Gifts of Light


A Final Report and Thank You from the Global BrightLight Foundation

Sometimes a question becomes a possibility that becomes an effort that actually lifts the lives of people. This is the story of one of those times.

We tell it here to acknowledge the off-grid families whose lives form the purpose of our story; to honor the late Jim Rogers, the story’s principal author; to recognize Joe Hale and Ben Bunker, the protagonists of its plot; to thank Global BrightLight’s many donors, whose resources were the gifts that enabled the light for those living in darkness that is the moral of the story; and to help others understand that while our chapter is now written, the story does not end but hopefully will go on until all people globally have affordable access to power and light that enables healthy, educated, purposeful, and enjoyable lives.

The Beginning

What is the value of energy, of light? In the developed world, we take energy, light and the power that creates them as a given. But what if you had no energy to light your home, to power your phone?

One morning in December 2010, Jim Rogers, then the CEO of Duke Energy, and Joe Hale, Jim’s friend and a member of the Duke Energy executive team, came face-to-face with that question. Not as a theoretical exercise in economics but as a practical life challenge for too many people in off-grid locations around the globe. They each read the same article in the New York Times:

Every week, a single mother of five in rural Kenya awakes before dawn. She walks three miles and then pays $3 to ride a bush taxi for 5 hours to a village where she can get her cell phone charged. Because there is so much demand, she must leave her cell phone at the charging store and return to her home, again spending $3 on the taxi and walking the 3 miles home. A day or so later, she repeats this schedule to retrieve her charged phone. The charge costs $0.50, but the transportation has cost her $12 and countless hours of her time.

Why is the phone so important to her?

The phone is her lifeline to her son working in Nairobi. It’s how she finds out the current price of chickens she raises and sells in the local market. Her phone is her bank – if she owes a dollar for kerosene [for light and cooking in her home] or for certain foods, she can transfer a dollar from her phone to her creditor. And it’s how she stays connected to the world outside her village and outside Kenya.

Jim and Joe found it hard to believe that such a simple task could cost so much and take so much effort and time. They agreed there surely was an effective solution, a better way, to bring energy even to remote areas. They saw a possible opportunity to help people off-grid, like the article’s Kenyan mother.

Although Duke’s service territory in the United States was fully powered by the electrical grid, Jim and Joe were aware that there were simple solar powered lanterns that could both provide light and deliver energy to charge small devices like cell phones. They researched organizations that were providing such lanterns in primarily off-grid countries, with the thought of perhaps raising money for the one that was having the largest impact.

What their research showed was a large gap between the need and effective organizations meeting the need. So Jim and Joe decided to see what they could do. They formed the Global BrightLight Foundation (“GBL”) as a not-for-profit entity in mid-2011. At the core of GBL’s existence was their answer to the question what is the value of energy, of light. It replaces the smoke and fire risk of a kerosene-burning lantern or candles, with clean and safe light; it provides renewable power to charge a cell-phone. And the solar lantern provides the off-grid family with light for education and work; with access to health and medical services; and with connectivity for communication, employment, and commerce.

The Reason

The best statements of the impacts of GBL’s efforts come from Jim, the source of its original and ultimate mission and, with his wife M.A., by far GBL’s principal supporter, and from Joe and Ben, its operating leaders over its life.

As Jim put it, simply and purposefully, for an off-grid family, even a single solar lantern with an integrated charger that provides both light and power “makes all the difference in the world.”

As Joe said in his report to GSEP, collectively GBL’s largest financial supporter:

Your support of Global BrightLight Foundation has literally transformed lives. I’ve personally seen the results of your kindness played out over and over and over

People are healthier because they no longer breathe fumes from kerosene. There are fewer burns from spilled kerosene lamps. Children are doing better in school because they are able to read and study after sundown. Mothers can cook at night. Cell phones can be charged without walking hours to a source of electricity. All of this, because of your generosity.

Just two weeks ago I visited Juan, his wife, and nine children in their home in Laphia, in the Andes outside of Cochabamba in Bolivia. It’s hard to express the look of pure joy on his face when, for the first time, he turned on a light in his home.

Or the story of Jorge, in Guatemala, who no longer walks 12 hours a week to charge his cell phone, hours he can now spend in his fields growing and tending to his maize.

