GBL and GSEP Join Forces to Light Up the Lives of 50,000 People

Solar-powered LED lanterns provide better, healthier light for working and learning, and for charging mobile devices in unelectrified regions

Naples, Fla. — Global BrightLight Foundation (GBF) today announces its partnership with Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (GSEP) to work together to provide portable, solar-powered lanterns to 50,000 individuals and families in developing regions of the world that have no access to electricity.  The GBF-GSEP partnership creates the largest distribution ever of solar-powered lanterns by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The commitment to place 50,000 lanterns was made by GSEP during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The pledge supports United Nation’s’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’’s goal to achieve universal electricity access by 2030.  Currently, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity.

GSEP, a not-for-profit organization based in Montreal, was formed in 1992 after the first U.N. environmental conference in Rio. Its global members include U.S. utility companies, American Electric Power and Duke Energy, as well as Germany’s RWE, France’’s Électricité de France, Canada’s Hydro-Québec, Japan’s Kansai Electric Power Company, Brazil’s Eletrobras, Russia’s RusHydro, Italy’s Enel, South Africa‘s Eskom, Mexico’s CFE and China’s State Grid Corporation.  GSEP’s mission is to play an active role in global electricity issues within the international framework and to promote sustainable energy development through electricity sector projects and human capacity-building activities in developing and emerging nations worldwide.

The not-for-profit GBF was formed in 2011 with the mission of raising the standards of living in the world’’s poorest communities by providing affordable solar-powered lanterns to unelectrified regions of the world. Co-founders are current Duke Energy Chairman, President and CEO, James E. (Jim) Rogers, and former Cinergy Corp. and Duke Energy executive, J. Joseph (Joe) Hale Jr.  Other board members include R. Kerry Clark, retired chairman and chief executive of Cardinal Health, and David Shane, retired chief executive officer of LDI Ltd LLC.

““We’’re bringing safe, cost-effective and renewable power to remote areas of the world –– areas not likely to be connected to an electrical grid in our grandchildren’s lifetimes,”” said GBF Co-Founder Jim Rogers.  “People who live off the grid spend a disproportionate amount of their monthly income on carbon-based fuels only to spend countless hours in dim light and polluted air.  For them, a single solar lantern with an integrated cell phone charger makes all the difference in the world.””

GSEP Executive Director Martine Provost added:  “Remote communities without access to a reliable and affordable source of energy are the most prone to poverty and low-quality living conditions.  Extending the grid to these communities may sometimes not be an option, and as a result, off-grid solutions are the most efficient way to give access to clean energy.

““The simple provision of solar light will generate opportunities that these people currently lack.  Our partnership with GBF is very valuable and will help us be more effective in reaching our commitment to place 50,000 solar lamps in these communities in need,”” Provost said.

Working closely with GSEP, GBF is charged with delivering the lanterns to targeted project sites that the two organizations will mutually select.

The self-contained lanterns are manufactured by Greenlight Planet Inc. of Riverside, Ill.  They look like a camping lantern but their light emitting diode (LED) illumination is twice as bright as a typical kerosene-fueled, hurricane-type lantern.  The lantern’s photovoltaic charging panel, which is about the size of tablet computer, stores electricity in a lithium-ion battery pack that can be fully charged in about four to six hours of daylight.  With a full charge, the lantern will provide up to 16 hours of light, depending on use.

At night, instead of using kerosene, firewood or candles, the LED-powered lantern provides much improved and safer lighting for reading and working, as well as energy for charging mobile devices, the ownership of which is growing rapidly among off-grid populations who frequently have to walk miles to find an energy source to charge their device.  According to GBF, the lanterns are also better for the environment, and the chance of injury from toppled fuel-powered lamps is eliminated.  Users also report fewer respiratory problems since they are no longer breathing the fumes from kerosene or wood.

In pilot projects in Africa (Rwanda) and South America (Argentina) in 2011, GBF distributed several hundred of two different solar-powered lantern models. Due to its rugged construction, reliability and convenience, Greenlight Planet’s Sun King™ Pro solar-powered lantern was ultimately chosen as the lantern of choice for GBF.  In addition, GBF has demonstrated and tested its technical capabilities, financial logic and the adaptable operational approach of its business model in the pilot projects.

