In 2009 a team of Vanderbilt graduate and undergraduate students visiting rural Bangladesh made a startling observation. The villagers they met lacked access not only to reliable electricity but also to cheap, alternative fuel for lighting their homes. Though widely available, kerosene in Bangladesh typically costs $5 per month, or the equivalent of an average week’s salary—far too expensive to use for anything besides cooking.
This problem is not just limited to a handful of villagers the team met. There are, in fact, more than 100 million people in rural Bangladesh who are literally in the dark. Once the sun sets, countless children can no longer study or do homework, families and friends cannot interact, and all work ceases. And during the day the situation is not much better. Bangladesh is both blessed and cursed with a monsoon season, and for almost two-thirds of the year, the sun is blotted out by thick, dark storm clouds, denying these people sufficient light to live by.
The 2009 trip, which was organized by Project Pyramid, an interdisciplinary student organization that aims to alleviate world poverty, demonstrated the need for a sustainable lighting and power solution in rural Bangladesh. To tackle this issue, the organization proposed three different projects: building a biogas digester to convert animal waste into usable methane gas, creating an apparatus to turn that gas into power, and devising a product to generate more affordable lighting.
Project Pyramid presented these ideas to the School of Engineering, which, in turn, gave its fourth-year students the option of working on them as senior design projects. Each project would require a small team of engineering students led by a first-year MBA candidate. As a member of Project Pyramid, I volunteered to lead the team tasked with the affordable lighting solution. Although I hadn’t traveled to Bangladesh with the others in 2009, I was familiar with poverty in my native South Africa and knew what a positive impact a basic convenience like lighting could have on those affected. Joining me on the project were engineering students Greg Larson, Jared Robertson, Mason Hensley, Macy Skulman and Carly Jackson, all in the Class of 2010.
At the launch of the project, Clinical Professor of Management David Owens gave an insightful talk about innovation management, entreating us to consider the constraints when looking to innovate. This approach proved especially valuable for us as we highlighted two constraints that guided us throughout: (1) the product had to be affordable and meet a certain low price point, which we decided should be the $5 that was already being paid monthly for kerosene, and (2) the power source had to be sustainable and readily available to villagers and again, had to fall within our price point.
Initially we considered a number of different ways to power our product, from using the nuclear decay of radioactive materials to more traditional sources like wind and solar energy. Our list eventually narrowed to two choices: either solar or kinetic (human) power. Since Bangladesh has heavy cloud cover for most of the year, we decided a kinetic solution was best. (Although there are solar panels that can work on cloudy days, they are not affordable in this instance.) The engineers also proposed using a light-emitting diode (LED), which is energy efficient and reliable, and a modular design, which would give the user the option of changing power sources.
The potential for real innovation was not in a light that could be powered by different sources; it was in a kinetic device that could power any number of rechargeable items, including lights.
Our team had some clever ideas for using kinetic energy to power the lamp but settled on a foot-pedal design similar to that of manual sewing machines. The initial prototype was promising: It created a flickering light that varied as the pedal went through its arc. The catch, though, was that it needed to produce a steadier current and higher voltage to be a viable light source.
In discussing this challenge with others, including Stephen Songy, MBA’10, and Joseph Boulier, MBA’10—the two second-year MBA students heading up all the Project Pyramid teams—I soon realized our group should take a different approach. Rather than focusing on increasing the output of the foot pedal, I thought we should instead figure out a way to harness the energy it creates. In some sense we had the modular design backwards. The potential for real innovation was not in a light that could be powered by different sources; it was in a kinetic device that could power any number of rechargeable items, including lights.
Excited by this suggestion, the engineers on our team produced an updated prototype featuring a USB, instead of a proprietary, connector. At our next meeting we tested a compatible LED light, which worked fantastically. Next we plugged in an iPod and then a BlackBerry to the USB connector and charged them both using the foot pedal. After more meetings and tests, our product was finally ready for the end-of-the-year Project Pyramid showcase, where it performed as well as we had hoped and received a lot of attention from the other participants.
So, what is next for our product? Even though my teammates and I are no longer collaborating on it, the idea awaits a future group of students eager to change the world for the better. The next step will be to modify the design so that it can be easily mass-produced. It will also need to be tested in real-world conditions. And, if all goes as planned, I hope someday it will shed light, so to speak, on a problem that has plagued rural Bangladeshis for far too long.