#10YearsOfSolarImpact: Little Sun, in direct competition with lack of energy

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A conversation with Felix Hallwachs, Managing Director at Little Sun

Felix Hallwachs

Tell us about Little Sun and how it was created

A marriage of art and science, Little Sun was founded in 2012 by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen. Their collaboration produced the Little Sun lamp—a small, portable solar light—that was first distributed to people living without electricity in Ethiopia.  From then on, our aim was to provide a scalable distribution and lineup of solar products and bring clean, affordable energy to Sub-Saharan Africa, a place where almost 600 million people live off-grid.

Image: Ruzvidzo ConnicalTowerProduction and Little Sun

The first prototype we produced looked similar to an iPhone and when we showed it to a rural villager in Ethiopia, she wasn’t really impressed. That led to a discussion about our core values and design principles, and it made us realize that the design of our products should incorporate a feeling of happiness, aspiration, opportunity, and a feeling of empowerment. That’s how our first solar lamp was born, in the shape of the Ethiopian Adey flower, a national symbol of positivity and beauty in Ethiopia. And because we designed the lamp in collaboration with the local community,  it was greatly appreciated by the people we visited with the new prototypes.

We also wanted to be as connected as possible with the communities we worked with. From the beginning, our photography was done by an Ethiopian artist, reflecting prosperity, happiness, and interconnectedness. The inclusive, positive narrative has been a key element of Little Sun’s vision ever since. We supply empowering and inspiring solar tools to people across the globe, and we showcase powerful and resourceful people.

How did the company evolve from that first very distinctive product?

We have learned a lot and one key takeaway in recent years is that our solar products are just the first step on the energy ladder. We realized that while working with the off-grid community who pointed to Solar home systems (SHS) and PAYG. Seeing the need for all that,  we naturally became an implementer of these products and services.

We went from having an office in Berlin to now being present also in Zambia and Senegal, establishing partnerships in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. We realized that organization-wise, we can have social businesses on the ground to drive change, while our main structure is a non-profit seeking grant funding.

Image: Little Sun and Chona Mwemba

We have electrified health centers and schools through grant funding. In Ethiopia, we have a partnership with We Care Solar for maternity health facilities and, in Senegal, we have set up solar home systems in 150 health centers. We are establishing our first solar-powered hubs in rural communities to create opportunities. We have a community micromill prototype in collaboration with Nadji Bi in Senegal. In Zambia, we are setting up a milk collection center for smallholder farmers that includes a cooling machine to ensure the milk can reach the market without getting spoiled. We are using Indian technology for the cooling service and are being supported with advice by SELCO, whose work we greatly appreciate.

So you’re stepping into quite a few different types of projects as pilots to maximize impact. What is the common thread among them?

We have identified a four-point plan for impact. It involves technology, capital, professional training to make sure everyone involved understands their role, and last but not least, it involves market access to be sustainable.

We are trying to find a way and prove that a global nonprofit that is working as a social business locally is a model that can work.

Image: Little Sun and Oliafur Eliasson

How are you looking at the impact you’re having?

We have gone from traditional metrics following GOGLA and SolarAid’s lead: looking at CO2e reduction versus kerosene, household saving, and some health impact to looking at increased study hours when we started distributing lamps to school children. Currently, we are trying to set different parameters for productive use.

We also have a gold standard carbon credit pilot that we hope could allow us to feed profit back into the communities. We are still looking at CO2e reduction and amount of people reached, but also at the income growth in dollars (or equivalent local currency). We want to land on 3-4 key indicators, one of which will need to be for financial sustainability internally.

Image: Little Sun and Merklit Mersha

You mentioned GOGLA’s metrics before. How has GOGLA been part of your journey? And what do you envision its role being in the future?

We are also turning 10 this year, so we have grown up together, and GOGLA has been a big part of our journey. In the beginning, there was Lighting Global and Lighting Africa, but when GOGLA was created, it was a sign of being an industry promoting renewable and off-grid energy.

We read all the reports the GOGLA team creates. Recently, we had been giving much thought to India’s role in manufacturing (when ordering our cooling unit for Zambia), and then GOGLA just published a report on that!

GOGLA has also been vital to achieving the import tax exemption, which is a ‘make it or break it’ condition for small companies.

We think GOGLA should continue doing what it’s doing: product roadshows, working on certifications to increase credibility, concentrating on waste management, and especially productive use.

We see its role as sharing information and ideas and coming together at events, ensuring the industry is on international agendas so funders continue to support.

You’ve already given me some hints, but what does the future look like for Little Sun?

We have gone from acting on an individual level to household and community. We want to be a social business that generates opportunity, contributing to development and scaling.

Image: Little Sun and Brown Pix

What about the sector: where would you like to see it go?

Everyone should have access to energy. In Western countries, we achieved this through public funding. This can not be applied to many of the lower-income countries in the short term, so the private sector needs to be involved. So, the question is: how can the industry collaborate and bring together their small projects so we’re not all working alone?

The amount of people without energy access is so vast that we don’t compete with each other. Our direct competitor is lack of energy. To give an idea of the scale, there are 20 million schoolchildren in Ethiopia. Even if we could deliver 1 million lamps per year, we are so far from covering the whole market.

We need to collaborate and establish partnerships to achieve our common goals. We need to continue lobbying about the importance of energy to provide opportunities, and we need to create the right environment for small entities to prosper. Solar energy offers this unique, decentral, decarbonized form of energy access. We need to lobby for that to be abundant for everyone in the world.

We all need to be connected by the sun to share that power and energy. Now more than ever.

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