“GBF has created a collaborative network of partners with different positions in the supply chain,”” said GBF Co-Founder and President Joe Hale.  “As such, GBF serves as a ‘’connector,’’ aligning the various players in the solar lantern industry to deliver their products to unelectrified populations.  This includes product manufacturers, energy suppliers, distributors, local organizations and our country managers.  Together, we raise the funds to make this happen.

““As long as we can bring together the diverse stakeholders needed to get the lamps in the hands of those who need them the most, the entire globe is our target,”” Hale continued.  “Our pricing is unique to each location, based on the other fuel sources our solar lanterns are replacing, such as kerosene, candles and wood.””

 

Super Partners!

When I received a call a year ago from my colleague John Stowell to discuss developing a business plan for Global BrightLight Foundation, I never imagined our conversation would lead to one of the most rewarding partnerships I’ve encountered at GBL.

John suggested we talk to the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise about working with us to refine and further develop our business plan, which was a draft at that time. This discussion led to a meeting in December 2011 in Ann Arbor, where we met a group of accomplished and energetic graduate students who were anxious to begin our project. And for a fledging NGO, the price couldn’t have been better, as we became their community service project. These four talented grad students, Adam Byrnes, Emilia Sibley, Sabrina Sullivan, and Jimmy Ward had decades of work experiences between them in a wide variety of fields. What a perfect team to help take GBL to the next level.

Over the next nine months, this group researched, probed, questioned, and ultimately produced an incredible document that today guides our organization. A full day meeting in Charlotte, NC in April with our board helped further refine their thinking, and by the end of August, we had our finished document, ready for implementation.

Global BrightLight Foundation can’t adequately express our appreciation to this talent group of individuals. You have helped direct our work that is changing lives around the world. We are forever in your debt.

Making a Difference in Rwanda

Yesterday was a very rewarding day.

Taye Manzi and Michel Mesozera (WCS) picked me up at 6am for the 3 hour drive off-road to Bweyeye, one of two sites of our pilot in Rwanda. When I visited last October, I told the people in the villages I would return when they successfully completed the pilot. I was making good on my promise.

The road to Bweyeye, and I use the term “road” kindly, is rough – two hands holding on with your feet braced  rough.  You arrive sore and you haven’t done anything yet except try to stay in your seat.

We drove to the school as schools are typically the  community meeting places. We were met by the head teacher, and soon were surrounded by hundreds of school children.  It was a big mistake when I pulled out my iPad to start taking photos. As soon as I snapped a picture of the kids in front of me and immediately showed it to them, it created a near stampede of kids wanting their pictures on the magic board. Trying to establish order out of chaos, I’m asking them to be patient in English and they’re yelling in Kinyarwanda for me to take THEIR picture now!

The head teacher thankfully got control, sent everyone back to class, and took us to meet the families who participated in our pilot – 50 families who had been patiently waiting in a meeting room for our arrival.

When I walked into the room, they burst into applause. Embarrassed, I applauded them right back.  Once we got done appreciating each other, we began our discussion. I led with open ended questions. “What difference did this lantern make in your life?”. After a moment or two, a sheepish young man looks around the room and  raised his hand.  He was then called upon, stood by his desk, and began talking – in Kinyarwandan.  Once translated, it was if he was reciting our mission statement. “My children can read at night.  We are not sick so often from breathing smoke. My son’s asthma is better. My wife can see to cook at night. We have had fewer accidents in our village of children mistaking kerosene jugs for water jugs and drinking the kerosene. We have had fewer burns from tipped over kerosene lanterns.”. I didn’t have the heart remind him of the positive impact to the environment because the issue wasn’t on his radar. I sat there just beaming as he ran down this litany of benefits while his fellow villagers murmured their agreement.  Once he’d broken the ice, several others got up to describe how their lives had changed because of BrightLight’s  solar lanterns. They’d saved money, which they now used to buy more farm animals . They’d saved time, which they now used for cultivation. Basically they were glad that they could do things after dark. They didn’t have to stop all activity when night fell.

