I’m home. Here’s a list of what I brought back from Nepal: scraggly beard, irrepressible mold, scraggly blog, ineffable gratitude for getting to take part in such an uplifting effort with my beloved big sister and her amazing team, incense, some tea, and possibly a parasite. But—and this is something you’ve probably been thinking for three straight posts now—enough about me. As promised, here’s a more detailed account of our needs-based approach to finding the perfect technology to solve problems in severely indigent communities. Right after this beard shot…

Thanks to a local, self-proclaimed “ecopreneur,” Bhuwan, and his Kathmandu-based company, ECOPRISE, we were able to lend out six solar-powered lighting and mobile-phone charging systems. Armed with equipment made by d.light and Barefoot Power, two technology companies who design specifically for base-of-pyramid (BOP) markets, we set out to see if villagers in Sita’s target communities would be interested in small solar systems. The overall response was outstandingly positive. Picking up the lights was an illuminating experience (…unavoidable pun; ‘enlightening’ would’ve been even worse), if a bit awkward; it was hard not to feel a little guilty, like we were these capricious solar Prometheuses bashfully asking for the fire back.

We aren’t salesmen, we explained. These aren’t our products. We’re just collecting feedback to try and make sure that we get you exactly the right types of light and power systems you need, at the lowest possible prices. It’s ok, they replied smiling, we understand, and then they happily delivered some amazingly helpful feedback, which we are going to turn around and give to companies like the one’s listed above, that care about design for BOP.

Upon collection, we made sure to ask a lot of questions. When we asked our testers to rank the lights on a 1-5 likert scale, there were an astonishing number of fives (and even a few sixes). It’s easy to see why people were so jazzed up about these solar products. When you’re used to spending your evenings straining through dim candlelight to make handicrafts with perilously sharp needles, or huffing the acrid fumes snaking up out from your hazardous kerosene nightlight, a nice, bright, reliable LED lamp that does not depend on the erratic electric grid for a charge is nothing short of a godsend. And no matter how well “my candles burnt my homework” stacks up against the other titans in the pantheon of all-time excuses, even the students living in these households were excited about what these lights could allow them to accomplish. 

The technologies we tested can immediately impact these people’s lives in a way that’s almost too profound to grasp for those of us used to taking all our gizmos for granted. Close your eyes. Now count how many times you can remember the power going out in your life. Now count how many of those times quickly evolved into something that felt sorta fun, like an impromptu camping trip, an excuse to break out the flashlights and tell ghost stories. For those of you that counted the times that a power cut quickly devolved into an excuse to take to the streets and imbibe as much rapidly defridgerating corner-store beer as possible, I thank you for your honesty, and please know that you’re not alone. Eyes still closed? Ok, now imagine the power going out every. single. night. and sometimes for 16 hours a day. I bet the novelty wears off fast. 

Resounding enthusiasm for the light’s notwithstanding, there were also some serious concerns that these products weren’t the exact right solution for everyone’s energy problems. Some wished their lamps had been a tad brighter, or maybe a little better suited to a common task (it seems the reading lamps weren’t ideal for late-night water buffalo roll call). Each household we lent lights to was different, and had unique needs. Together with these households, Empower Generation came up with some seriously innovative ways to improve existing solar products aimed at BoP, and even some new solutions altogether. 

Don’t let the thatched roofs fool you, these people are nothing if not informed consumers; subsisting on less than $2 a day means you pretty much have to be. Every single person we interviewed asked us about guarantees, replacement costs, and the like. When it came down to what they truly valued, quality trumped just about everything else we asked about. People said they’d be willing to pay for dependable products that were guaranteed to last longer than the shoddy stuff they were currently making do with. We (and Sita) took this to heart and are committed to making sure that’s exactly what they get.

More light = more time = more income-generating opportunities for women. More about this virtuous cycle in our next blog!