Turning bottles into bulbs to bring light to the world's poor

One organisation aims to get clean-powered light to everybody cheaply, quickly and locally using a plastic bottle, water, an LED light and small solar pack

When natural disaster strikes, power plants and electricity lines cut down by powerful storms often leave millions in the dark.

Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in 2013, destroyed nearly 250 electricity towers and left towns without power months after the winds had wreaked destruction. Without light to cook, study or live by, many use kerosene lamps to light up simple dwellings.

Some 1.3 billion people depend on them for light worldwide and the dirty fumes kill 1.5 million people every year, according to UN agency UNESCO.

Still, as relief agencies hurry to get power and light to survivors, aid organisations have tried to move away from these lamps towards clean, solar powered devices. But one organisation argues donor agencies are not thinking radically enough.

Philippines-born Illac Angelo Diaz founded social enterprise Liter of Light in 2011. The aim is to get clean-powered light to everybody cheaply, quickly and locally. It involves a plastic bottle, water, an LED light and small solar pack, and some basic physics.

“The way it started for us was this study [I read] where 60 to 80 per cent of humanitarian aid is spent on logistics,” said Diaz, who argues current large-scale emergency solar power takes too long – up to five months – to deliver, is too expensive and too fragile for widespread use. “What you want to do is teach everyone how to make lights. It becomes more sustainable and they can make a livelihood.”

Liter of Light trains local people to use an empty plastic bottle, filled with filtered water and bleach, fitted into a hole cut in the roof. With one-third of the bottle outside and two-thirds inside the room, it lets in natural light to dark and windowless shelters. The water refracts – or bends – the sunlight so the beams reach more corners of the room than a simple hole would.

“It lights up [the equivalent of] 55 watts of brightness,” explained Diaz, who presented his solution at a CSR Summit held last week in Dubai.

By maximising freely available natural light, Liter of Light allows poor households to save around $8 to $10 a month, otherwise spent on kerosene lamps during the day.

This approach is more efficient than microcredit, said Diaz. It provides an income for local people, too: an installer earns around $0.50 for each bottle fitted, out of a cost of $1.75 to the household. The savings can be put towards an upgrade to light up shelters at night.

People pay between $3 and $4 to install a 1-watt LED light, in a waterproof tube, attached to a small solar power pack the size of an iPhone. The LED light is put into the same plastic bottle in the roof, which when turned on refracts through the water. Local people build the circuits, using discarded electronics and e-cigarette batteries. The margins on nighttime bottles for the installer are higher than the daylight ones, said Diaz.

The technique is open-source – Liter of Light trains locals and puts up how-to videos on Youtube. The low-tech system lit up around 2,000 homes in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

Liter of Light is not just an emergency solution, according to Diaz. It can also help the estimated 1.1 billion people who live in energy poverty (without access to electricity), according to the World Bank. Investment of between $40bn and $100bn each year is needed to bring electricity to everyone, according to World Bank forecasts.

“If you’re going to give people one billion lights, you don’t want to give technology with patents that can’t be replicated,” he said. "Unless you turn over the skills [to local people], make yourself obsolete and make your technology repairable, then you are just basically managing the whole system. It won’t work.

“[Liter of Light is] a skills-based operation and not a product sales operation. That’s why we scale so rapidly.”

Now, Liter of Light is applying the same principles to public street lighting. Bottles using 2, 5 or 10 watt LEDs suspended from bamboo or plastic pipe poles cost between $50 and $150. Bottle street lamps light up off-grid communities, whether in cities, rural areas, or refugee camps.

Liter of Light has worked in three refugee camps in Pakistan, including the UN’s Jalozai camp, where 100 bottle street lights were installed in 2014 with a further 450 planned for this year. The organisation has reached more than 482,000 people to date and spread to 20 countries including India, Pakistan, Egypt and Mexico.

Part of Diaz’s MyShelter Foundation, which supports locally-developed and recycled architecture, the organisation won the NGO award at this year’s UAE-backed Zayed Future Energy Prize, which recognises renewable and sustainable energy initiatives.

Diaz hopes the award, and partnerships with the private sector, will help the organisation expand its reach in the existing 20 countries, which each have to earn their own funding needs.

With a decentralised structure, Liter of Light’s global office costs around $150,000 to operate annually. The NGO hopes to install 1 million bottle lights around the world by the end of the year.

“We see this as a long-lasting [solution], unless you give [poor people] a technology that needs absolutely no repair,” said Diaz. “How come people say the poor are non-technical? We discovered that if you teach them properly, it’s maybe not the prettiest thing, but it works.”

Click here to see how Liter of Light is changing lives.

Photo credit: Liter of Light