A Discussion with Innovators

Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Mark Bent
CEO and President, SunNight Solar
Lauren Taylor
Director of Communications, Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF)
Isobel Coleman
Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


MARK BENT: Thanks.

First of all, let me thank Isobel. She wrote an editorial last summer on Huffington Post with Steve Israel, a congressman from New York. And I frequently argue with USAID; and I worked for State, so I know a lot of people at AID. I'm like, it's just not me, guys. It's smart people like this -- so that helps that a lot. So I appreciate that.

And the other thing is thanks to ExxonMobil. I served in Angola during the fighting, and about 18 months ago I was in Angola with ExxonMobil Foundation President Gerald McElvy.

And we flew to Cuanza Sul province, where we had put 20,000 of our lights. ExxonMobil supported that, funded it 100 percent.

And I had a wonderful time. Gerald doesn't like flying helicopters, but I had a wonderful time. And thanks to ExxonMobil for all their support.

It's really great for me to be here this morning. But I'll tell you, I'm kind of an angry, frustrated individual because all I do is make the product. And I do the very, very best I can at making the product, and I talk to people that use my product a lot.

But I rely on everybody else. I rely on you all, a lot of organizations in this room. And Katherine's here, Katherine Lucey's here, she's been talking about distribution. But I rely on you all to buy my products. I'll be real honest with you. I'm self-funded. It's a private company. I did this because I saw the need.

And we make, really, I think, the best portable electronically controlled lighting devices ever made. And I've got some in the room. John's going to pass them around, so you guys can play with them while we're doing it.

Let me just go over the three technologies really quickly. And all three of these technologies are doing exactly the same thing. They're all getting better and they're all getting cheaper at the same time.

The technologies are solar cells, photovoltaic panels; LEDs, light-emitting diodes; and rechargeable batteries. So you put all these things together in something like this.

What this does is it provides four to six hours of light every single night. It'll do so for two years on one AA battery. You change the AA battery out, another two years. This thing should last 20 years.

And so I don't really like the word "technology" so much. It's a tool. And so this tool will allow women to do things like study at night with their children, prepare food at night, to safety and security in refugee camps. We're heavily involved in Haiti with Richenda and President Clinton's group.

And so I make really, really, really good tools. And what I need is people like you all to help me distribute them in the developing world.

COLEMAN: You talk about the three different technologies in this one tool.

BENT: Right.

COLEMAN: So you've got the battery inside.

BENT: Right.

COLEMAN: You've got the panel. And how does this work? It has to be in direct sunlight?

BENT: Sure. What happens is -- well, this is my fifth-generation product, and my company's been in existence for four years. And so as the technology improves, I change.

Let me show you something. This is the circuit board inside this little light. This has 67 different components on it. This is really, really, really complicated. And so people look at this thing and they say, well, it's a flashlight.

Well, it is and it isn't. It provides lighting like a flashlight does, but it's really a remarkable product. You look at flashlights when they were developed around 1904, 1905 by Eveready Corporation. You go and Google, look at Google patents and put in Eveready.

You will see that patent in 1904, 1905; it is identical to what they make today. It's identical. It hasn't changed a bit. It's planned obsolescence. You buy a lot of batteries, because that technology hasn't changed. There's nothing else that hasn't changed in 100 years.

This solar cell is a mono crystalline solar cell. I've encapsulated it, I've covered it, in a new technology called PET EVA, a high-tech plastic. You know how everybody complains about plastic bottles never, ever deteriorating? Well, they don't, and this is what we put on top of this solar cell.

We just put some of these into Iraq with Navy SEALs. I'm a former Marine. And they came back and they said they were in a sandstorm and the surface of this got marked. They said, what do you think? And I said, well, as a Marine I'd tell you guys not to stay in a sandstorm. So next time, get under cover.


And then I had my engineers take one of these solar cells, and they totally abraded it. They took an X-ACTO knife, they took sandpaper, they took rocks. They destroyed it the best they could. The most they could make it lose was 20 percent of its energy generation power. So even if you really destroy it, it's still going to work.

We put a O-ring across the top of this thing so when it sits on -- when the whole front part of the bezel sits down, the O-ring is so taut you have to take a fishing line and put it over the cord to push it down, because the air will escape around the fishing line.

This thing is totally waterproof, 100 percent waterproof. You can go swimming with this thing, if you'd like.

This LED is made by Nichio Corporation out of Japan. It's the most efficient LED in the world. It really is pretty incredible. It will last for 40,000 hours, at least.

And so I know what the technologies will do. We use nickel-metal hydride batteries in here. The nickel-metal hydride is a really good battery.

