Ever since it was founded in 2013 by Illac Diaz, Liter of Light's low-tech, highly accessible "daylighting" water bottle lamps have been providing light to poor households around the world without access to electricity.
Aside from providing an empowering lighting and business initiative for low-income communities, the project also forms part of an upcycling strategy that reuses plastic waste.
In an interview with Diaz, we delved into the inspiration behind Liter of Light, which is organized by the Philippines-based nonprofit MyShelter Foundation.
Liter of Light's 'simple daylight system'
Liter of Light was started in order to help build classrooms and has since evolved into a worldwide initiative with headquarters in the Philippines, Switzerland, and Colombia.
"Around 20 million Filipinos still live without access to energy, let alone clean forms of energy," Diaz tells us in an email exchange.
"They resort to candles or kerosene lamps, which are extremely costly and can lead to fires, third-degree burns, and indoor smoke inhalation," he continues.
Worldwide, almost 1 billion individuals live without access to energy. In 2013, Diaz's solution was a "simple daylight system using plastic bottles, water, and 5mm of bleach."
Built using a transparent two-liter bottle filled with the water and bleach solution, and fitted into a hole in the roof, the design is simple enough that almost anyone can build it.
Functioning as a deck prism, the bottle, originally designed by Brazilian mechanic Alfredo Moser, refracts light during the day, delivering as much light as a 40-60 watt incandescent bulb to the interior.
In order to have the bottles emit light during the nighttime, Liter of Light can add a test tube with a small LED lightbulb into the bottle.
In this case, the lightbulb is linked to a mini-solar panel, allowing the bottle to double up as a solar lamp at night. Today, there are over 350,000 installations of Liter of Light's bottle light worldwide and counting.
Helping hard-hit communities while tackling plastic waste
Liter of Light was born while "helping to build classrooms in the provinces," Diaz says. Diaz noted at the time that even though the students had a physical space to learn, they didn't have lights to use during the day as the schools were typically off-grid, or electricity was considered too expensive.
"By building simple daylights, we were able to help these classrooms and eventually homes save significant income on their energy needs. With those savings, they could then upgrade to our community-built solar lights," he explains.
When Super Typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013, Diaz says the conditions were so devastating — 10,000 people lost their lives and thousands more were displaced — that the necessity for cheap energy skyrocketed.
The MyShelter Foundation was the first on the ground, helping the most affected communities — where crime was rampant following the disaster — to assemble hand-built solar street lights.
"We hit 7,000 lights in just a couple of months after the disaster struck, and were able to reduce the incidence of violent crimes by 70%," Diaz says.
"By building our lights, we were able to help with access to energy but also to the possibilities it brings: education, health, safety, reduction in crime to name a few."
Another one of these possibilities was the reduction of plastic waste: Manila, the capital of the Philippines harbors so much plastic waster that it clogs floodwater pipes in the city, leading to deadly storm surges.
"By upcycling plastic bottles for our main solar lighting systems (home lights, mobile charging systems, and street lights), we are also reducing the waste stream that contributes to flooding and devastation from storm surge," Diaz explains.
The Liter of Lights project's three main principles
These incredible possibilities are at the heart of Liter of Light, which takes a community-based and open-source approach to solar lighting. The project not only gives communities the gift of accessible lighting, it also teaches them how to maintain the lights and spread the initiative further.
"When we started Liter of Light, we embraced three principles," Diaz explains. "First, our technologies should be easy to teach and train people how to build. Second, they should be able to be built, repaired, and assembled locally. Third, the communities we work with should be able to generate a livelihood from this work."
By teaching individuals, "they are no longer recipients of outside technologies but empowered to maintain ownership over the technologies and how to use them. Moreover, because they have been trained in new skills, they can earn a new means of livelihood," Diaz explains.
Working so closely with communities has an added benefit for Liter of Light: the project learns about other communities that are most in need of light and resources.
Lighting a community for a lifetime
Key to the Liter of Light project's growth is a principle that harks back to that old proverb about teaching a man to fish rather than simply feeding him for a day.
The project trains a cooperative group of five women on how to build its technologies. Instead of providing the group with financial capital, the project seeds them the materials and tools required to build the lights, Diaz says.
The approach is inspired by other proven sustainable business models, such as the Grameen banking model, which makes small loans to poor individuals without requiring collateral.
"Upon completing their training, the women are able to sell the solar reading lanterns they produce, including a suggested 20% retainer fee which they keep to pay off the initial capital investment," Diaz says. A similar competing lantern would typically cost three times more than those build with the Liter of Light technology.
The project is doing tremendously well, Diaz says: "in our experience, the number of solar lanterns, mobile chargers and streetlight solutions that are replicated is 6-10 times the number of those initially [built] in [the] workshops."
Much like designer Henry Glogau's recently unveiled desalinating skylight, Liter of Light's bottle lamps are a great example of a technology that can be widely adopted to to tackle a number of issues simultaneously, such as global plastic waste and energy poverty.