A Homemade Solar Lamp for Developing Countries

© 2014 EPFL

© 2014 EPFL

The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people in the world. An integral part of this young start-up from Lausanne is an educational three-day workshop organized locally and led by globetrotters trained by the start-up to educate and train the beneficiaries.

To overcome the many problems posed by kerosene lamps used by 1.6 billion people across the globe, LEDsafari has developed an ingenious system for a do it yourself lamp made from equipment available on site, such as electrical wire, a mobile phone battery and empty bottles. More than 200 people in India, Kenya and Tanzania who attended the workshop are already receiving the economic and health benefits of this ingenious system and are enjoying daily light through this process.

Using kerosene poses many problems. Financial problems are first: the $2–$3 per week spent on fuel often represents 20% of a family’s budget. Health is of equal concern: kerosene is extremely toxic when burned, and daily use equals the inhalation of smoke from 40 cigarettes, often increasing the risk of serious lung diseases, according to a recent study by the University of Berkeley. At the global level, this releases 265 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Added to this is the danger of the device itself, which causes severe burns on millions of people each year.

The development of a new light source for third world countries faces two recurring problems: cost and long-term integration into everyday life. Govinda Upadhyay, PhD student in the Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory, had the bright idea to develop this bare-bones but effective lamp. Designed to be made by anyone, these lamps require nothing more than locally-found equipment. Only the solar panels are ordered from abroad. Five to six hours of charging in the sun is enough to give four to five hours of light.

There is no patent to impede the widespread use of the system developed by the researcher. Only an electric cable, mobile phone battery, an on / off switch and LED are needed. The shade can be customized, made with empty bottles or boxes of various shapes. The design has already been field tested since the founder of the start-up and his team – Elisa Wepfer, Vincenzo Capogna, Naomi Savioz and Parag Rastogi – have already visited several regions in India, Tanzania and Kenya to disseminate their knowledge. The young doctoral candidate relies on these globetrotters to spread the word.

The materials needed for making 100 lamps weighs 1kg – easy to fit in a carry-on. “Globetrotters who like to mix business with pleasure can attend a day of training with the start-up in Switzerland,” he says. “They then go share this new knowledge with a village in a developing country for three days before going on vacation. It adds a humanitarian touch that fans of traveling off the beaten track appreciate.”

To best address the concept of sustainable development among beneficiaries and thereby foster their understanding of the importance of solar energy, Govinda has developed a lesson plan centered on the lamp. Using concrete examples, it starts by creating an awareness of the negative affects of the kerosene lamp on health and the environment, so that people understand why it is important to change this part of daily life. It also addresses the recycling of waste related to lamps. The second day of the workshop is devoted to learning lamp assembly. Each person will then be able to teach this new method to other members of the community. “It is important that the know-how also comes from the people themselves, that they take ownership of the system so that it is not simply an element imported from rich countries that they soon forget. Three days is all it takes to train a village to manufacture these lamps.”