Bringing Light to Africa's Dark Nights
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.
The World Bank estimates that close to 2 billion people around the world don't have electricity. For Mark Bent, a former diplomat and oil executive, that's just unacceptable. Bent has spent the past 20 years living and working in Africa.
While visiting a rural village in Eritrea, he noticed residents had no lights for their homes and schools. So he invented a solar-powered flashlight called the BoGo Light. Over the past year, he has donated more than 10,000 flashlights to African refugee camps and aid groups. Mark Bent describes how his flashlight works.
Mr. MARK BENT (Inventor, BoGo Light; Former Diplomat): It's a handheld device. I actually took the inspiration from my wife's shampoo bottle she had hanging in the shower, hooked over the top of the shower curtain. But it has a photovoltaic solar panel, a polysilicon panel on one side. And that generates electricity which goes through a circuit - a little computer chip. And that in turn stores that energy during the day in these three nickel-metal hydride batteries, which provide illumination. LEDs are just fantastic. They lasts 75 to 100,000 hours and very, very low power. And they provide enormous amount of light - super bright.
CHIDEYA: If you were to take the shampoo bottle-shaped flashlight, hang it from the branch of a tree, how many feet out do you think you would see the light flowing?
Mr. BENT: Well, I was in Ethiopia last May with the United Nations refugee camp on the Sudanese border with Dinka, really great people from southern Sudan in the camp. And we were looking at birds at night in the top of trees and these were, you know, five-story trees. The light provides directional light about 12- to 15-degree directional light. So it's really bright for reading. So about the 18 inches away, you can read a book really well.
What it doesn't do is provide room illumination. So what we did is - Rockefeller Foundation gave us a grant - $20,000 - that we used to a company called InnoCentive.
And we found a scientist, an engineer in New Zealand, and he's helping us design our lights, and we're coming out with a new product, a new model. And one touch of the button will provide light for reading and a second touch of the button will light up a room four meters by four meters. And so we're really hoping to corner the market internationally and provide, you know, lights for reading and social interaction and all types of activities after the night falls.
CHIDEYA: Who is your ideal customer and how would someone be able to afford one of your flashlights?
Mr. BENT: That's a great question. We have a program we call BoGo, Buy One Give One. Well, the customer is actually - the buying customer is an American. And our lights are much, much better than single-use disposable flashlights, which, obviously, are obsolescent within a few hours, 15 hours or so. And then those batteries, normally, here in the U.S., gets thrown in the landfills, which contaminate our groundwater.
And so we have a program, this Buy One, Give One BoGo, where an American buys a light for $25 and they get a great light that lasts for two years before the batteries need to be rechanged - and that's every single night of use. Put that $25 in the BoGo program, buys a second a light - add no more money - and that light is delivered to one of my nonprofit partners in Africa or a place - some place else in the developing world. And we also give the nonprofit a dollar. So our customer is the American and our second customer or the grantee is normally somebody living in Africa that can't afford to light itself.
CHIDEYA: What's the difference, you think, between how people in the U.S. might view a light like yours? You know, for example, living here in the Los Angeles area, people are like, oh, what if there's a power outage? What if there is a riot? This will be my backup, backup, backup - or when you are talking about some of your - people on the continent, are you talking about people's everyday illumination?
Mr. BENT: Yeah. It's less than 3 percent of the continent - maybe 4 percent now has a grid. So what do you do is the rest of it? You're not going to put nuclear in Africa. You're not going to do winds - that's going to be able to distribute the energy - I was talking about the infrastructure question.
So you're almost going to have to go with solar. And up to this point, people use kerosene, which is really bad for the environment. It's bad for - it's very expensive economically. They spend up to 20 to 30 percent of their income on kerosene.
And here in the United States, we have really no concept of what it means when the sun stops, when sun goes down. We just walk over to a wall and head the switch. But to these people, it changes their lives. Just look at education, for example. Most children in Africa require, just for substinence, to have to work during the day. And so, at night, when they would have time to read, they can't read because there's no lighting. Every African city you go into, you go pass the street light and there's hundreds sometimes of school kids reading at night on the street lights.
CHIDEYA: What's the best thing anyone has ever told you about the lights that you make?
Mr. BENT: We got something today that really broke my heart in a nice way, in a positive way. And I knew this theoretically before, but we got one from a doctor in a mission hospital in Congo. And he said that they were using our lights to aid in the birthing process for women at night. They made a point in the middle of the paragraph that the first light that the baby saw when they were born was our light, and that just touched me. That really, really touched me. That something that came out of my head, some idea that I had is now effective. It's really happening. And to me, that's just an amazing thing to think that some newborn, the first light they see is my LADs, you know? It's just wonderful.
CHIDEYA: Mark, thanks for sharing your story.
Mr. BENT: My pleasure. Have a great day.
CHIDEYA: You too. Mark Bent is founder of Sun Night Solar, makers of the BoGo light, a solar-powered flashlight. He was at member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. And you can find out more about his work and how you can help at our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.
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