Grassroots Innovation | Lighting people’s lives with Kiran solar lamp

Solar-powered lamps introduced to the Riau Islands by a group of student volunteers have proven to be a popular alternative to the kerosene lamps commonly used in the province, where access to electricity is scarce. (Photo courtesy of Nusantara Development Initiatives)

Solar-powered lamps introduced to the Riau Islands by a group of student volunteers have proven to be a popular alternative to the kerosene lamps commonly used in the province, where access to electricity is scarce. (Photo courtesy of Nusantara Development Initiatives)

The Riau Islands, a string of more than 3,000 islands between Sumatra and Kalimantan, remains a relatively untouched part of Indonesia, where residents still follow a very traditional way of life.

The province is also the main area of activity for the Singapore-based Nusantara Development Initiatives (NDI), a group established in October 2008 by members of the Indonesian Student Association of Singapore.

The main aim of NDI is to bring together young adults of various nationalities and backgrounds and give them the opportunity to work together for a common cause.

Today, NDI consists of more than 20 volunteers, mostly from Indonesia and Singapore, with members also coming from Malaysia, the Philippines and India. Some of the members are in full-time employment, while the rest are students in universities in Singapore.

NDI started its latest project, called Project Light: 1, in July last year to provide affordable solar-powered lamps to rural areas with little or no access to electricity, places where residents otherwise rely on dangerous and dirty kerosene lanterns to light their homes at night.

“We didn’t want to do a typical youth volunteer project where there is no measure of success,” said Fairoz Ahmad, an NDI advisor. “So eventually we settled on the idea of providing some sort of sustainable solution to the problem of light.”

After doing some research, NDI found there were several products in the market catering to the rural poor, including the solar-powered Kiran lamp, produced by D.Light, a US social enterprise.

The lamp was deemed the best and most cost-effective solution available. The price of one lamp ranges from Rp 150,000 to Rp 165,000 ($17 to $19). The lamps use LED technology, which consumes 90 percent less power than a traditional incandescent light.

“The lamps have already been distributed in Africa and India, so we bought a small batch for an initial trial in a small village in Indonesia,” Fairoz said.

It was not easy to decide on a suitable place for the project, he added, since there were so many rural areas in Indonesia that could benefit.

“It took us about six months to decide,” Fairoz said. “In the end, we shortlisted about four places before choosing Riau. In terms of access, it is the closest [to Singapore], which means lower traveling costs. And since we continually make short visits to oversee the project, we had to choose a place that was accessible.”

The team members themselves were surprised to see the results they achieved in only a short period of time.

“As it turns out, [the lamps] were very well-received during the trial, so we continued from the first batch until now, with almost 200 lamps on the Riau Islands,” Fairoz said.

“We thought the villagers would be really attached to their kerosine lamps,” said Gloria Arlini, another NDI advisor. “We expected it to take some time to change their minds, but they really took to the more sustainable solution.”

During the first phase of Project Light, team members traveled to Riau multiple times to introduce the lamps to the villagers and to test their response — which was very positive.

Even though some of the villagers seemed to be a little suspicious at first, they eventually warmed to the NDI team, after seeing members return to the area.

“We lent the lamps to some of the households, so they could try out the product first,” said Goh Guan Qun, a NDI volunteer. “Then we invited them to join a discussion where they gave us their feedback.”

Over the past year, more than 260 families across the Riau Islands have already benefited from the lamps.

Compared to kerosene lamps, solar-powered lamps improve indoor air quality drastically, as they do not smell nor emit smoke. There is also no risk of fire.

The lamps shine much brighter and are easy to handle — they can be hung on the wall, placed on the ground or a table, or simply be carried around.

Angela Sujadi, who was part of the team that traveled to Riau during the first phase of the project, still remembers how amazed some villagers were by the lamps.

“One of the kids accidentally dropped the lamp and it fell into the river,” she said. “After they got it out and dried it, they were really surprised that they could still use it.”

Most important to the villagers, however, was the fact that they could save money by switching from kerosine to solar power.

Gloria said that a household can save about $60 annually by using the new lamps — an amount that might not seem significant to many, but one that can make a big difference in remote and rural parts of Indonesia.

Fairoz said the lamps were not given to the villagers for free because it was important for NDI to adopt a social enterprise model for their project.

Instead, NDI worked out a payment plan. That way, villagers were treated like customers rather than passive recipients of aid.

In July this year, the volunteers began the second phase of the project. During a visit, they conducted training sessions and workshops over a period of 10 days for eight selected women to become the “ambassadors” of Project Light, since the volunteers could not be in Riau full-time.

“We were empowering several women to go out and sell the lamps in other villages, creating a new distribution channel in the area,” Fairoz said. “With each lamp they sell, they get a small profit.”

The women were selected based on several criteria. “Some of them had previous experience in sales,” Gloria explained.

“They had little businesses, like selling pulsa [phone credit], for example. We also were looking for women who were mobile and could easily access the neighboring islands.”

The training included practical sessions, during which the women joined the NDI team on trips to neighboring islands to practice selling the lamps.

“Afterwards, we would give them feedback and tell them what they could do differently,” Fairoz said.

Depending on how far the women have to travel, they can keep between Rp 20,000 to Rp 30,000 per lamp sale.

During the upcoming third phase, the NDI team will try to expand the project and find a way to reach more villages. Training women in different places will be a key component.

“Our aim two years from now is to have reached 2,500 families, which is around 10,000 people,” Fairoz said. “That’s the vision, that’s our hope.”

For most of the members at NDI, Project Light is more than just a way of showing their good will.

“Over time, we all became attached to the villages and especially the eight women we trained,” Gloria said.

“Even when we are here in Singapore, in the back of our minds we are always wondering how they are doing. And despite the fact that we all have busy lives with work and study, this is the motivation that keeps us going.”

Inspiration: Jakarta Globe

About dianhasan

Brand Storyteller, Travel Writer, Speaker, Creative Writer & Thinker - avid observer of randomness in everyday life - Sustainable Business, Eco Matters, Sustainable Urban Issues, Architecture, Heritage Conservation, Innovation & Brand-Strategy, Cross-Cultural Communications, Travel, Tourism & Lifestyle.
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