#Special Focus* Sunshine in a bottle

WHAT do you do when it gets dark and you cannot afford to turn on the lights?

Many homes in Manila's urban slums either turn to candles and kerosene lamps that are dangerous and pollute their homes, risk their lives or jail time by tapping illegally into the grid, or forego illumination altogether due to the cost of electricity.

In 2011, a local social enterprise called MyShelter Foundation sought to bring light to the slums by harnessing the abundant sunlight through cheap and easy means. "The cheapest light bulb in the world could now be found in the garbage bin," says Illac Diaz, founder and director of the foundation, in an email interview recently.

The foundation's programme called Liter of Light has installed 140,000 solar bottle bulbs so far in the Philippines. The bulbs are basically large water or soda bottles, filled with a mixture of bleach and filtered water, that stud the roofs of ramshackle houses in the Manila slums. All the components are held together by lots of epoxy to ensure no leakage.

The purified water refracts sunlight, lighting up homes with the intensity of a 55-watt light bulb. One bulb illuminates upto 40 sq m of space. Each household is expected to save an average of US$6 per month on electricity bills, which can be put towards a rechargeable LED upgrade that can be used at night.

The original bulb design was the brainchild of Alfredo Moser, a Brazilian mechanic who created the bulbs in response to a prolonged power outage in his neighbourhood in Sao Paulo. Liter of Light added a roofing sheet with a hole through which the bottle is attached, to ease installation and prevent leakage when it rains.

This lo-fi approach that relies on grants and donations is in stark contrast with the high-tech and expensive tools usually favoured by the government and other institutions.

"One of the biggest untold stories in the Philippines is, more often than not, big solar projects do not work. Hundreds of millions of aid is spent buying patented, imported, expensive equipment with soft loans, but after four years, the batteries die and the local communities cannot foot the bill to replace the proprietary parts," says Diaz.

"Even smaller, off-the-shelf flashlights and home systems are brought in and installed in the thousands, but when a part breaks or once the three-year life of the battery ends, there is no maintenance or supply chain to replace it.

"Solar is important, but there must be infrastructure to support its maintenance, or else it ends up as a white elephant."

Diaz, whose first name Illac literally means "God of light" in Aztec, explains that the bottle bulbs have multiple benefits — besides the low cost, they provide members of the local community with a small source of income. Local carpenters can earn around 40 US cents (RM1.30) per installation, while women's cooperatives near the foundation's headquarters make a 15% profit from manufacturing the LED upgrades, that are inserted into the bulbs.

"When we purchase parts in bulk from manufacturers, we get a large discount where we keep a larger portion, yet still give the supplies at 10% cheaper than retail. Since it's open source, they can get any part they need from the local suppliers."

Explaining the programme's success, he says it follows three rules — firstly, the materials must be sourced locally, as much as possible. Secondly, the skills must be easy to impart and the tools and materials easily replaced. "Lastly, and most importantly, it must result in a livelihood."

The benefits of the solar bottle bulb have not escaped the notice of farmers, who install it on the roofs of their chicken coops and barns. According to Diaz, the animals benefit from the Vitamin D that their bodies produce when they come in contact with natural sunlight refracted from the bulbs.

Some restaurants and resorts are also using these bulbs. "People simply put a lampshade around the bulbs and it's almost impossible to tell that there is a bottle of water and bleach giving 55 watts of brightness," he marvels.

So far, 15 countries — from Argentina and Switzerland to Zambia, have started their own Liter of Light programmes, either in partnership with MyShelter Foundation or independently, and another five countries are expected to embark on the programme this year. There are 350,000 solar bottle bulbs worldwide.

Star light, star bright

The solar bottle bulbs are the first part of an affordable solution to light up homes. "The second innovation is the upgraded night light, using simple components that allow a one to two-watt LED light and a mobile charging station to slip into the bottle, so there is another 6 to 10 hours [of light] at night."

The foundation is now road-testing a number of solutions that, true to the foundation's ethos, is affordable, scalable and can be built and repaired locally.

"Liter of Light is really a programme for a day and night solution. What we found difficult in making the programme more accessible to the bottom of the pyramid, was the high costs of importing the technology and then the added costs of middlemen and micro credit, which almost doubled the product cost," Diaz says.

Thus, the regular solar bottle bulb system was devised to allow homeowners to install it on their own, or to hire a local technician to do it at minimal cost. The savings from using the bulbs can be put towards the evening lighting system.

"There are two community-built models. One is a simple upgrade, where you insert a one-watt LED bulb connected to a lithium battery that automatically turns on when the sun goes down, and off at around 11pm to midnight, then recharges again the next day.

"The second model is a LED and mobile charger that have a larger lead acid battery, charged by a five-watt panel," he says.

According to Diaz, it only costs US$16 per bulb to add the LED lights, which are waterproofed by putting them inside thick, clear plastic tubes that are sealed with clear epoxy. The tubes are then put inside the bottles. The LEDs have a lifespan of around four to five years, just like the solar bulbs.

Besides upgrading the bulbs, the foundation is also installing low-cost street lights and mobile charging stations. Their total cost is US$35.

Diaz says the foundation has upgraded just under a hundred solar light bulbs, and installed the upgrades in a village with 1,000 homes this month.

"Having village pocket factories for locally-built solar bottle bulbs is our aim, and we hope to install both the day and night lights around the country," he says. However, it is early days yet, as this project is not well-funded.

If the initial success of Liter of Light's first phase is any indication, the new programme will take off as it empowers more local entrepreneurs.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Aug 19-25, 2013.

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