Environment / Society

Solar Power, meet Microfinance

Since my day job is at a non-profit with tight budgets, it’s not often it introduces me to new technology.  But thanks to a mid-October workshop hosted by our international department, I had the chance to get  hands-on experience with a remarkable innovation:  it’s a deceptively simple device, yet it has the potential to lift people out of poverty, transform the developing world, and reduce our carbon footprint, all at once.

Allow me to introduce the Taa Bora lamp, and the man behind it, Tony Cervone:

Tony Cervone of Green Energies LLC

Mr. Cervone, now the president of Green Energies, LLC, led us in a workshop where we got to build these remarkable lamps with our own hands.  He kindly agreed to sit with me afterwards to discuss the device and its enormous potential.  The following is not a direct transcript, but a synopsis of our discussion which also incorporates some notes from the workshop.  Photos are mine except where noted.

We’ve seen LED lamps before.  What’s special about this one?

Courtesy Rogiro, CC/Flickr

The Taa Bora lamp is made with inexpensive parts, is simple to assemble, and is ideal for rural communities without ready access to electricity, like many in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Some may have access to kerosene for light, but that costs money, causes serious health problems, depletes natural resources and contributes to carbon pollution. And even kerosene is out of the reach of many poor people. The solar-powered Taa Bora, by contrast, is clean, safe, efficient and renewable, and we want it to be readily available to everyone.

What might the lamp be used for?

It allows these communities to continue functioning after dark.  Children can study and do homework, small businesses can stay open.  In Haiti, where we’re working with YouthBuild International, lack of lighting in the vast tent camps increases the incidence of sexual violence and other crimes, and Taa Bora lamps are helping.

Many international development organizations are non-profits, but you’ve insisted that your business model remain for-profit.  Why?

Starting materials

Because of the impact.  If we simply distributed lamps to everyone and left, we would only have a temporary effect.  Instead, we teach people (mostly young people) to build, sell, and maintain the lamps.  Not only does this provide many more lamps, but it gives local people steady work income and entrepreneurship skills.   They don’t need to see how America can solve the problem, they need to know how they can solve it.  So we simply provide the community with the idea.  Any resulting profits will be cycled over and over within the community, building wealth.

Where did this all start? What inspired you?

Connecting the switch to the LEDs

I was the Vice President for Manufacturing at Cookson Electronics, where I had been working for over 30 years.  My son was in Tanzania at the time, and when I flew there to visit him, I found all the schoolchildren struggling to do their homework in the dark.  When presented with a problem, I look for ways to use simple ideas for maximal impact, and so this concept was born.

What have been some of the major obstacles along the way?

People in these communities are impoverished and have few start-up resources.  Their income is usually based on the harvest, and they may end up with $300 a year of disposable income if they’re lucky.  So reducing the cost of the starting materials has been a major challenge.  It helps that the design incorporates plastic bottles and other recycled components, and we’ve got the cost for most of the parts down to about $15 per lamp, but it’s difficult.

There’s also the problem that people may sell their lamps, or the parts, seeking short-term cash at the expense 0f long-term investment.  Finally, some communities are transformed in ways that may meet resistance, whether it’s women being able to stay out at night or children having access to devices that adults do not.

The lamp is complete

What’s your ultimate vision?  Is there an endgame?

Corporate sponsorship.  Imagine Pepsi, for example, investing in their plastic bottles in a way that both markets their product, and leverages their existing distribution networks to provide these lamps.  That would be our chance to scale this work up to match the size of the issue.

Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

As a single drop of dye can transform an entire bucket of water, so can a single idea transform an entire community.  That’s what we’re after here.

Tony, thank you so much, and we wish you great luck.

A huge thanks goes out to Tony Cervone  for taking the time to show us the Taa Bora lamp and tell us about it.  This makes it just a little easier to picture a future where even poor rural communities have access to clean, inexpensive light, where children can learn, businesses can thrive and people go out at night.  One home at a time, Taa Bora is pushing back the darkness.

Related

If you’d like to learn more about the lamp or Green Energies, please visit their website at greenenergiesllc.com.  To learn more about YouthBuild International and their work in Haiti, please visit youthbuildinternational.org.

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