SociaLite Lighting Systems Inc

Engineering for the Middle of Nowhere…



When there is no sun and no moon and you are in the middle of nowhere it is pitch black—you are blind, you navigate by touch. The smallest imaginable amount of light connects you to the surroundings; marginally more enables you to be productive. We take light for granted in the industrialized world—it is available at the touch of a button. For the extreme poor, especially for the women—the day begins and ends with the availability of natural light—sunrise and sunset. In the equatorial regions of Africa this is close to 12 hours a day of productive time.

It is almost impossible to comprehend that over one in five of the world's population, about 1500 million people, do not have access to a clean, affordable light source. The extreme poor still use an oil lamp, a small vessel containing local vegetable oil or animal fat into which a wick is inserted to provide a miserable, smelly light—a 70,000-year-old technology. Good light sources are expensive and thus inaccessible. Kerosene, not a significant improvement, is rarely an alternative—its high price reduces availability. Only low cost products are at hand—flimsy flashlights, pulsed on and off to maximize the useful life of the sub-standard batteries, last a few weeks. Cheap solar-powered lanterns have all but disappeared—people have learned not to waste their money.

Most of those who live in the dark from sunset to sunrise live in very poor, remote communities, light scarcity trapping many of the women in the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Whilst recent years have seen rapid growth of businesses and organizations dedicated to the alleviation of light poverty, there remain communities in large areas of sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere who live too far off the beaten track and who are too impoverished to benefit from these new LED light sources.

Over the past decade, working with, and learning from communities in East and West Africa, we have developed a standalone, solar powered mini-grid and lighting system suitable for assembly, by the end-users, close to the point of installation. The entire system, fabricated under a mango tree by the community for whom it is intended, is delivered by anything from a pickup through a donkey, a bicycle or hand carried on someone’s head. Expansion across an environment with no infrastructure is achieved through a sequence of communities taught to construct, install and operate the systems who subsequently pass on their learning to an ever more remote community.

Although funds for this work are currently provided by many organizations and individuals, the goal is to develop a self-sustaining organization. Users pay a small fee to join "a lighting club" and thereafter a "monthly charging fee" to cover the overall cost of components, assembly, installation and operation. Extra income is derived from the cell phone charging and community entertainment facilities provided by the mini-grid.


SociaLite is the story of a project that started in 2006 as a challenge to a freshman engineering class at The Cooper Union in New York City—design a rechargeable lantern for the poorest of the poor. We set out to truly address the needs of those left out of the lighting equation, those who live in the middle of nowhere far from the end of the dirt road. Most often, well-established engineering from the industrialized world is adapted to satisfy the perceived demand of the impoverished—an approach that accounts for neither the real needs of the user nor the operating environment. These errors are often compounded by distributing these solutions as “aid” into which the issues of sustainability are rarely incorporated—and that are frequently devoid of the principles of socially, economically and environmentally responsible entrepreneurship. Ian Smillie, describes the outcome—“too many failures in the ‘development business’ have been ignored or covered up, condemning poor people to suffer the re-invention of too many wheels that never worked in the first place.” {I. Smillie (2000), Mastering the Machine Revisited: Poverty, Aid, and Technology, London, UK, ITDG Publishing}.

To design a light source for this environment, you cannot just sit down in New York or London or Singapore—you must first understand the needs and aspirations of the community. Which types of light are useful and what are they used for? How much can one family afford to spend on light and do all family members have equal access? Asking question after question brings you closer to an understanding of how to design and implement a product alien to those only familiar with combustible light sources.

To be successful, our light source has to work under the most arduous conditions and be robust and simple to operate; it has to be technologically and financially sustainable, incorporate locally sourced materials, be open to local manufacture, distribution and operation. It has to be easily repaired, withstand being left in the rain, getting dirty and being partially eaten by goats. Useful solutions have to exceed a gold standard for engineering excellence—they have to withstand being used by individuals unacquainted with the baseline technology we take for granted. And, the lantern has to be sufficiently attractive for people to use their meager income to pay for it.

