The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


The lady of the lamps     

They’re just a bit bigger and thicker than smart phones and have a weird name.  WakaWakas come in yellow and black and cost – well, that depends whether you’re rich or poor.
The children of Sukun in Malang are certainly in the latter category.  Their suburb, though well maintained, is cramped; public services, like electricity, are unreliable. It’s not the ideal place for kids to learn.
But now they’ll have no excuse for failing to do homework when the lights fail, thanks to a donation on 9 August of 200 WakaWakas by Dutch business manager Marie-Jose Nassette (below).
WakaWakas are the latest advances in small-scale sustainable technology and this is believed to be their first appearance in Indonesia.  They’re portable solar-powered units that can deliver more than 24 hours of light on one charge. Another model can also charge cellphones. They have been designed to replace kerosene as a fuel for lighting.
“I came across this invention by chance and field tested it while camping in Jordan in an area where batteries weren’t available,” Ms Nassette said.
“When I decided to visit a child my family has been sponsoring through the Dutch-Indonesia Suvono Foundation I planned to carry gifts.  The usual thing is pencils and notebooks for schoolwork, but then I noted my WakaWaka on the windowsill.
“Literally, I saw the light.”

She contacted the manufacturers, raised 5000 Euros [Rp 80 million] through friends and business associates linked to a Netherlands world trade center where she works and bought 200 WakaWakas to donate to the Sukun kids.
Although new to Indonesia there are more than 8,000 WakaWakas in the Philippines, about 26,000 in Syria and thousands more in camps where people have fled conflict and natural disasters.
The lights have a curious genesis starting in 2010 when the World Cup was played in South Africa.  The event was supposed to be carbon neutral but that ambition failed. So the government announced an international competition to develop a device that reduced carbon emissions.
Dutch environmental engineer Maurits Groen [his surname translates as ‘green’] decided to have a go.  He was inspired by learning that millions of South African children couldn’t study because there was no electricity and kerosene lighting was expensive.  It’s also dangerous.
One UN study claimed 300,000 people a year, mostly children, die from kerosene lamp fires while others are poisoned by drinking the fossil fuel; the polluting smoke is also a health hazard. Mr Groen’s own research claimed 1.5 billion people across the world still don’t have access to reliable electricity, dubbing the situation “energy poverty.”
“It’s no wonder that educational levels in Africa and Asia are very poor outside the big cities,” he was reported as saying.
But Mr Groen’s devices, which he called WakaWaka [meaning ‘shine bright’ in Swahili], were too expensive.  So he sold the carbon trading rights to the 2.8 million tonnes of emissions that his lamp would replace and with the money opened a factory in Holland.
Using crowd sourcing he also raised close to US $1 million [Rp 11.8 billion].  On-line investors were promised a WakaWaka for themselves and one for those too poor to pay.
Ms Nassette organized with Mr Groen to get the WakaWakas into Indonesia.  Although it was claimed all paper work had been completed correctly the devices were allegedly held up on the docks by Indonesian customs for a month until US$500 [Rp 5.9 million] was paid, even though they were to be donated.
Not all technologies migrate well.  For example, solar power widely used in Europe and Australasia has yet to become popular in Indonesia.
“I know about the problems caused by rich foreigners coming to countries like Indonesia, giving gifts, and then leaving,” she said. “Some lights may get sold, but I believe most will be used for the purpose intended.
“We’ll be monitoring what happens and reporting back to the WakaWaka Foundation to see how this project develops.
“I’m a strong supporter of sustainable living.  If every person just takes care of their one square meter then the world will be so much better.”
Kerosene use in Indonesia has tumbled, and is now less than a quarter of the consumption recorded in 2000 as the more efficient LPG gas has taken over for cooking. However kerosene is still used in remote areas for lighting.
Ms Nassette rejected suggestions that overseas aid was better handled by governments.
“That’s negative thinking,” she said.  “Governments aren’t always effective. We need to take responsibility ourselves. My fridge is full and I have a good life; but the purpose of having property is to share it with others.
“Every individual needs to set an example, not just talk about sustainability and inequality, but to get out and do something.  We can’t leave it to governments and behave like ostriches with our heads in the sand.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to try and leave the world a little better.”
Just keep it simple
There are only two moving parts on the WakaWaka – the stand which folds out, and the big button which turns it on. The battery is not accessible. The design is ideal for handicapped people.
Black solar cells cover the back.  For a full charge the device must stand in the sun for ten hours, or longer if overcast.  That will provide 20 hours of bright light, or 60 hours of medium light.
The retail price is around US $39 [Rp 450,000], while the device that includes a cellphone charger costs double. But in developing areas the price is closer to US $10 [Rp 118,000]
The inventor has also started a foundation encouraging rich companies to donate the WakaWakas to developing nations and in particular to areas hard hit by disasters. If a buyer pays more for a unit the company guarantees to donate one to a refugee camp.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 August 2014)


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