Samuel Goldman has invented an inexpensive, universal solar-powered lighting solution which will reduce health hazards and carbon emissions while simultaneously enhancing productivity. His lighting solution can leapfrog a grid network without the use of electricity. Such versatility renders Samuel’s solution applicable for both rural and urban regions. In addition to improving health and safety standards, the solar powered solution also prevents approximately a 100 percent of greenhouse emissions.
The New Idea
Samuel has designed a solar lantern that is affordable for 90 percent of the global population. Unlike many other design initiatives, the solar lantern was not designed around a specific issue like poverty. Rather it was designed to be truly innovative in its intent and design. Samuel effectively anticipated the unarticulated need of a design that has eventually become a universally applicable lifestyle product. The lantern replaces the use of three formerly essential materials - kerosene, candles, and rechargeable battery - to solve critical health problems and reduce the carbon footprint. In addition to being safe, reliable and efficient, it’s highly portable and nearly maintenance-free nature makes it ideal for use in remote areas. Samuel has introduced a product that pushes both geographic and cultural barriers and broadens the universality of its application. He has created a global distribution system that can potentially enable the mobility of millions of products into rural areas each month.
Samuel’s solution cuts across the silos of health and education not only in rural India, but also in Tanzania. In addition to reducing health hazards, it also decreases the carbon footprint and bears a low financial ownership cost. Samuel initially began with a design that could easily cater to the underserved lighting market and eventually replace the unsafe and environmentally unfriendly kerosene lanterns, dry-cell batteries, and candles. His design team invariably works with user groups to improve and arrive at designs that are not only user-friendly but also maintenance-free. Given that Samuel’s lighting-only product is priced at an entry-level US$10, while a second product that includes a cell phone charger is US$30, it is reasonable to assert that both are the appropriate technologies for rural and urban households.
Samuel has introduced a distribution system on a massive scale to deliver his products through a three-tier dispensation channel, which engages micro-credit organizations to rural consumer goods and retail outlets in the hinterlands. His spread strategy is unique in that his constant design innovations invite an increasing amount of players to provide competition and ultimately impose downward pressures on prices.
Rural lighting solutions have never addressed the user’s mobility issues. Designing for solely the poor in confined labs ignores the basic needs of the people and limits the market. Advanced research in solar lighting has produced newer technologies, but they fail to resolve the core issues of affordability and versatility.
Poor, rural households traditionally rely on kerosene and candles for lighting, while poor urban households use dry-cell batteries. Their lack of monetary resources forces such households to utilize the cheapest available products even while compromising on luminosity and health. In addition to this, the pollution generated by fossil fuels causes innumerable health hazards and contributes immensely to the global carbon footprint.
Only 30 percent of India’s villages have electricity. India has only been able to generate 60 percent of its citizens’ energy needs. Rural electrification projects have failed to provide a distribution infrastructure and meet the rural poor’s peak energy demands. Officials predict that India, given the rapid growth of industry and urbanization, will witness a doubling of its total energy requirements within the next decade. Furthermore, India’s dependence on coal-fired energy generation is one of the highest among all developing countries. It is widely believed that the government continues to use environmentally unfriendly and archaic technology to keep the employment rate high. Consequently, energy needs are insufficiently met. High sulfur content of coal (Indian coal) has contributed immensely to the country’s greenhouse emissions while hydropower is not harnessed to its 50 percent potential. Mega hydropower projects displace millions, produce perennial floods, and occupy large swaths of tenable land. Lighting has emerged to be a global problem, as the World Bank recently announced that 1.6 billion people live without electricity with an additional billion having only limited access to energy.
As a result these citizens pay a disproportionately high amount for lighting that fails to provide even a bare minimum quality of luminosity. Affected families spend between 20- to 30 percent of their wages on kerosene and candles.
Corruption around energy and lack of political will for creating a sustainable infrastructure have been core issues for decades. The state subsidizes kerosene and solar lanterns, but the poor quality of both of these sources renders them unsustainable solutions. The appropriate nexus lies between the state agencies and the mass traders or manufacturers.
Samuel founded D.light Design in 2008 which distributes products in 30 countries and has offices in four—China, Hong Kong, India and Tanzania. His design team works towards finding solutions that cut across the silos of health, education and individual productivity of users. In January 2010, the company sold 22,000 units and, one month later, doubled their sales to 46,000 units. Samuel’s design team is currently working on several new innovations.
Samuel’s team is located next to massive flexible manufacturing capabilities. The seventy-five member team is spread across China, Hong Kong, India and Tanzania and can be divided among four core functions—design, engineering, operations and marketing. The team in China (Shenzhen) solely focuses on engineering and quality control; the manufacturing is outsourced to best-in-class companies who abide by labor and human rights laws. Although the business is based on the premise of volume, low overhead and operational costs, design details, user-friendliness, and global branding are some of the key differentiators that have enabled D.light Design to effectively compete with rivals in price and quality.