Or Birsha, in Nepal, whose children now excel in school because they can spend time at night after chores reading and doing their lessons.

There are so many more opportunities like the ones I’ve just described. … But it all starts with a simple lantern, changing lives, one light at a time.”

And from Ben’s introduction to GBL’s virtual reality film “Amor de Abuela” (“A Grandmother’s Love”):

“I first met Maria Ilse Lopez Quej last August in her modest home in Tampo Village in Northern Guatemala. She was sitting before a loom weaving a bright, beautiful huipil – a traditional Mayan blouse. She told me that each huipil takes three months to complete, a testament to the focus and passion that she dedicates to her work. Each huipil is more than a piece of clothing, it’s an intricate work of art.

In addition to being a skilled weaver, Ilse is a community leader in her village. She told me about the issues facing her community, including that most families still lacked access to any form of electricity. During our conversation, she was surrounded by her extended family including her grandson Anderson and his friend Areli.

Anderson and Areli live only a few hundred feet from each other but their lives could not be more different. Anderson’s family had access to solar energy while Areli’s family still relied on candles. Ilse described how their family’s solar system was improving Anderson’s life and giving him the chance to grow up with light, unlike her own childhood which was filled with darkness. After hearing her story, I felt compelled to share it with the world.”

The Start Up

From the beginning, GBL’s mission was focused on providing affordable, clean solar energy systems to families in off-grid areas.

The effort was lean, without bureaucracy, powered by volunteers and contributed resources. Duke Energy provided the funding needed for GBL’s first two years of operations; Joe served as GBL’s volunteer Executive Director.

GBL conducted two pilots, one in southern Rwanda in Africa and one in the mountainous Patagonia region of Argentina. The pilots field tested different makes of solar lanterns; researched how much time, effort and resources were saved using solar lanterns; and explored issues and opportunities in methods of distribution of solar lanterns to off-grid families in the field.

John Stowell, also an executive at Duke Energy, joined in to help develop the forward strategies for GBL. And a small group of graduate students from the University of Michigan, including Ben Bunker, was brought into the effort to help research approaches to effective aid in off-grid communities, existing initiatives in solar energy, and to develop a business plan for GBL’s efforts. Over time Jeanne Reisinger and Kerry Clark, both retired executives from Procter & Gamble, and David Shane, retired CEO of LDI, Ltd. LLC, joined the board of GBL. Kerry left the board in 2016 and in 2017 Paulina Keilhauer, a civic leader in Guatemala, joined the board.

The students’ research and Ben’s draft business plan pointed to the fact that there were some developing efforts, both for-profit and not-for-profit, in a few countries, principally in Africa, to provide solar power and light. The primary business models were either to sell solar lanterns for a profit or to give them away. GBL determined to seek a middle course, with solar lanterns being distributed at a price low enough to be well below the price of kerosene, saving the families money and at the same time providing them new capacities and purifying their air, but with a modest cost so that the solar lantern would be seen as an acquired (and thus valuable) possession by the individuals and families. This model also enabled GBL to recycle the funds received to reinvest in further lanterns.

The Global Scale

In 2012 Jim was elected chair of the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (“GSEP”), composed of the world’s 12 largest utilities. Under Jim’s leadership, GSEP chose GBL as its charity of choice for 2012. In 2012-13 GBL used GSEP-provided funding, with in-country efforts overseen and led by Joe, to place solar lanterns with off-grid families in multiple countries.

As a result of GBL’s provision of solar lanterns, these people’s lives were transformed. Where they had endured the smoke and risk of kerosene lamps, they now had clean light. Where they had no power to charge phones or use other electrical devices, they now had renewable energy. The simple provision of the solar lantern enabled a step change in their comfort, their health, and their capability.