After being honored by having  a Sprite with the head of school, we were off for the 5 hour drive to Bweyeye, another village of about 3,000 residents, similarly spread out over a vast  hilltop.

Even though we were an hour late in arriving, our entrance was touching and a little embarrassing.

All 800 students lined the road to the school applauding and cheering as we drove up to the school. Once we stopped, I heard singing.  We walked into the school’s meeting room, where all participating pilot families were on their feet dancing and clapping as they sang “We appreciate you” over and over.  Talk about getting a lump in your throat.

Once things settled down, we had an hour discussion, and I heard this refrain repeated. The lantern changed my life. My neighbors want to buy one. Can I buy another one? My children’s grades have improved.  Our health is better. I use it to also charge my radio to hear the news.

They presented me with a letter, written in both Kinyarwanda and English,  to give to my colleagues, offering us God’s blessings for helping them. It was poignant, and makes our work all worthwhile.

Being the guest of honor, and sitting alone at a table facing the crowd, I was offered my choice of a Sprite or Coke as well as some locally grown passion fruit to celebrate this momentous occasion.

And like I did in Rangiro, I thanked these families profusely for helping GBL be a better, smarter organization because of how they helped us in the pilots. I told them their suggestions and feedback would end up helping people all over the world. We ended by applauding each other again.   We ARE changing lives, one family at a time.

Report from Tucurui, Para State, Brazil

The primary learning from my visit to Tucurui is that there will never be a standardized, cookie-cutter approach to the work of The Global BrightLight Foundation.  Regardless of our planning, our strategizing, and our preparations, we must maintain a flexibility and adaptability to local customs, wishes and partners.

I arrived in Belem, in the Para State of Brazil, via Miami and then Manaus.  I met Eldtrobras’ Paulo Fernandez the next morning for our flight to Tucurui, located in the heart of the Para State.  Tucurui was a fishing village of 3,000 people in 1975 when the construction for the Tucurui dam and power plant commenced.  Today it’s a “company town” of nearly 100,000, with much of the economic activity centered around the dam and Electronorte, the subsidiary of Electrobras which operates it.  The gated company town part of the city has all amenities, including a rudimentary hotel, recreation facilities, hospital, free housing with free utilities, churches, etc.

Early the next morning we were on a skiff to visit some of the islands.  There are over 3,000 islands that were created up and down river by the construction of the dam. Most have at least one family on them, many have villages.  We first visited a school which was being expanded.  Students arrive on “school boats”.  There were 10 year age ranges among the students in the same class.  Some nursed their babies in class.  The school was wired for basic electricity, but there was no power.  The teachers live on the island during the week and then return to Tucurui on weekends.

The succcess of our project in Tucurui will depend upon the partnership we can develop with the employees of Electronorte and the faculty and students of the Federal University there.  Representatives of both pledged their support to BrightLight.  Now we need to make it happen.  Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing Global BrightLight Foundation (GBF) to Guatemala

I arrived in Guatemala City on Monday, May 28th and was picked up by Raymundo from Duke Energy.  We drove to the Duke offices where I was welcomed by Silvia Cuevas who oversees Duke’s community and public relations.  We immediately went to see Director of Energy Brian Kanell Garcia, who we briefed on the proposed project in order to get the government’s support.  He seemed to like what he heard.   From there it was off to meet Gabriela Garcia Quinn who runs Glasswing International in Guatemala, an NGO that is primarily focused on rural health care.  My interest in learning more about Glasswing was to explore them as a partner for the distribution of our lanterns and chargers.  She expressed real interest in partnering with us, and in fact, decided to go with us to visit the very remote community of Quixalito in the Alta Verapaz state.

We departed early the next morning for the six hour drive to Coban.  We stayed the night near Coban so we could get up early for our 6AM departure for Quixalito.  Not a lot of sleep as there was an albino peacock outside my window that seemed determined that I not sleep more than 15 minutes before he let loose with his screeches!

