By: Helen Coster
Urban slums have unreliable electricity, if they receive any grid power at all. Most slum dwellers rely on diesel generators or an inverter—a battery that users charge on the grid. As Chelina Odbert and Benjamin Twigg reported from Nairobi, some entrepreneurs in urban slums have created a black market for electricity, re-routing power to “unconnected” parts of a city.
All of these options are flawed: the generator gives off noxious fumes; the inverter only allows users to charge one product at a time; and the black market is illegal.
In 2007 Stanford MBAs Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun figured out a safer, cleaner way to provide power to low-resource areas. They started D. Light, a company that makes portable, rechargeable, solar-powered lights. D. Light manufactures the lights in China and sells them in over 30 countries. It offers three models, which range in price from $10 to $40, depending on the model and the country where it’s sold. The most high-end product, called the S250, provides up to 12 hours of light per day, and includes a cell phone charger.
D. Light relies on a network of “master distributors” to penetrate remote rural areas and urban slums. In Africa, the gasoline retailer Total sells the S250 in its quick-marts, which are similar to general stores. In most cases, distributors have sales teams that are already on the ground selling soap and other household goods, and add D. Light lights to their offerings. The salespeople get paid on commission.
While D. Light focuses primarily on rural villages, chief executive Donn Tice sees potential in urban areas as well. Because developing countries often leapfrog technologies—like relying on mobile phones rather than build landlines in every community—Tice believes that governments are on the hunt for “renewable, affordable solutions.” “We know that governments aren’t going to invest in grid power in all of these areas,” he says.
The privately-held company, which has raised $12 million in funding, won’t disclose sales. Tice says that companies like General Electric (which today announced plans to build the largest solar power factory in the United States) have approached D. Light about strategic partnerships.
“What we know is that the vast majority of people in the developing world work in some kind of entrepreneurial, cottage industry,” says Tice. “Light allows them to extend their work day. They make more money. Their children have more time to study.”