Richenda talked about batteries in Africa, and I totally agree with her. And most of those are NiCads, nickel cadmium. Cadmium is really -- it's a heavy metal, and it's really bad for the environment. It's bad for people; it'll kill people. We don't use NiCads at all.

I sell these things for 10 bucks apiece, $10.

COLEMAN: How much does it cost to make it?

BENT: Well, six (dollars).

COLEMAN: Okay. And where --

BENT: I'll be real honest with you all. It costs me six bucks to make these things.

QUESTIONER: Are you selling them today?

BENT: Pardon?

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)


COLEMAN: He's going to take orders. And you have to buy 100, minimum order.

BENT: We sell these in the United States on retail for 20 bucks. But, like, for President Clinton, we sell them -- we just sold 20,000 of these to President Clinton for Haiti, for women's security and safety. Okay?

In Haiti, for example, with the population density in Port-au-Prince -- and Richenda and I were down there in November, before the earthquake, obviously. USAID estimates that one of these lights will impact 10 people every night. Okay? It will last for at least 10 years. It should last for 20 years, but it'll last for at least 10 years.

So I can't think of anything else that $10 will impact 10 people every single night for at least 10 years. The cost of this is amazing.

We work with a lot of nonprofits. And Richenda pointed out, it's 10 (percent) to 20 percent. Lighting Africa says it's maybe even 30 percent of disposable income.

I was in Kinshasa last year. And I speak French; I was asking everybody, how much do you spend on kerosene? About 20 bucks a month. We work with a group in Namibia, Elephant Energy. They estimate they spend $7 a month on candles. I can make these for six (dollars), sell them for 10 (dollars) wholesale, they get them in Africa for 15 (dollars) and they last forever. And so it's a huge, huge, huge impact on people.

And this is what it hits you. It hits you on your economics; you're not paying any more for that. You're not paying any more for the kerosene. But also, if it lasts six hours a night and you get it for seven days a week, you've got 42 hours of increased productivity every single night.

I talked to the Afghan ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad. And I said, sir, you don't have a lack of rug-making material, the wool or the dye -- and that's your biggest single legal export. What you have is a lack of hours in the day to do things.

Coca Cola estimates that if you put a light in a kiosk in Africa, they jump sales by 30 percent. I'm sure all of you, if you've been in Africa, you land at the airport and you see thousands, or hundreds, of people every night staying at the airport reading. And it shocks you. Well, that's the only place there's light is the national airport.

And so you have economics, you have education, you have safety and security, you have agricultural productivity.

I was just in Afghanistan in October and November. I trained the Mujaheddin in the 1980s, so I'm trying to go back to places that I screwed up previously and help them out.


And so what we're trying to do is convince AID and AID contractors that this is -- (wonderful for ?) -- agricultural productivity. In Afghanistan, they do a lot of work at night because of the heat during the day in the south. They change the irrigation systems at night to have water flow a different direction.

In Africa, I talked to a goat farmer in Ethiopia, and I said, what's the value proposition to you? He said, when my goats give birth at night, I can get there immediately. Your light gives me light where I need to aid in the birthing process. I have a 20 percent increase in the size of my herd. Huge, if you're a goat farmer.

I talked to another woman in Eritrea and I said, what's this for you? And she was really cute; she said, look, I cook over a dung fire, and that puts smoke in my eyes. And in Eritrea and Ethiopia, a lot of stuff is boiled, so -- the beans and things, the lentils. And she goes, and then I have the steam coming up into my eyes. And then I have a kerosene wick -- a little can with a wick -- and that comes in my eyes.

And she goes, how am I supposed to cook? And I'm, like -- and she goes, but I take your light and I go, oh, it's not done yet. For her, amazing time saving. It reminded me of those 1960 commercials of, look at my new Frigidaire -- washer or something. The exact same concept. Exact same concept.

COLEMAN: Okay, so it sounds like these should be flying off the shelf. Why are they not flying off the shelf?

BENT: Well, that's a good question. And when I started this company, I really thought -- I'm serious -- I thought there'd be people with big bushels of money outside my office door, just saying, here it is. Because this is such a no-brainer.

And I think there's two big reasons. One is -- and this is important -- innovation really disrupts things. And in Haiti, for example, the charcoal, people make money from cutting down trees. People make money from making those trees into charcoal. People make money from selling that charcoal.

Same thing with kerosene, the exact same issue. People are selling kerosene and making money. You're putting those people out of business.

The other thing is governments make a lot of money off the subsidies in India or in other places. I talked to a customs official in Mombasa last year, and I said -- he was trying to get me to pay duty.

And I said, you know that in Nairobi they passed a law. There is no duty on my products. And he laughed, and he said, Mr. Mark, Nairobi's a long way from Mombasa. And so you have an internal problem with the countries.

