24 Feb 2017

Member Spotlight: A Solar Ray of Hope

Member Spotlight: A Solar Ray of Hope

Impact Hub member Megan Birney was sitting in a small room furnished with two wooden desks in Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal, a rural village on the northeast coast of South Africa. School schedules, health posters and a school motto adorned the walls. Among other purposes, the room served as an office to the principal, Mrs. Zikhali. Intelligent and generous her tough streak came through as she spoke in passionate yet matter-of-fact terms about the challenges her children faced. Located in a remote area, the school faced crippling poverty. Clean water, safe housing, and adequate child care were daily hurdles. Amid these struggles was an unlikely ray of hope: Santa Barbara-based nonprofit Unite to Light.

This was why Megan was here. Unite to Light had distributed solar-powered reading lights to the school so each student could have one at home, giving them more hours in the day to study and learn. As the organization’s new president, she wanted to get a firsthand look at the program’s impact.

Mrs. Zhikali was sharing impressive stats, like the fact that student test scores had risen 30 percent since receiving the lights. But there was much more at stake than test scores. She had started to describe the work the school did to provide help to families typically affected by fire when she paused mid-thought: “Actually, ever since we’ve been handing out your solar lights, the number of homes burning down in the community has dramatically decreased.”

The power of what her organization was doing had never struck Megan so forcefully. “It was at this moment that I knew the work I was doing mattered.”

As the principal explained, mass fires are common disasters among the impoverished in South Africa. Huddles of shacks, often built with cheap timber, are practically touching one another. For those fortunate enough to be able to afford fuel, kerosene lamps are used for lighting. A single one of these lamps being knocked over or set too close to anything flammable quickly spelled disaster for all surrounding structures, rendering hundreds of people homeless in a matter of hours. This occurred on an all-too-frequent basis. Unite to Light’s solar lamps gave a simple, life-saving solution to the problem.

The seed idea for the organization began in 2009 when a Ghanan professor visiting the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) Institute for Energy Efficiency (IEE) lamented that students from rural parts of his country were unprepared for the mental rigors of university. Noting the health dangers and financial barriers of burning kerosene, the common source of evening light for these remote areas, he mused that students would have more time to study with access to safe, affordable and reliable light.

The IEE team immediately recognized the potential to make a big impact, and soon partnered with UCSB’s Engineers Without Borders to design and develop just such a product. By 2010 the simple yet efficient solar-powered lights were ready. The group formed a nonprofit to carry forward their mission: bringing light to those without access to electricity. Barely six years later, over 75,000 lights have been distributed to 65 countries.

Megan took on the challenge to lead Unite to Light in August 2016, attracted to the simple business model the organization uses to provide aid around the world. With a background in sustainable energy, nonprofit work, and solar finance, this seemed like a natural – and meaningful – evolution for her career. Her passion for this work comes from an innate interest in making the world a better place through sustainable programs with tangible results. “Our non-profit community has so much knowledge and passion, but we often don’t know how to capitalize it. I’m a huge fan of finding ways to monetize good work in order to spur more good work.”

One of the ways Unite to Light does this is through their Buy One, Give One program. For every light they sell, one is given to someone in need. Corporations like TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker are doing this with increasing frequency, but as Megan shares, it is rare for a nonprofit to implement such a business model. “Historically we have depended on grants, donations and government contracts, but it is increasingly important for our sector to diversify income sources and create sustainable business models.”

By utilizing the Buy One, Give One model, Megan is able to focus on the mission and vision of Unite To Light. The elegant simplicity of this model is that it directly involves the consumer in the change Unite To Light hopes to bring to the world.

As Megan works to provide light to the most vulnerable populations worldwide, she is also shaping a self-sustaining nonprofit. The more successful she is, the more lights are distributed. Little more than a quaint novelty to many in the U.S., Unite to Light’s solar lamps create, at minimum, a healthier, safer surrounding for each recipient. At best, they are a bright pathway to a better life.


Written by:

Kathryn Arthur

Lead Host

Impact Hub Santa Barbara

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