Solar energy innovation lights up Bangladesh slum

For years Anowara Begum fretted about how frequent power outages in her tiny shack in the Baonia-Badh slum in Dhaka’s Mirpur suburb, interrupted her daily embroidery work, depriving her of crucial income that supports her two children and husband.

“It really hampered my work as I could not see properly the needle and thread due to the darkness,” Begum, 41, told Khabar South Asia, adding, “even my children could not do their homework in the evening”.

But things have improved ever since CHANGE, a Dhaka-based non-government organisation (NGO), installed botol bati (liter of light) at her home in April. “Now, we get ample light through the solar-powered bottle of light,” she said.

A volunteer installs a “liter of light” in a home in the Baonia-badh slum of Dhaka’s Mirpur suburb. The solar-powered bottled-bulbs first invented by Brazilian Alfredo Moser have been adapted and promoted by social entrepreneurs in 12 countries, including Bangladesh. [Photo courtesy of CHANGE]
Begum is not the only beneficiary. Since April, botol bati has been installed in 250 shacks in the slum area, each month saving 8.24mw of electricity and 424 kg of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the NGO’s 24-year-old founder.

The work of environmentalist Sajid Iqbal, who founded CHANGE in January this year, has not only benefited the slum dwellers but has set an example of successful youth social entrepreneurship.

A growing movement

In 2012, Sajid was blown away by a video titled ‘Liter of Light’ posted on his Facebook wall. The video showed how Brazilian innovator Alfredo Moser refracted sunlight in glass bottles containing water and Chlorine to produce a 55-watt solar bulb.

“For research, we wanted to try it out, and gave our versions of the lights to five houses in Bihari camp in Mirpur,” Sajid, a student of environmental science at Dhaka’s North South University (NSU) recalled.

He and his team found the glass bottles expensive and the light dim. So they added silicon glue, screws and tin to the devices and used empty plastic bottles instead of glass. “These bottles can generate at least 60 watts of light now,” Sajid said.

Shortly afterwards, he got involved with Philippines-based Liter of Light, now working in 12 countries across the world.

Sajid’s initiative stirred the interest of GIZ, a German development co-operation agency. Each botol bati costs Tk. 220 ($2.83), but because of a GIZ subsidy, sells for only Tk. 30 ($.39). The lights are a relief for users like rickshaw driver Hamidul Islam.

“Earlier, I used to pay Tk 1,200 ($15) in monthly electric bills for two light bulbs in my rickshaw garage,” he said. “As I am using electric bulbs during the night only, this is helping me save Tk 400 ($5) per month.”

Social business pioneers

Sajid presented his model as a social business plan at the South Asian Youth Leader’s Summit (SAYLS) in February, and won second prize.

Now, he contemplates more projects. “Under our social business framework, we are planning to launch micro solar power systems which will cost less than Tk. 1,500 ($19),” he said.

NSU business student Farah Tasnim, 23, is inspired. “I want to come up with similar projects soon, which are simple but can help the masses in their daily lives, while also generating revenue,” he told Khabar.

-By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury for Khabar South Asia in Dhaka.