We left the hotel and drove another hour and a half, parked, and then began the hike to the community of Quixalito, where 242 people live in 46 homes.  It was a very hot climb up a very steep path lined with rather sharp, slippery rocks.  I was sweating like crazy when we arrived – and I thought I was in shape!  I’m sure they had questions about this gringo arriving soaking wet!

Upon arrival, it quickly became apparent the need for light and cell phone chargers.  A community meeting was quickly arranged in the school.  The first thing I noticed in the school was the rack of manual typewriters, many of them missing keys and in poor condition.  The teacher explained that he uses them to teach keyboarding skills, so that if his students ever are explosed to technology, they will be accustomed to typing.

We asked the residents how much time and money they currently spend on energy – candles, kerosene, wood, and how much time it took them to walk to a charger for their cell phones.  This helps us to price the units so that they are affordable.  We visited a typical house to see layout and how solar panels and lanterns could operate in them.  We learned that many children were afraid to venture out at night to the outhouse, and as a result were punished for wetting the bed.  We learned that it took residents two hours each way to walk to the cell phone charger.  We learned that they currently spend $1 a day (when they have it) to burn candles – and each candle just lasts 20 minutes.

So I’m now back in the States, making plans for how GBF can operate in Guatemala.  We can’t do it all, but we can changes lives, one light at a time.

 

Rwanda and Patagonia Pilot Update

The Rwandan pilot continues to proceed very smoothly. Participants are providing helpful feedback on the two solar lanterns/cell phone chargers being tested. It may turn out that we will customize a lantern based upon the suggestions we receive.

In Patagonia, it continues to be a challenge to import the lanterns into the country. Once we receive them, the pilot in Patagonia runs very well. We’re collecting data in a very different type of situation, with most of the herders on the move between their summer and winter grazing grounds. No community meetings for instructions on use and maintenance here! One at a time distribution and education – more taxing for our Wildlife Conservation Society partners, but appreciated just as much by our pilot participants.

Final reports due next month!

Report from Patagonia

To say the last three days have been fascinating, interesting, and eye-opening would be a huge understatement.

After spending Sunday with the sedentary herders outside of Rincon de Los Sauces (my earlier report), we left early Monday morning to find the transhumant herders, those who leave their winter homes in the spring (now) to travel with their goats to their summer feeding grounds. We got in our truck for the five hour drive to the Tromen volcano area, where we first talked to Oscar Rebolledo and his 17 year old son, Alexis. They had arrived on horseback the day before with their 900 goats – after 11 days on the trail. Actually, they first left their winter home and got stuck in a huge snowstorm with no tent or protection, so had to quickly return (with 900 goats – I’ll never feel bad about trying to get 3 children to do something again) to their home. Oscar’s wife and the rest of the family will follow later after the men get everything in order.

Also in the group was their bachelor neighbor Cano Vega, a gnarled, wizened old guy with a great face and interested demeanor. In addition, there were two park rangers with us who have helped us identify targets for the pilots – people who are off the government’s radar and didn’t receive solar panels the government passed out a few years back, but then never trained anyone how to use or maintain them.

Our hosts greeted us and invited us inside their home – a stacked rock wall home with a wood and tin roof. Inside, a dirt floor, several herd dogs, a wood stove and a broken propane lantern. There was also a skinned goat head hanging from the ceiling. When I asked, it was for a stew they were going to make. Nothing goes to waste. After the obligatory mate (made again with river water – its gotten to the point where I just slurp it out of the communal straw and keep in mind I’ve got some Cipro if anything goes wrong), we began our discussion of BrightLight and our solar lanterns.

I couldn’t help but notice one half burnt candle in the room on a saucer. There was also the broken propane lantern. The only sources of light I saw. While it’s staying light longer now as Argentina goes into summer, all with whom we spoke were aware of the advantages of the lanterns when it gets dark earlier in the fall and winter. I should point out here that the transhumant herders are doing much better than their sedentary comrades. The drought has devastated the sedentary herders.

