A simple solar powered rechargeable light does not sound like a revolutionary invention in Western culture, as they are frequently seen lining suburban driveways and walkways at night. However, in the developing world, a world where 1.75 billion people have no access to electricity, this type of lighting can be the only light source for cities without power or with unreliable power grids. More importantly, rechargeable solar lights allow people to move away from kerosene-based light sources. Last Thursday, Steve Katsaros, owner and founder of Nokero, presented on an alternative light source designed for residential areas in developing countries.
Katsaros describes his company as a social venture. This differs from a commercial venture in that the company’s objective is to solve a social problem instead of making profit. Katsaros said, “You cannot donate your way out of poverty,” describing the way that a non-profit organization could not sustain production of these lights in the same way that a social venture could.
Nokero’s light is designed to be hung outside during the day to charge its battery in the sunlight and the design allows the solar panel angle to be adjusted for maximum sun exposure. Other features include a reliable battery, waterproof circuitry, a shutoff that keeps the light off when exposed to the sun in order to save battery power, brightness control, and a rugged, yet cheap housing. The retail cost of this product is close to $12 in many developing countries.
Still, that amount of money is often daunting to those who live in these countries. Two billion people on Earth live on less than two dollars a day. These people often use lighting sources such as kerosene, candles, or other dangerous or unsustainable lighting alternatives. According to Katsaros, kerosene lamps burn “forty liters of kerosene per year,” which is approximately $40 worth of kerosene. Comparing Nokaro’s light to annual fuel costs, it begins to look like a good investment. In Mexico, the break even cost for current light sources (normally candles) occurs after 15 days. In Haiti it is 45 days and in Pakistan is 21 days. In some countries, rental agreements have been created and at the end of the rental period the renter gets to keep the light.
As Katsaros continued through his presentation he stopped at a particular slide of a Pakistani girl. He said, “This girl, when she gets to the end of her day she is there without electricity studying and trying to make her life better, but the cycles of poverty continue because without access to electricity you don’t have light… and this is a big issue when it come to education, security, and advancing your well being.” Katsaros described how the small amount of money and time freed up by inexpensive solar lights allow families to afford schooling and children the opportunity to study during the night—an important asset to many children who must spend a large portion of time during the day helping with their parent’s line of work. Studies done by Nokero have shown that children in developing countries increased their study time by 45% when using solar lights.
Apart from the social, economic and environmental benefits, there are also health benefits from using solar lights. Unlike kerosene, they do not produce fumes that irritate the eyes, cause headaches, and have been correlated with cataracts and tuberculosis. Additionally, “A lot of the shanties in places like south Africa or South America get burnt down because someone kicks over a kerosene lamp,” said Katsaros.
Rechargeable solar lights have proven to be useful outside of the home as well. Nokero’s lights have been modified into a collar worn by cattle in Venezuela to ward off vampire bats. In Africa they have been modified into a flashing light that wards off lions. By night, Nokero’s solar powered cell phone chargers have been modified to charge many other battery-powered devices.
Right now, Nokero is trying to revise their business model to create a supply system in developing countries where the inhabitants can create their own Nokero lights and distribute them effectively while increasing demand.
Katsaros ended by giving the listeners some advice. He said, “Less talk, more action. So many ideas die in a boardroom, in endless meetings, or on a dry erase board. Talking through the company’s future is important, but you can’t let it drag on. Once a decision is made you’ve got to be fearless and move it forward. It may fail. If it does, you wipe off the dust and go out there and fail again. Keep going until you succeed.”