We first had to understand the social meaning of light by working directly with remote, rural communities through a local champion. An individual who has empathy with, and is able to understand the nuances of the extreme poor; who speaks their language and commands their respect; who believes that what you are doing is of real benefit. We searched “for approaches which are open to the unexpected, and able to see into, and out from, the predicament of the rural poor themselves.” (R. Chambers (1983), Rural Development: Putting the Last First, London; New York, Longman).

Bringing light to the poorest of the poor is almost on the global radar. In passing H.R. 2548, the Electrify Africa Act of 2014, the US Congress acknowledged that women are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to electricity and that improved lighting options greatly contribute to better educational outcomes. International organizations, local and state governments are now beginning to accept that access to a clean light source should be a human right in the 21st century. With this acceptance comes an acknowledgement that carefully considered subsidies are needed to provide affordable lighting systems.

The social change that accompanies the acquisition of a good, clean light source is transformational—it enables the poorest of the poor to comprehend that they can be self-deterministic, that their children can be educated and that they have the means to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. With light there is less incentive to leave the rural areas, the breadbaskets of the world. The simple impact of light is perhaps best summarized by an old lady in Baayiri, Ghana, who told us that ever since acquiring her lantern she slept peacefully at night. When she went to bed, she put the lantern on the low setting. If she woke up she could easily scan the surroundings and, knowing that all is well, go back to sleep. Sadly she is now blind.

Who bears the brunt of this grinding poverty? The women who form the human supply chains to collect and transport wood, food and water over distances of many kilometers. The same women who have made so little progress during the past 2000 years because, as soon as they were able, as young girls, they were conscripted into the supply chain, often missing school to carry the required resources—so propagating the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

How can a micro-grid impact the lives of these women? With light, they can pursue home businesses such as sewing, typing or manufacturing, increasing their income and extending their children’s schooling; children, especially girls, have extra time at the end of the day to complete their homework and so gain a better education. With a telephone, they can ascertain the price and availability of produce in the local market and adjust their schedules to maximize income. Robert B. Zoellick sums it up “Investing in girls is smart. It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer, and more productive lives. Girls who are more educated earn more income, have greater access to family health information and services, are more likely to delay early marriage and childbirth, and to have healthier babies.” (Nike Foundation and World Bank (2011), Smarter Economics: Investing in Girls: The Girl Effect., World Bank)

Founding 2016 (Ghana)

In 2016, Mustapha Osman founded SociaLite Enterprise to promote the installation and operation of SociaLite Lighting Systems in Ghana. The head office, pictured at right, is situated opposite the new Regional Hospital in Wa, the capital of the Upper West region, on the road to Nadowli, and serves as the headquarters for the final field trials throughout Ghana.

In the less-industrialized world, ventures such as SociaLite traditionally start in the capital city, home to the NGOs and international agencies, diffusing outwards through a slow and expensive process with uncertain outcomes. We have reversed the path—starting in the middle of nowhere and propagating to the cities where intermittent electricity supplies still create a large demand for rechargeable lanterns. With seven lighting systems in six communities in northern Ghana and Rwanda—we have sat transfixed listening to stories that perfectly illustrate the social meaning of light. Stories about finding lost goats, tending sick kids, avoiding snakes and extending the day for kids to read and do homework. We have learned that the acquisition of light is transformational in ways which those of us with light cannot begin to imagine.

Founding 2017 (USA)

SociaLite Lighting Systems (SLS) Inc. was established as a Connecticut non-profit corporation on 1st August 2017 to supply solar powered mini-grids, comprising portable light sources, mobile phone charging and community entertainment facilities, to impoverished, remote, off-grid communities in less industrialized countries: these facilities of benefit to the inhabitants by providing opportunities for education, communication and home businesses and, the system itself, providing opportunities for entrepreneurship through assembly, installation, operation and maintenance.