These guys “got it” very quickly, but felt cell phone charging would be the biggest help to them as they have no way to charge their cell phones while at their summer homes. They thought the women and children would have more uses for the lantern light – reading and studying, working at night, etc. But they both mentioned how the smoke from the wood and kerosene they burn affects their eyes and breathing, and next door neighbor Cano said he burns a can of diesel with a cloth wick stuffed in it….no safety issues there!

Today we drove six hours on dirt roads into the country (saw 3 other cars during this time) and stopped some herders as they were driving their herds to their summer grounds. A couple we met, Roberto and Alicia, especially liked the idea for their summer “ranch” as it has no power whatsoever. It was interesting that neither of their sons were with them. They encouraged them to go to school and one now is a policeman in Neuquen and the other works for the government. Classic case of parents wanting a better life for their children. Roberto is 4th generation herder and can’t imagine doing anything else.

In spite of the enthusiastic reception and good partner in WCS, I’m concerned about how we can be successful here. I don’t see how we can possibly scale this up in an affordable way when families live miles apart and there’s very little gathering of communities. In Rwanda, it’s relatively easy to get 50-75 families together in a village for a presentation. It’s also easier to maintain and repair lanterns when people are clustered. Here, it’s a very different situation. Maybe this is a lesson on picking our sites.  Sebastian from WCS in New York contacted me together with ideas on Asia, areas dense in population. Maybe Patagonia becomes a good test site for the durability of the technology.

We’ve also got to figure out the pricing and costs, as Kerry has been preaching. A pilot costs us around $250 per family – obviously this involves surveys and personal solicitation and focused maintenance and delivery and a good partner and travel and only 100 families.  How can we make this project happen for $25-50 per family?

Let’s see how this pilot goes, and tonight I have dinner with WCS folks as well as some Duke Argentina employees. Perhaps they’ll have some ideas regarding scalability…I’m stumped.

First Day in Argentina

My first day in the field in Argentina couldn’t have been more different than my first day spent with our pilot participants in Rwanda.

I was lucky to arrive in Neuquen last evening since every flight from the previous two days had been cancelled due to the volcanic eruption about 250 miles north of here on the Chilean border. Martin Funes, WCS regional director, picked me up at the airport and took me to my hotel, where we had a beer and talked about the project, the schedule, and what to do since the 40 solar lanterns I lugged down here in my huge suitcase were confiscated at Customs. We decided to wing it, using a brochure with photographs we had to illustrate to families what we are proposing.

Martin and Lara Heidel, who will be our “on the ground” person recruiting, interviewing, and distributing/monitoring the project, had arrived on the overnight bus from her province and joined us. And we set out for Rincon de Los Sauces, a dusty, ugly town built with oil money in this dusty, relatively flat, hot area of Argentina.  Although we’re on the very northern tip of Patagonia, the beauty doesn’t begin here. The Mendoza province is just across the Colorado River. Lots of guanacos running everywhere.

Since we’re working with goat herders, many of whom are transhumant, there is no village to hold a meeting like in Rwanda. These folks live with extended families far, far from one another. Lara acknowledges that it is going to be a huge challenge to coordinate this project, but she’s game. It’s like having 100 separate clients spread out rather than 100 clients concentrated in each of two villages, like in Rwanda.

We took off and visited the first family, the Castillos. About 15 years ago, the government made all sorts of promises to the herders and other very low income people – promises of modern homes, electricity, running water, etc. We arrived the Castillos home, which was provided by the government, but the giving stopped there. There is no electricity, although a lone pole stands next to the house where the government promised it would be connected. There is no running water, just the Colorado River a kilometer away where they walk each day with pails for their water. They have seven children, although there were more people there since some were married. Their youngest daughter married at 12 and is now 25 with a 13 year old son.  The Castillos’ youngest daughter is 5. Sr. Castillo is 45 and looks 65.

And they were all the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Their home had 3 rooms – 2 bedrooms and one large room for everything else.  There was an outhouse down the hill. They immediately offered mate, which I’ve learned to accept wherever and whenever offered, even though I knew the water to make it came from the river and everyone uses the same silver straw to drink it, it’s the polite thing to do.