As part of GBL’s report to GSEP in 2014, Joe identified at least five primary benefits of each solar lantern:

Cleaner air: burning kerosene, wood or candles to create light was no longer needed

Better health: fewer respiratory and eye problems caused by smoke in confined space

Fewer accidents: no open flames for lighting meant no burns

Improved education: children could study at all times, including after dark, and inside

Improved economy: adults could work in their homes and at all times, with better productivity

As Joe noted in his final report to GSEP in Moscow in May 2014, GBL both exceeded its commitment to GSEP and stayed within its allocated resources. Coming in $70,000 under budget, under Joe’s leadership GBL used GSEP’s support to deploy lanterns to 61,238 households – improving the lives and circumstances of 306,190 people – principally in Africa (in Rwanda, at a United Nations HCR refugee camp and in an area deep within Rwanda’s rural forests, and in Uganda and Zambia), in the Americas (in Argentina, Haiti, Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala), and in Nepal.

In addition, GBL provided the lanterns in a manner consistent with both its not-for-profit status and its desire for the recipients to have ownership of and responsibility for the lanterns. The lanterns were not given away free, but GBL made no profit on them and priced them such that on average the family could recoup the purchase price within two or so months of use from the savings by not having to buy kerosene or candles and from not having to pay to recharge their cell phones or other equipment. In that way the family could gain a sense of ownership from paying for the lantern but could also enjoy years of savings after the first 2 or 3 months of use. GBL used the small amount of revenue from the sale of the lanterns to replenish its stock of lanterns so more could be provided. The process did not produce a perpetual renewal of resources, but it extended GBL’s ability to provide lanterns.

The In-Country Focus

In 2013 Joe retired from Duke but continued as GBL’s Executive Director. As the one-time and thus finite GSEP resources wound down, GBL determined to focus its resources more narrowly, principally in Guatemala and also in Peru, shifting from multiple smaller projects across multiple countries to a deeper in-country engagement in Central and South America. In addition to maximizing the impact of the GSEP resources as distributed across the globe, Joe laid the groundwork in Guatemala and Peru for potential deeper initiatives there.

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, Joe moved GBL to a position as a first responder to help, contributing and delivering solar lanterns to families in Nepal who were without power. The solar lanterns aided in rescue and recovery, providing power for cell phones to enable individuals to locate and communicate with loved ones, and gave light to enable families to begin to return to a normal life.

Toward the end of 2015 Joe decided to step down, and Ben Bunker was hired as GBL’s new CEO. Working directly in Guatemala and Peru, and extending its efforts to raise funds in the United States, Ben led GBL into a new chapter beginning in 2016 and continuing into 2019 by:

Creating new strategies for resource development, in-country marketing and operations;

Strengthening GBL’s messaging (including trademarking GBL’s motto “A Little Bit of Power Makes a World of Difference”);

Launching a new cutting-edge website, www.globalbrightlight.org, to focus on GBL’s new geographic focus and strategic approach, and strengthening GBL’s social media presence;

Partnering with technology companies Facebook and Oculus to produce “Amor de Abuela” (“A Grandmother’s Love”), a film about GBL’s work that screened at the Sundance, SXSW and Cannes Film Festivals; Ben deployed it across multiple social media platforms, both broadening GBL’s profile and introducing it to new sources of potential support;

Both strengthening existing and facilitating new partnerships with solar lantern manufacturers;

Building multiple new in-country functional relationships, particularly with Amigos de la Aldea in Guatemala and later with Power Mundo in Peru, with resources who could build in-country capacity to provide the solar lanterns to families in deep off-grid communities;

Building GBL’s presence in social media, the entertainment industry and other areas for the attraction of charitable contributions;

Working in the U.S. to identify and partner with individuals and entities interested in supporting focused efforts in Peru and Guatemala;

Launching and growing the “Light A Village” program with GBL’s partner Amigos de la Aldea that used funding from individuals in the U.S. to provide solar lanterns to off-grid communities in Guatemala; and

Managing the business operations and affairs of GBL, which was now operating fully independently of Duke Energy.

During this period, GBL worked alongside its local partner Amigos de la Aldea in Guatemala to launch and grow a unique and effective program called “Light a Village” that brought solar energy to whole villages in rural areas. Each project began with ADLA’s field teams identifying villages with no access to electrical power. Next the ADLA team collected data and information on the village, helping create the case for support that GBL used to fundraise in the US to deploy its inventory of solar lanterns stored in Guatemala. With funding secured, ADLA created a true working partnership with the village, its leaders and citizens to implement the Light a Village project; held a celebration in the village upon the completion of the project and after the village had received the gift of light; and finally prepared a detailed report on the project that GBL shared with the donors to the project and for use in the process of continuous improvement village by village.

