It started with one class assignment. In 2006, Toby Cumberbatch, professor of electrical engineering at the Albert Nerken School of Engineering at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York was looking for a way in which he could introduce systems thinking, sustainability, and materials engineering to his first-year class. He wanted the students to think about engineering and design “in a broad spectrum” where they could “learn about things in parallel.” Familiar with solid-state lighting and LEDs, he thought some kind of lighting device might be just the type of project in which the students' skills and creative problem solving could be put to the test, and so he tasked them with developing a lighting system for the poorest people on the planet. The light would need to be multifunctional, be able to be used for two days without a recharge, cost less than $10, and be recognized as a must-have object by the people who would purchase it.

According to Cumberbatch, the first prototypes were crude, made of bamboo and soda bottles. But the students were on to something, and the following semester, several members of the class asked if they could continue working with Cumberbatch in an independent-study capacity. With support from a National Science Foundation grant, the students continued working on the prototype. Then, in the summer of 2007, they traveled to Nambeg in northern Ghana, one the most remote parts of Africa, to see how their solar lighting system would be received. (Cumberbatch's ties to Africa and Ghana go way back; it's where he grew up.)


Since then, the project has become about more than just light. Cumberbatch, along with four students—David Berger, Michael Gazes, Anurag Panda, and Gaurav Namit—have continued to travel to Ghana and work with the local communities that they first met in 2007. The result of this travel and work is SociaLite, the third-generation of their self-assembled lighting system and rechargeable solar LED lantern. Besides the obvious social impact of bringing light to this remote region, SociaLite is a mechanism for learning and entrepreneurship, and it is teaching its creators just as much as have the people for which it was intended.

The SociaLite solar lighting system, composed of LED lanterns made from recycled, locally available materials and a charging station, has been developed with the social, political, and economic structure of African villages in mind. Key to developing this project was the premise that there would be a cost associated with the lantern. Otherwise, as Cumberbatch notes, “If you give something away for free, it has no value.” Each village voted on whether or not they wanted to collaborate with the Cooper Union team before they signed on. This collaboration meant testing early prototypes and providing feedback (below). The students then continued to refine the prototype. The challenges were many: How could they design the system to be accessible, durable, sustainable, and maintainable once they left? Simplifying the circuit board was one way, so that there wasn't a steep learning curve for villagers to learn how to assemble the components (left).


The success of SociaLite has been substantial, especially considering that the working model that Cumberbatch and his team developed was independent of involvement from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Villagers take great pride in their participation in the project and the testing of the prototypes (top left), despite the somewhat rudimentary conditions (top right). In fact, the lighting system has fostered an entrepreneurial spirit among villagers, and selling the lanterns is given a prominent place in the center of the village (above). To date, 400 lanterns gave been sold and another 800 have been ordered. It is designed with LEDs and charging circuitry, and an AVR microprocessor with a battery life of four years. At full power, SociaLite stays illuminated for 40 hours; at low power, it has a 200-hour life. Even those who earn less than 25 cents per day, are able to purchase a lantern and have access to portable light that was once previously unavailable.