By Carmen Fernández-Sánchez
The simple act of filling recycled plastic bottles with water and chlorine has allowed light to enter millions of previously unlit homes around the globe. What’s more, this innovation has saved low-income families up to 40% on electricity bills.
No-one could have told Alfredo Moser, a Brazilian mechanic, that his invention would spread across the world and be installed hundreds of thousands of homes, while he continued to lead a humble life, living in a modest house and driving a car made in 1974.The brightest ideas often spring spontaneously and unexpectedly from the deepest wells of talent and ingenuity. Zap! They burst into one’s mind in a rush of creativity that can, in some instances, help change the world.
That’s what happened to Alfredo Moser in 2002, when the lights went out at his workplace. He realized that when the blackouts occurred (which they did with some frequency), factories were the only places that stayed illuminated, thanks to their skylights, while local homes were left in the gloomiest of shadows.
After some trial and error, he created one of the most revolutionary inventions of recent times: skylights made from discarded soft drink bottles, water and chlorine.
His invention was very easy to produce — it only required a half-liter plastic bottle filled with water and 10 milliliters of chlorine. And with the bottle fitted into a small hole made in the roof, sunlight could then be reflected into those places it did not normally reach. These types of sustainable “light bulbs” have a lifespan of 10 years and do not require servicing over that period.
With such a simple and low-cost solution, it was almost inevitable that this new model would be copied in millions of households around the world, where poor families living in often-windowless houses couldn’t afford to keep light bulbs burning during the day.
Millions of people around the world no longer have to live in darkness.
The My Shelter Foundation first became interested in this invention in 2011. The foundation operates in the Philippines where, according to data from the World Bank, 87.5% of the population has electricity service – which means that 12.5% don’t have that access.
The My Shelter Foundation created the initiative to supply this eco-friendly lighting solution to the country’s most vulnerable populations. And thanks to this endeavor, by 2014, “the Moser light bulb” was being used in more than 140,000 Philippine households that previously were in the dark.
The idea also has become very popular in more than 15 other countries, including India, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia and Fiji.
The reality in Latin America
The high number of people who lack electricity service in the Philippines may surprise some. However, other countries have even less coverage, including South Sudan, where just 5.1 % of households have electricity, Congo (16.4%) and Uganda (18.2%).
Although electricity coverage in Latin America is much higher than that, there are still millions of people who live in the dark. In Haiti, for example, only 37.9% of the population has access to electricity. That number rises for Nicaragua (77.9%) and Honduras (82.2%), Bolivia (90,5%), Barbados (90,9%) o Colombia (97%).
Although 97% of the population in Colombia has electricity, that still leaves millions without service. So, Colombian Camilo Herrera decided to bring the Liter of Light idea to Latin America.
His journey began in Duitama, a small city in Boyacá. The project then expanded to Cali, the country’s third most populous city, before spreading to another 14 cities and eventually reaching 3,600 households, thanks to the efforts of the NGO’s staff and volunteers.
Now the project is crossing borders. Last October, it arrived in the Renca community in Chile, where it was received with open arms. And now, they are expanding into solar panels for community lighting. Thanks to Liter of Light and a donation from a private company, 50 ecological lampposts, made from bamboo, PVC, wood and solar panels, have been installed in the community, improving the quality of life of local people and increasing their safety.
This initiative has not only helped bring light to remote populations, to the streets and homes of local residents, but it has also saved low-income families as much as 40% on electricity bills.
What remains to be done?
There is no doubt that this socially innovative mechanism improves the lives of the most vulnerable people. But, in some ways, it is no more than a Band-Aid for the problem of social exclusion in the poorest areas of many countries.
Should governments make greater investments to expand the energy grid to poor regions, as part of the effort to promote more equitable development Or should they concentrate on innovative methods like this, which promote ecological sustainability? And, can governments help more Alfredo Mosers emerge by investing in quality public education that motivates and encourages creativity?
What is certain is that governments must continue to work for the social well-being of people, ensuring that basic human rights are afforded to everyone and that their needs are provided. And they must do so by seeking initiatives that can address inequality and contribute to effective development solutions, and by addressing the structural problems that exist with regard to accessing basic services.
In any case, initiatives like these will always be welcome, because even if they are a Band-Aid, they can help transform and improve the lives of millions of people around the world, regardless of how much more there is still left to do.
Carmen Fernández Sánchez is a communications expert at IDB. She previously worked for Cadena SER and the Spanish Embassy in the United States. She has a degree in Journalism from the Complutense University of Madrid and a Master’s in Communication Management, Public Relations and Protocol from the King Juan Carlos University/ESERP Business School. Twitter: @carmen_fersan