And Then There Was Light!

And Then There Was Light!

Claire Hartry By Claire Hartry

Earth is the only planet in our solar system that glows in the dark. Yet, well over 1.8 billion people who live on it have no access to electricity whatsoever. A social enterprise made up of highly experienced engineers, designers and developers from all over the world saw this vast expanse of darkness and decided to bring some light to the situation.

In May 2008, after receiving seed funding from The World Bank, Nuru Light spent 14 months designing their lighting system. From carrying out a feasibility study in rural Rwanda, spending time field-testing the light and taking extensive feedback from actual users, they had created a light that was not only affordable and durable, but also tailor-made to meet the needs of the Base of the Pyramid consumer. 5 iterations of the lighting system later – reducing the size of the units so they could be integrated into larger domestic usage systems – the lights were ready for distribution.

Kid using Nuru light Nuru Light like many other great social inventions before it, the system abides to the green friendly ethic. Although sustainability is one of the biggest merits of the business, the whole premise could never have worked using traditional grid power, as Sameer Hajee, CEO of Nuru Light explains; ‘In 1970, 4% of rural Africa had access to electricity which amounted to about 9 million people. Fast forward 39 years and 10% now have access, which is about 35 million people. So in 39 years basically, the governments of Africa have been able to add come 30 odd [million] people to the grid. So if you project forward you realize that access to the grid in rural areas is not going to happen in my life or my son’s lifetime. So we had to start looking at off-grid solutions and that’s what we offer.’

Child in rural Rwandan community studying using Nuru Light: Nuru Light can be wall, plastic bottle or head mounted as well as being hung around the user’s neck.

The unit is made up of two bright white LED lights that never break or need replacing. It is very light in weight and has a three-position switch to determine how bright the light is.

The distribution of Nuru Light is dependent on the local people that buy the POWERCycle TM. These local franchisees or entrepreneurs as they are referred to, buy a POWERCycle and 100 light bulbs using a loan from a local bank and make money by recharging the bulbs. Each unit is then sold to the entrepreneur’s local community members at a very low price – compared to both kerosene and solar lights, it works out dramatically cheaper. The Nuru Light users have their light recharged at roughly 14 pence per charge, which is the same price to have a battery recharged for a mobile phone in the same market. Each entrepreneur can earn up to £9.50 per day. Such an income launches the POWERCycle owner comfortably out of poverty, giving them 3-4 times the national average income, while still saving customers 95% on lighting.

Jean “Mayor” Hakizimana is one of Nuru Lights many entrepreneur success stories.

When Jean first heard about Nuru, he was barely getting by. He had to pay for medical bills, school fees, and food for his five children. As a subsistence farmer, with just two acres of land and poor rainfall, he was overburdened. He tried to supplement his income by starting a small boutique, but with his meager income, he was having trouble supplying for his family. Fortunately, Jean or “Mayor”, as he is known in the community, is a member of a local cooperative. Nuru Light staff approached the cooperative to sell and recharge lights. In January of 2009, Mayor received a loan of 100 lights and a POWERCycle pedal generator. He also received training on basic marketing and accounting. After 6 months, he fully paid of the loan and he now earns a healthy income. His children eat a nutritious diet and are attending local primary and secondary schools.

Mayor thanks Nuru Light for his opportunity. He says, “thanks to Nuru, I have learned a lot about business. I am earning more than ever before. My family eats better and I am saving for the first time.” He adds, “My clients are very happy. New people come to me every day asking for lights.” Mayor is a now a model entrepreneur, serving his customers and providing for his family in the process.

Man standing by the Power cycle

Jean “Mayor” Hakizimana in his shop- Mayange, Rwanda.

The key to Mayor’s success is in the POWER Cycle TM. The power cycle works like a gym peddle machine and has a generator attached to the mechanism, which is used to recharge the light bulbs. It can hold five units at a time and takes twenty minutes of moderate-light pedaling to charge each bulb for up to forty hours which equates to about 1 to 2 weeks of light! The result is a 600:1 use to charging ratio, compared to just 1:1 with solar. Because the POWERCycle is easy to operate, even children can use it and unlike wind and solar, the pedal ensures that power is always available.

Potential problems with the POWERCycle being such a lifeline to Mayor and other entrepreneurs are damage, loss, theft or sabotage. However, The PowerCycle comes with a guarantee, says Mats Kullberg from Nuru Light. ‘So if it's damaged we have a service team available helping out. Stolen PowerCycles is luckily still unheard of but if it happens the entrepreneurs will be replaced. There are activation codes on the PowerCycles so they are useless if you don't have the code.’ I also asked him about ground support and their feedback mechanisms, to which he replied ‘When it comes to feedback our sales and marketing teams have constant contact with our entrepreneurs and customers.’

The developers at Nuru Light, knowing that grid access is sometimes possible in their rural target communities, made provisions to recharge the lights using AC power too. The POWERGrid extension pack plugs into the mains and can charge up to five light bulbs at a time, just like the POWERCycle. On top of this they provide a POWERSolar system that works just the same, but using the Sun. Not missing an opportunity, Nuru only made these extra products as it would have been unethical not to, given how simple they were to include into the design phase. That said the USP of the light and its various charging systems are that they are so safe.

Nuru Light’s potential market is currently flooded with kerosene: an extremely noxious liquid with relatively extortionate pricing. The environment, user safety, school children’s study time and mothers’ cooking time are all affected by the limits of this substance. With this in mind, various charities including UNICEF approached Nuru Light to help distribute the product to a wider proliferation of users. UNICEF has given Nuru Lights out to school children and another bespoke charity has given lights out to refugees at various camps. One charity, which had difficulties with health clinic users not returning after their first visit, coaxed their patients back by recharging the Nuru light each time they came back for a check-up. With such support like this growing amongst the Civil Society for Nuru Light it is sure to shine bright for some time to come. Already, in its first year of distribution this year, the team has won three awards for social enterprise and innovation.

One of the main drivers of the business model that helped it pick up one of the awards is carbon credits; these can be monetised and sold in accordance with the Clean Development Mechanism of the 2007 Kyoto Protocol agreement headed by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). It is worked out on a 1:1 ratio; one carbon credit is equal to one ton of C02. At the end of its first year the business will have saved atleast 35,000 tones of C02. At present they have entrepreneurs in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and India. By the end of 2010 they plan to have expanded into all countries in East Africa including both Kenya and Tanzania, which rank 144th, and 158th respectively in the IMF list of 180 countries in GDP per capita.

Related Links & Videos
Powering our way out of poverty (news)
Nuru Light (web)
Nuru Light (video)

Photo credits:
Adam Bacher Photography

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