John Salzinger, chief business development officer and co-founder of MPOWERD, spoke to Not Impossible Now about energy poverty and why solar is the energy solution.

The U.S. has an energy grid system that’s about to clock in a century of use, but there are many areas in the world that have never had an energy system that’s reliable and safe — or any modern energy at all.

According to the International Energy Agency, 18 percent of the world’s population lack access to electricity, relying instead on dangerous and unhealthy alternatives like kerosene and open fires.

The answer? Solar. Solar energy is now smaller, cheaper and easier to use than ever, and New York-based Certified B Corporation MPOWERD — which stands for micro-powered design — looking to light the world one solar-powered lamp at a time. Their Luci lights are available in more than 70 countries.

John Salzinger, chief business development officer and co-founder of MPOWERD, spoke to Not Impossible Now about energy poverty and why solar is the energy solution.

NIN: What is energy poverty and are some of the problems that come with lack of light in developing countries?

John Salzinger: Energy poverty is lack of access to clean, reliable, modern energy sources. Most statistics say it affects 1.5 billion people, but that doesn’t take into account those who have intermittent access or who can’t afford the grid. Outside the usual, like they don’t have light, there are a lot of Millennium Development Goals for things like education and health where light is essential, but also the reduction of the emissions people are inhaling so it’s also preventative if people have clean light. Kerosene actually costs a decent amount of money for those in the developing world so it’s not just free and easy and ventilation systems are well beyond what people can afford. If people can work longer hours, obviously it’s better for the economy as well. Violence against women, safety, there’s plenty of studies that have shown that violence is reduced when there’s more light. Those are just a few things. The list goes on. Light is so obvious to us but so useful and we don’t really think about that.

And you’re looking to replace more traditional sources, like fire, which have so many problems.

Salzinger: Absolutely. In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 1.5 million children die of kerosene-related fires a year. The other thing about the solar is it’s safe and that’s the key to clean, safe energy. It’s consumer-ready.

How did MPOWERD get started?

Salzinger: There were actually six founders in the company. Three of us went to Haiti shortly after the earthquake in 2010. As important as Haiti is, with 8 million people or so, it was a really important microcosm of a greater problem that the entire world faces, and it’s right in our hemisphere. It was eye opening. The problems were the usual developing world problems but when you see them up close, it changes you dramatically. There was health, waste management, transportation issues, and we thought what would be the best product-based solution here, and we thought energy. Solar is vastly ahead of everything else right now, and it’s getting better, too.

MPOWERD is a Certified B Corporation. Why did you decide to go with that model?

Salzinger: The idea was to figure out a way we could conjoin capitalism, the good aspects of capitalism, the incentives that capitalism brings, with the effects an NGO might give folks, but in a sustainable manner. Because you want to create independence, you don’t want to create reliance. We felt light was the perfect opportunity for that, and our business model is one in which every single sale we have has been calculated to effect the bottom line for us, but also affect impact automatically. 

We’re in 800-plus retailers in the United States, so what does that mean when a mother in the Midwest goes through a store and buys a light for her, for her car, maybe a gift. So that exponential growth allows us to get our growth way up. Our cost of goods and making the units goes way down. Because we’re a B Corp., our shareholders are fine with us reducing our margins and selling at affordable levels to the developing world.

We have a customer-driven program on our website and all our packaging allows people to personally participate, go on a website and buy units for target NGOs that will give the lights out as a first tranche of inventory to female entrepreneurs in Tanzania or Kenya, for instance. We have fundraising kits for folks, we sell to NGOs aid organizations and government programs.

Let’s talk about the Luci light design. What are the components?

Salzinger: We have a solar panel, LED bulbs, which is great because it deals with heat very well. We have batteries to store the light, which last two to three thousand cycles. A cycle is a full charge and complete emission out. The lights are currently made out of PVC because they don’t degrade in UV light and they’re really durable — you can submerge them, you can stand on it when it’s inflated—because the developing world has much harsher conditions. It’s the human condition first, and then the environment, but even with the human condition we are reducing CO.

Why do you think MPOWERD’s model works?

Salzinger: It’s really taking advantage of human behavior. The way I look at it is you have an opportunity to ensure that just by looking after themselves, the end result is people looking after others. If you put it in that system, it will be one which will continue automatically. That, to me, is sustainability.

Top photo courtesy of MPOWERD