cost is subsidized, based on the community's needs, by funding that the organization receives from donors, Schultz says.
"They are paying what they used to pay in candles to pay off the system," he explains.
Working alongside the Light Up The World staff during installation are community-nominated technicians, who are taught to install, maintain and troubleshoot problems that may arise with the lighting system long after the organization has left.
"This is probably the most important sustainability element to our work, not only because the components of the system are durable and last many years, but because it also gives autonomy to the community and control over their own resources," Yee says.
The role that the technicians play in the community — collecting payments, explaining installation, fixing problems that arise, all in the local language — is "empowering," says Robert Beattie, who worked with the organization on a project in Guatemala last spring.
Improving quality of life
When the team returns to check up on the communities in the years following the installation, an enormous change can be seen not only in the community, but also in the technicians themselves, Schultz says.
"The technicians gain confidence in knowing they can work with the technology. Just seeing the light go on in their minds, in understanding and learning, is so rewarding."
Having access to electricity affects many dimensions of life for the people living in these remote villages. Health improves, as harmful fumes from kerosene are no longer filling the lungs of villagers going about their daily tasks, and the risk of malaria decreases, as bugs are no longer drawn by flickering candlelight.
As a high percentage of the household's income is no longer being spent on constant expenses related to light such as candles or fuel, the LED lighting systems bring economic stability and growth to the communities.
"In rural homes before the system, people were spending as much as 40 per cent of their income on light," Schultz says. "You realize if you didn't have to spend that much what you could do with that extra money."
Entrepreneurial and educational opportunities arise, as work and study become more productive with better quality light, fulfilling the original goal of the organization's founder when it all began with that classroom in Nepal.
"Each community is a little bit different, the importance to them depends on their values," Schultz says. "What we do as an organization is give people the means to give themselves a good life, give themselves a hand up."
Finding a calling
Walking up the path towards a woman's home in Costa Rica, Schultz realized what Light Up The World had taught him personally.
As bright electric light illuminated the leaves on the banana trees that lined the path to the front door, Schultz says he appreciated in that moment that in many cases, access to electricity is exactly the difference between us here in Calgary and the situations in other countries.
"Just think of everything that we do here with light," says Schultz. "It's really the technology that enables us to do what we do.
"There are a lot of reasons why this work is important, reasons that we here [in North America] don't even think about because we have light.
"We take it for granted."