Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How Lighting Rural Communities Can Change the World

An Interview with Global BrightLight Foundation's CEO Benjamin Bunker

As part of our new series of interviews, the Agriculture and Food Security (AFS) Team at Partners of the Americas wants to learn more about the innovators who are creating technologies that enhance the lives of those living in low-income rural communities in developing countries. Part of our new initiative is to create an online community for farmers and innovators to come together and share ideas which improve these people’ lives as well as their productivity.

Partners of the Americas recently had the opportunity of meeting with the CEO of the Global BrightLight Foundation (GBL), Benjamin Bunker. Ben, who holds an M.S. in Sustainable Energy Systems from the School of Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Michigan, worked as a clean energy consultant and has been involved with the foundation since its inception in 2011. Before joining GBL full time in 2016, Ben supported USAID in developing its Energy Efficiency Training and Field Support Toolkit. Through this capacity, Ben has helped various USAID missions in bringing electricity to poor rural communities in the Global South. Over the last six year, the Global BrightLight Foundation has successfully implemented rural electrification projects in Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Haiti, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Nepal. Additionally, it was the first responder with solar lanterns to areas affected by the Nepalese earthquake in April 2015. Currently, GBL is focusing on Latin America with operations in Guatemala and Peru.

Interview with Benjamin Bunker
Mitchell: What do you believe your role is in assisting in the development of agricultural communities? What might the long term benefits of having access to electricity be in these communities?

Ben:  The Global BrightLight Foundation is on a mission to provide practical, affordable solar energy to rural communities who lack access to electricity.  Currently, in Latin America, we’re working in Guatemala and in Peru and are focusing on remote communities which very often are composed of folks who are doing subsidence farming or are laborers from other farms. We view ourselves as equal partners with these communities. When entering a new area, we always start by meeting with local leadership and getting their buy in. Then, we do a community demonstration where we listen and learn the community’s issues with energy and work to identify solutions together.

There’s a myriad of benefits that having electricity provides. There are economic benefits in the sense that people are putting 15 to 20 percent of their income towards candles, kerosene lamps, and batteries for lighting and paying someone to charge their cell phones. This is a significant amount of money for a family who only earns 60 to 100 USD per month. We’re able to put back a fifth to a quarter of that into their wallets because with solar they no longer need to purchase these items. This is absolutely lfe-chaning for them. They can buy additional seeds for their harvest or supplemental food, or even purchase health supplies, or really any of their basic needs. A family could save up to $900 over five years.

In addition, there are health benefits from not breathing in fumes from candles or kerosene, particularly an issue among children who might be using kerosene lamps to study. It is also really hard to do anything by candlelight. With solar lanterns, children are able to study longer. Another big one for agricultural communities is the benefit of increased connectivity. There are a lot of cellphones in the developing world. More cellphones than people, it’s not just a top 10 percent thing. Mobile phones are really important, especially when you’re trying to coordinate the pickup of a crop. Our solar systems allow farmers to charge their phones, find the best prices for their produce, and bring more money back into rural communities.

Mitchell: How are new potential communities identified?

Ben: There are some data sources out there which tell us about the countries most affected by the lack of access to electricity. Some of countries have done studies to assess how many people need electricity and where they live. Sometimes, they will also have some sort of plan to electrify the rural areas, but extending the electric grid is not going to happen deep into the Amazon or high in the Guatemalan Highlands due to cost. Solar energy and other renewables make a lot of sense in those scenarios.

Identifying communities in need of solar really comes down to working with people who have a good sense of what’s going down on the ground. A good example is in Peru where we partnered with the municipality of Pacaipampa. That municipality is the central township for a series of smaller communities. People travel hours through the mountains from their small villages to buy small electronics and fuel there so it in effect serves as the center for the entire region. By partnering with municipalities we can learn a lot about the different communities in their district. They also help us form relationships with leaders in those surrounding communities.

Mitchell: What is it you are finding communities need most?

Ben: The top needs we’ve seen are access to electricity, clean cooking, clean water, sanitation, and access to education. Our focus is on improving access to electricity but we are always open to working with other partners who can address other critical needs.

Introducing a clean cook stove can significantly increase indoor air quality by directing smoke out of the house. Clean water is important. There is a company in Guatemala called EcoFiltro that creates affordable water filters out of ceramics. We love these low cost solutions to big problems. Education is not easily accessible, there may be or may not be a public school, and even if there is one, it may only go up to a certain grade. Many times, parents have to pay for private education in the lack of public resources.