Ben’s efforts built on Joe’s, with further substantial results. GBL supported 16 “Light a Village” projects in rural areas of Guatemala positively impacting thousands of lives. Individually these Light a Village projects lifted the lives of families in Guatemala. Collectively, they demonstrate that Guatemala has the in-country capacity to extend access to solar energy to all those still living without electricity. GBL saw similar positive results in Peru, distributing solar lanterns in rural areas of the country using local representatives.

In Ben’s time as CEO, working just in Guatemala and Peru, and utilizing both existing and new inventory and new financial contributions, Ben led GBL to provide an additional 6,082 lanterns to families in need, changing the lives of 28,728 people with the gifts of light.

In both Guatemala and Peru GBL’s legacy is not only individuals, families and villages with new found power and light and opportunity but also a new-found capacity in the charitable infrastructure of the country to continue to pursue the work.

The Last Chapter

During 2018 it became clear that GBL’s approach to pricing the lanterns so families would have both ownership and cost-savings did not by itself provide internal cash flow adequate to sustain both U.S.-based operations and acquisition and placement of the solar lanterns in-country. Jim and his wife M.A. generously provided resources adequate to close the gap on an interim basis. In the fall of 2018 GBL’s Board of Directors analyzed possible routes forward and determined that the best course of action was to do a hand-off to the local organizational capacity of Guatemala and Peru to help them undertake and grow their own in-country efforts to bring power and light to their citizens. As GBL was moving in that direction in December 2018, Jim suddenly and tragically died. Jim’s passing was a massive blow, representing the loss of GBL’s visionary leader and its most passionate supporter, both financially and through his passion for the cause.

Under the leadership of Ben and John Stowell, who assumed the board chair on an interim basis, the board continued on the route identified with Jim. In early 2019 Ben led an effort to reach agreements with both ADLA in Guatemala and with Power Mundo in Peru (via Global BrightLight Peru) in which GBL’s residual inventory and financial resources in each country were provided to ADLA and Power Mundo respectively, in return for their commitment to continue the charitable work of providing solar lanterns to off-grid families in their own countries. Its work completed, GBL closed its operations at the end of the first quarter of 2019.

The Results

Throughout its existence, GBL has been a lean, no-to-low overhead entity, seeking to maximize its contributed support to lift off-grid families’ access to power and light while reducing their financial burden. It has only had two U.S. employees, Joe and Ben, and only one of them at a time.

In addition to the GSEP resources, GBL received funding over the years from multiple individuals and organizations in the United States. Thanks to the initial support of Duke Energy and the ongoing generosity of Jim and his wife M.A., virtually all of such contributed resources have been used to support the acquisition and provision of solar lanterns to off-grid families in these countries. Thanks to resources provided by GSEP and many other individual, organizational and corporate donations, over the years GBL has placed solar lanterns with off-grid families in developing nations, benefitting individuals, families and communities with better health, education and economic prospects.

Specifically, utilizing the gifts of light made possible by its donors’ generosity, as a result of Jim’s leadership and Joe’s initial and Ben’s continuing efforts with GBL, over its lifetime GBL deployed 78,462 solar lanterns, positively impacting the lives of 385,694 people in 9 countries. We estimate that just to date these systems have provided over 430 million hours of light and prevented 7,800 metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

Continued Support

Although the Global BrightLight story has come to a close, our work continues through our local partners Amigos de la Aldea in Guatemala and Power Mundo in Peru. We encourage you to visit their websites if you are interested in supporting either organization directly at www.amigosaldea.org/en or www.powermundo.com.

Thank You

Our final thought is one of gratitude, of deep thanks, to those whose contributions and support enabled GBL to help lift the lives of so many individuals, so many families, so many villages. Jim envisioned the results and led the effort. The board provided guidance and support. Joe and Ben operationalized the effort and directly achieved the results.

But none of it would have been possible without the financial support and assistance of Jim and M.A., of Duke Energy, of the GSEP companies, and of so many people and entities across the United States, all of whom collectively are the root cause for the gifts of light their support enabled.

To all of you, we say a heartfelt and grateful thank you.

-The Global BrightLight Foundation Team