One and a half billion people lack direct access to electricity

and rely on firewood, candles, or kerosene for lighting. Kerosene is a triple threat — expensive, unhealthy, and dangerous. It produces carbon soot and other pollutants and millions of children face severe chronic health problems from constant exposure to kerosene lamps.

Moreover, the absence of suitable home lighting is directly linked to illiteracy, poverty, and health problems around the world. Too many children are burned or impacted by house fi res linked to lighting - too many, at least, for a group of Gauchos at UCSB’s Institute for Energy Effciency (IEE) who felt compelled to fix the problem on a global scale.

So far Unite to Light has created two lights: the UTL-1 reading lamp and the UTL-C light and USB charger. But the team’s ambition is perhaps best shown in their vision of how their products might most stably proliferate the globe. “We are pretty particular about who our partners are, distributors who will come back again and again” says Unite to Light President, Dawn O’Bar. “Follow-up is important; our partners have found that 98% of lights are still around and still working,” years later.

At first, the light was specifically designed to be a reading lamp, but today the light is put to use in orphanages, disaster areas, and medical clinics and is even included in birthing kits, distributed through hundreds of organizations in over 60 countries on 4 continents. “These lights aren’t being re-sold in marketplaces - people need them so much. Theft can be problem, says O’Bar. “We’ve seen in some areas people shining the lights around so lions don’t kill their goats.”

Unite to Light emphasizes their lights be sold, as opposed to given away, and some distributors sell them at profit. The reasoning behind this is systemic sustainability, both environmental and economic. If distributors sell the lights, they can place new orders and get even more lights into the hands of people who need them. By this model, any lights donated into the Unite to Light system will see a multiplier effect, and the lights that are purchased last longer because of recipients’ pride of ownership. The organization is also working on a business model for girls and women in particular to support themselves and their families by selling the lights. “When you deliver a light to someone,” says O’Bar. “Usually three, four, five people around them are also affected - they all get access to the light.”

Here’s how it all started: roughly five years ago, a Santa Barbara non-profit, Goleta Presbyterian Church and Pangaea, focused on improving living conditions in Ghana, arranged for Ghanaian Pastor Kofi Fosuhene and Dr. Osei Darkwa to visit the IEE. Aware of the Institute’s work on high-efficiency LEDs and solar cells, Fosuhene and Darkwa asked if the Institute could design an affordable reading light to help more children study more safely at home. Although many solar powered flashlights were already available, none were designed specifically to address both safety and literacy in a long-term sustainable way.

John Bowers (Director of the IEE, eventual Founder of Unite to Light and current Chair of its Board), engineer Jock Bovington, and Engineers without Borders’ UCSB Lighting Group became involved in this problem, along with three local engineers: David Schmidt on electronics, Norm Gardner on the physical layout, and Marty Jenkins on quality and reliability.

After the team had worked through several designs, the first samples (100 in all) were sent to Ghana and met with enthusiasm. Then greater distribution began: 800 lights sent to Presbyterian churches throughout the country. Quickly, a non-sectarian non-profit was formed - a 501c3 application with the IRS was received in late 2010 - to continue technological iterations and develop relationships with manufacturing companies and distributors.

Distribution partners include other non-profits, relief organizations, individuals developing small businesses in villages, private businesses, and service clubs. Rotary International and Direct Relief International, a worldwide charity providing disaster relief and other services, have become key partners. Unite to Light is now engaging with other organizations to supply solar based lighting and solar powered lights with chargers to the developing world.

Learn more about Unite to Light and UCSB’s IEE

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