As far as who is best positioned to solve these issues, there is a huge opportunity for non-profits, social businesses, and others. The government should be providing education, but there are also great NGOs helping to fill the gaps. There’s a group called Amigos de La Aldea, who is a local partner in Guatemala. They founded a rural school supported by donations and revenue from social enterprise activities. These kids would not be going to school otherwise.

Mitchell: Is donating the best way to help? What are other ways to contribute?
Ben: Yes, I think donations are the best way to make an immediate impact in these communities. We try to connect people directly with the impact their donations are making. Through our Light a Village projects, we subsidize the cost of a solar lantern and solar home system package through donations so that every member of a community gains access to electricity. After we light up a village, we connect the donors that contributed towards that project with images, videos, and stories that they can share with their friends and family.

We just implemented a new way to give called #donate. On our Facebook page, you can comment on any of our posts with the #donate + any amount and we will automatically reply with a one-time link that confirms the donation. On Twitter, it works the same way if you reply to @GBLfoundation or retweet us with the + #donate + any amount. It’s a super easy way for people to get involved in supporting our work at any level.

We’re also trying to get out the word about energy poverty, since there’s a billion or more people who lack access to this basic element for survival in our world. We’re building our online presence to do this through social media. Following us on social media and sharing our content is a great way to take a step towards spreading awareness about the issue that we are trying to solve.

You can follow us here:
Instagram: @GBLfoundation
Twitter: @GBLfoundation

We are open to volunteers and are actively looking for students to serve as Solar Advocates to raise awareness about energy poverty on college campuses. We work with professional volunteers like digital designers and lawyers to assist with high-skill set work. We also are looking to partner with brands and organizations that want to make an impact in the world.

Finally, we are really excited about our virtual reality film “Amor de Abuela” that we created in partnership with Facebook and Oculus. You can view the film on our Facebook page via 360 video or with a VR headset if you have one. It’s totally new way to experience how a little bit of power makes a world of difference!

Mitchell: How are you looking to grow? What will best help with your growth and achieving your mission?
Ben: Our medium term goal is to light 1 million lives by 2020. So far we’ve impacted 380,000 people, and we have 620,000 to go, which means we need to deploy over 125,000 new systems.

There are 20-30 million people in Latin America without access to electricity so there is plenty of work to be done. The UN has set a goal for achieving universal access to electricity by 2030. We want to help close that gap for the rest of the Americas. It’s certainly ambitious, but when you’re looking at a problem that’s pretty sizable, you have to think pretty big.

Mitchell: Does the Global BrightLight Foundation have ideas for other innovations?
Ben: So there’s a lot to be said about how far this program has come to date. We’ve been partnered with a company called GreenLight Planet since 2011 and they supply the solar systems we work with. The functionality of these systems has improved over time and will continue to do so. One thing that will help with affordability and functionality is battery technology because solar panels and LED lights are already super-efficient. While we certainly see room for improvements in the systems, I think we have the tools already to solve the problem of energy poverty; we just have to get to work.

Another cool concept is pay-as-you-go technology. It allows people to pre-pay for energy usage over time and is a big boost for organizations that are providing microloans to people because people are incentivized to pay on time. Once a person has completed their payments, they own the system.

M-COPA and Off-Grid electric in Africa have been taking advantage of the cell connectivity in those countries to scale pay-as-you-go technology. People can make their payments remotely via mobile banking. This reduces transactional costs for sales agents that otherwise would have to go out and collect payments. Connectivity is worse in Latin America, and mobile banking hasn’t taken off yet in these countries, so changes in these two areas will be huge for us.

We believe the best way to light up rural communities is with solar and we encourage people to join us in our fight against energy poverty.  

Check out Global BrightLight’s website here:

You can email Ben directly at:  

Here's some of the progress they have made towards their 2030 goals:
  • Lamps deployed: 73,827
  • Lives affected: 358,404
  • Hours of light provided: 383,250,000
  • CO2 emissions reduced: 7,000 tons

Want to learn more about GlobalBrightLight's work? Make sure to watch their new virtual reality film:

We hope that Global BrightLight Foundation is successful in reaching their 2030 goals. They are a cool company that work with some of the folks that Partners of the Americas reaches. Be sure to support their mission!

Be sure to read the next interview we have with EcoFiltro and their work to bring cerafic water filters to Guatemala. 

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