Four years ago they had 600 goats. There has been a drought for 3 years. Today they have 115 goats. Last year the drought was so bad the goats had no kids. This year was better and the goats had 90 kids. This is the source of their money, selling the kids and now raising a new breed of goats that produces the wool for fine cashmere. The challenge is processing the cashmere and finding a market for it – something WCS is helping with.

We went with them to round up the kids so that the mothers could be brought into the corral to nurse them. Their sons came riding up on horses after bringing in the mother goats.

Sr. Castillos rides his horse 2 1/2 hours each way twice each week to his daughter’s house to charge his cell phone. They cook with propane, and propane and candles provide their light, but because they have no car, they have no way to be assured they’ll always be able to fill their tanks.

When we told them about our project, they were intrigued but still a little skeptical. Since the government had made so many unkept promises, I could tell they found it a little hard to believe we were going to provide light for their home for just being part of our pilot. We’re going to need to prove ourselves to them, and I’m sure many others like them.

But instead of working with a village, a community, we’re going to be working with individual extended families, some stationary and some who are nomadic with the seasons. It’ll be a good test for our technology. But if the people are as friendly, warm, and kind as the Castillos, I think we’ll do fine.

Tomorrow it’s off to another region of Neuquen to visit more families.  Again, when the understanding of our project clicks and you see the look of appreciation dawn on their faces, it’s worth everything we’re doing. We’re changing lives.

Expectations Exceeded in Rwanda

Michel and Emmanuel, WCS’s country director and our pilot director, respectively, picked me up at 8. We went to the WCS headquarters to pick up the “mountain truck.”

We drove to the office of Jean Batiste, the elected Mayor of the Nyungwe district.  We explained our plan, demonstrated our model, and the first question from this young guy in a soccer shirt was whether there was any way our lanterns could be manufactured in Rwanda! After many questions, we got his blessing and then it was off to Gakenke, the first village where we will conduct our pilot.

You can’t say there’s an actual road to Gakenke. Although there are road projects, as well as other infrastructure projects going on everywhere you look (and all being done by Chinese contractors using Rwandan labor), we got what we asked for – a REALLY remote village that has NO chance of being on the grid in our lifetimes. It was two hours of a dirt and mud path that finally got us there – over one mountain after another.

We were greeted by Zachery, the Executive Secretary of the Sector. Another very young leader (not surprisingly, it’s difficult to find many older leaders in this country), we stopped in the road when Emmanuel saw him and began our discussion there. Soon we were joined by dozens of curious villagers, listening in on our discussion, fascinated by what they were seeing. Zachery loved our product and asked how soon we could begin.

I then went into my spiel about what an important role his villagers would play in this pilot, and how their feedback would help shape our program going forward. They liked this. They would have to seriously answer our questions and surveys. And if they did, they would receive a lantern at the pilot’s conclusion.

We then asked to demonstrate a lantern in a home. Fina offered her two room, mud brick, tin roof home. Several of us crowded into her main room, probably 6×8 feet, no windows, and closed the door. When we turned on the Firefly, her smile turned on simultaneously. Other villagers started crowding in to see it work, and they immediately started stating every project objective we have discussed for months. I didn’t have to say a word. The most obvious use was for education as they proudly showed me the new school being built in the village.

Then other stories began: No “black nose and hurting eyes with this light.” “I don’t have to worry about knocking over my kerosene stove.”  “My children can read at night” (although most huts are so dark Fireflys could be used during the day). “I walk 60 kilometers a week to get my cell phone charged (that’s 36 miles a week – 3 roundtrips of 12 miles by Fina our host – at a cost of 25 cents per charge). Now I can spend more time in the fields growing and harvesting.” “I spend $4 a month on candles for light and $5 a month on kerosene. This will save me so much money!”

And the stories continued of how this will make life easier for them. I couldn’t have written a better script. Just wish Matt and Howard from LPK had been there! I took scores of photos and hopefully got some we can use on the website. Everybody asks about our website.

To conclude, we’ve got a solid partner in WCS, we have a near perfect pilot site, and there is a true need for what we’re offering. I can’t imagine a better beginning for BrightLight.