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Shel Horowitz: Sustainable lighting for desperate need

Perhaps you’ve read the game-shifting book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” by C.K. Prahalad. Arguing that the most economically disadvantaged people on the planet not only create a great market for those entrepreneurs brave enough to venture into that territory, but also that developing countries provide a terrific testing ground for innovation and cost control, Prahalad offers numerous examples of companies that are profiting handsomely while serving the poorest of the poor.

Here in the green world, we can look at that innovation potential through a lens of deep sustainability and multiple benefits. And the possibilities are awesome.

It’s been a while since I’ve profiled a company in this space. This month, we take a look at one of those companies, simultaneously addressing poverty, education, air pollution/toxic fumes/health risks, energy savings, carbon footprint, and more — and making a huge difference in lives of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. And the company does all this with a simple three-item product line.

d.light, headquartered in San Francisco and with additional offices in China, India, and Kenya, sells inexpensive freestanding bright-light LED lanterns with lifetime batteries powered by dual solar/plug-in electric chargers.

The company’s mission statement is “to create new freedoms for customers without access to reliable power so they can enjoy a brighter future.” And to accomplish this mission, the firm employs a deeply holistic analysis of the problems faced by people at the bottom of the heap, and how a reliable and renewable source of good light can help solve them.

The lights go into two types of environments: places where light has been supplied by kerosene (or, conceivably, open fires) — and those with no pre-existing night-time light source.

If the lantern replaces an existing kerosene model,it accomplishes many desirable goals: providing a better quality of light that needs no fuel, does not produce toxic fumes, has no risk of setting the house on fire, reduces pollution, and leaves considerably more money in the hands of the family using the lantern — because the savings over purchasing kerosene typically pays for the lantern in about two months.

Where the lantern provides light in a previously unlit area, the benefits are different, but just as significant: four more hours per day of productive time. Children can advance much further with their studies; cottage industries, farms, and microbusinesses can produce and sell more. In short, the lamp becomes a ladder out of poverty.

Using classic Prahalad-inspired design principles, the units are cheap, durable, and designed for multiple environments. A company video shows the lamps dropped from a high balcony and run over by a car, and still working afterward. At least one of the three models can be mounted on a wall or ceiling. The top-line model can also charge mobile phones. In developing countries, payment plans can be arranged for less than the previous cost of kerosene; in developed countries, 10 percent of the proceeds goes to fund lamps for children who could not buy them. Worldwide, they’re sold with a two-year free-replacement warranty.

And the company, currently operating 6,000 retail outlets in 40 countries, is successful, both financially and in the social and environmental good it has created. As of Feb. 28, the company claims:

• 13,638,438 “lives empowered” (that is, units sold)

• 3,409,610 school-aged children reached with solar lighting

• $275,817,462 saved in energy-related expenses

• 3,589,490,280 productive hours created for working and studying

• 656,952 tons of CO2 offset

• 10,115,224 kWh generated from renewable energy source

(You can find the latest update of these statistics at the website lightdesign.com.

These stats, as I confirmed by e-mail discussion with company spokesperson Darin Kingston of the India office, were reached by looking at the maximum possible utilization for each category — and that means they may be overstating the benefits somewhat.

I asked Darin if he was double-counting — wasn’t it true that if you max out the possible benefit, you can have either the $275 million in energy savings and the 657-ton CO2 offset (replacing kerosene) OR the 3.6 billion newly productive hours (replacing darkness), but not both at once? But he assured me that no, they’re not double-counting; the productivity benefit stems from the longer number of hours and better quality of light compared to kerosene. He did acknowledge that the stats assumes a one-to-one relationship between the new lanterns and the kerosene lamps they replace.

Company executives hope to grow that user base from 13 million all the way to 100 million by the end of the decade — perhaps not an unrealistic estimate considering the company was only conceived of in 2004, following founder Sam Goldman’s encounter as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa with a neighbor child who had been badly burned in a kerosene spill.

It’s good to see a company doing well by doing so much good, and combining environmental, social, and health benefits to serve the most needy.

You read my review of “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” by C.K. Prahalad online.

Marketing consultant and copywriter Shel Horowitz, shel at greenandprofitable.com, writes the monthly Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green” (John Wiley & Sons).

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