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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 effectively blind, you navigate by touch. The smallest imaginable amount of light connects you to your surroundings; marginally more enables you to be productive. We take light for granted in the industrialized world—we expect light to be available at the touch of a switch. For the extreme poor, especially for the women—the day begins with sunrise and ends at sunset.

It is almost impossible to comprehend that over 20% of the world’s population, about 1500 million people, does not have access to a clean, affordable source of light. 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. Kerosene, not a significant improvement, is no longer obtainable. Its price is too high. Good light sources are expensive and thus inaccessible—only low cost products are available. Flimsy flashlights are pulsed on and off to maximize the useful life of the sub-standard batteries. Cheap solar-powered lanterns have disappeared—people have learned not to waste their money.



This is the story of a project that started in 2006—a challenge to a freshman engineering class at The Cooper Union in New York City to design a rechargeable lantern for the poorest of the poor. SociaLite 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 their perceived demand—an approach that accounts for neither the real needs of the user nor the operating environment. These errors are compounded by distributing many of these solutions as “aid” into which the issues of sustainability are rarely incorporated—and that are often devoid of the principles of socially, economically and environmentally responsible entrepreneurship. Ian Smillie, describing the outcome, says “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}


Community Discussion 2007 (Nambeg, Upper West Region Ghana)

The middle of nowhere is not a giant laboratory. 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, it has to be robust and simple to operate; it has to be technologically and financially sustainable; it has to 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. The solution has to exceed a gold standard for engineering excellence—it has 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.

Nambeg Discussion

Community Meeting 2009 (Baazing, Upper West Region Ghana)

We first had to understand the social meaning of light by working directly with remote, rural communities through a local champion who has empathy with, and is able to understand the nuances of the extreme poor. An individual 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) 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 last 2000 years. As soon as they are able, young girls are conscripted into this supply chain, often missing school to carry the required resources—so propagating the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

How can light impact the lives of these women? 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. Robert B. Zoellick sums it up by stating that “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)

Community Meeting

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 below, is situated in Wa, the capital of the Upper West region in Ghana on the road to Nadowli, opposite the new Regional Hospital.

This office will serve as the headquarters for the roll out of the final field trials in 10 communities in the Upper West region.


Founding 2017 (USA)

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