Samuel’s design team works closely with user groups. He has introduced a new design culture that not only saves money and time but also prevents failures. Given the speed and intensity with which the prototypes are tested and returned, the design team hardly faces product failures. The market essentially serves as Samuel’s test lab. His design team visits the market with fresh perspectives, picks up crucial elements that other people don’t look for, and consequently creates new opportunities. The versatile design of the products makes it user-friendly to a child as well as a senior citizen. The solar panel is integrated into the main unit. The lantern can be hung from a ceiling, wall, or even a bicycle headlamp. The overall focus is on creating products that are well-received by both rural and urban users.
The mass manufacturing base for the company’s entry-level solar lantern is located in China. The lantern, which costs slightly less than US$10, provides light for a maximum of eight hours without being recharged. The value proposition for a poor villager is its total cost of ownership; with a low initial investment, the lantern battery only needs replacement every four to five years. Battery costs are as low as US$2. The second product, which is gradually gaining in popularity, is a lantern with a mobile phone charger at a cost of US$30. India’s high tax on solar products makes manufacturing highly uncompetitive for price sensitive markets. Therefore, Samuel is currently focusing on low-cost volume manufacturing to provide sufficient entry into Indian and African markets, while also ensuring that quality is maintained.
Samuel has established a three-tier rural distribution network in north, central and southern India. The partner organizations range from COs, micro credit enterprises or retail outlets for rural consumer goods. The post-sales-service capabilities possess a distribution system. Samuel’s idea is to systematically replace kerosene lanterns and candles as lighting sources, a process which is analogous to the revolutionary introduction of the mobile phone. With improved health, education and income generation, the marketing and advertising has become a self-sustained process. The emergence of competing brands indicates that awareness of low-cost solar lighting is growing and inferior energy sources will soon be eliminated from the market.
Samuel started the venture with prize money received from a business idea competition. Later, Samuel and his then five-member team raised around US$6 million through a margin-equity-debt-grant model. He intends to re-invest his profits until D.light Design achieves the distribution of the first few million lanterns. Samuel has set an ambitious goal of reaching 10 million users within the next twelve months. He has registered a carbon credit project with the United Nations that aims to reduce one ton of carbon dioxide per lantern, per decade. He wants to pass on the benefits of carbon credits by lowering the price of the products to the people who are least responsible for global warming. Samuel envisions a world that will quickly leapfrog and embrace solutions like this while avoiding the burden of intermediate technologies that involve billion of dollars of investments to merely set up vast grid systems.
Samuel was born in1979 in Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S., to parents who pursued careers in the development sector. His mother worked on nutrition and maternal health, while his father worked for USAID as an agricultural economist. Samuel spent his early childhood in Pakistan, Peru, India and Western Africa. The family’s dinner table conversations often revolved around issues of human development and the plight of the developing world. The work Samuel’s mother completed for impoverished citizens in Africa’s conflict-ridden regions inspired him deeply. Samuel grew up to be an above-average environmentally conscious child and often promoted things that were environmentally friendly. For example, he didn’t allow friends and family to use dryers, but instead urged them to hang their clothes to naturally dry. As an adult, Samuel advocated carpooling amongst community members.
Samuel vividly remembers bicycling across Canada with an old school bus as a supporting vehicle that the team converted to run on used French fry oil (bio fuel-run) instead of diesel. During the trip, the Climate Change Caravan, as they called it, lobbied with the city mayors and taught citizens to reduce their carbon emissions by 50 percent around their houses.
After his undergraduate education, Samuel moved to Benin in West Africa as an environmental action volunteer. There, he was touched by the plight of a burn victim who suffered from burn injuries on half her body because of a kerosene stove accident. The victim’s pain and agony was exacerbated by a lack of accessible healthcare and lighting in the village. Another incident that inspired his foray towards D.Light occurred during a marriage celebration where young people dancing to the beat of ethnic music came to a halt due to sudden power failure, causing the celebration to come to a halt in complete darkness. Samuel soon switched on his LED light and held it high, so that the celebrations could soon resume. He instantly realized that a solar lantern can dramatically change people’s lives. Samuel conducted a few long distance motorbike trips in Western Africa that exposed him to the plight of the rural poor, where women have to walk for two hours to obtain a bucket of water, and how a lack of safe lighting can make people’s lives painful.
In 2005 Samuel started applying for business schools and in 2006 he began his studies at Stanford. He was a part of a design team that worked on developing technologies for the developing world. As part of the design assignment, Samuel, along with four other group members, visited Myanmar. The plight of people in the hinterland of the country provided critical insights into how an autocratic regime behaves; allowing its citizens to remain poor while possessing a plethora of natural resources. His visit with a prototype solar lantern to a brick kiln in rural Myanmar where people work at night to evade the attention of the military regime made him realize that affordable and quality lighting can substantially improve the standard of life of the rural poor. His exposure to West Africa and Myanmar made him think of solutions with a ‘human-centric design’ approach. Samuel plans to improve the quality of life of a 100 million people by the year 2020. He currently lives in New Delhi and often travels across three continents to continue providing cheap and effective solar power to all those that need it.