But the biggest issue I face which makes me angry, as I said earlier, is I talk to big organizations here, AID contractors, and they say, well, we do important things like malaria nets. We save lives. And my response is, if you got them lighting, they could buy their own malaria nets.

Or I talk to other groups and they say, well, people can just go to sleep at night. Well, they can, but then you lose the whole productivity thing. You lose the whole education thing.

I talked to the ambassador to Namibia last year. And he turned to me, he goes, poor Namibia. All we have is diamonds; no oil. My wife said, trade him lights for diamonds. It's easy.


But he told me, when he grew up his grandmother'd save money for kerosene so he was able to read at night. Because all the other boys had to work during the day, as he did, but at night he could study. So he got a grade school scholarship, then a college scholarship. Now he's their ambassador to D.C. Really brilliant man.

And with tears in his eyes, he told me, I go back to my home village and all those boys that I grew up with are herding cattle. The only difference was education.

So if we don't recognize it, as the developmental community, that lighting is transformational because it hits all those things that I talked about, then it's our failure. And I spend most of my time as an advocate going to the AID contractors saying, buy my lights because they do this or they do that or do this.

And the problem is you go to AID and you throw a rock down the corridor, you're going to hit 15 people that know a lot about maternal health. You're going to hit a whole bunch of people that know a lot about clean water development. There are no lighting experts at AID. There really aren't. Trust me.

And the reason for that is the technology's new. If you would have put 10,000 lights into Sudan like we did last year with UNHCR, regular flashlights, in three days you'd have 10,000 dead flashlights.

Well, now, with this new technology, with this lasting -- the nickel-metal hydride batteries last 750 to 1,000 nights before they need to be replaced. It's a game-changer, but it's all new. So tell people, and buy my lights.

COLEMAN: One of the things we heard from each of our panelists this morning was the challenge of making sure that the end user is involved in the design so that it actually works in the way that they need it to work.

How do you make sure that your products are being designed in such a way that the woman who needs it --

How is this used for, say, replacing the kerosene lantern so that it can light up the whole -- a whole room and that it can actually be used for reading or some of these other purposes that you're talking about?

BENT: There's two parts to that. The first part is you really have to talk -- I love Africa, and I love Africans. But you go to an African and say, do you like this? And they'll go, yup, it's great. It's wonderful. Well, what's wrong with it? Nothing's wrong with it. Then you have to spend a lot of time talking to people, figuring what exactly the issue is.

And one of the issues we faced early on with refugee camps, where I really wanted to focus initially, was the men were taking the lights. As soon as the U.N. pulled out, the men took the lights.

And so what we did was, the U.N. came to me and said this is a real issue. What do you think? And what we think, the U.N. thinks, is we should put serial numbers on the side. Then we'd go through camps during the day and we'd go up to people and say, show your ID card and show your light. And if they don't have it, they're in trouble.

I said, well, that pretty much is accusing everybody of being a thief, which is just going to irritate the living daylights out of everybody, and it's not fair.

And so what we did is we color-coded the lights. And it was really cool for me, because there is no concept of pink for women and blue for men in Africa. Maybe there is, but none of the places I ever lived.

But what we did was we went to the groups and we said the pink lights are just for women. Only for women. The yellow lights are only for students and the orange lights are only for the guards in the camp.

And it was really cool, because the camp started policing itself. Because if a man was carrying a pink light, all the other men would go, boy, you're a sissy. (Laughter.) And I'm telling you, it worked. It really did.

The Dinka in Southern Sudan, really beautiful people -- the men are, like, 6'2" and they're all really handsome. I watched one of them one day, and he was adjusting all the panels to meet the sunlight as it transferred.

And all the ones except for the pink he was able to touch. When the pink ones came along, he took a stick and moved each one -- (laughter) -- because he didn't want any of his buddies to accuse him of being a girl. You work within the society itself to try to work within their mores, instead of trying to say --

I was a diplomat. I've seen all the horror stories, and all of you will have heard the same stories. And so you really have to dig down deep and figure out.

But for example, we have this glow-in-the-dark strip on these, and we just increased the luminescence. There's a little blue one out there we made for President Clinton; it's got six times the amount of glow ring on it than normal.

I came out of the refugee camp with my 18-year-old daughter. I turned to her; I said you know, I really get upset because these lights are brightly colored. But if it's pitch darkness, how do you do it? My daughter quickly said, Daddy, put a glow-in-the-dark strip on them. And I'm like, yeah, that's a good idea.

And so the shape of this thing -- I have four children. I spend a lot of time in the bathroom, because that's the only time I have any time alone. (Laughter.) And so --

This is being taped, isn't it? (Laughter.)

COLEMAN: We can edit.

BENT: Okay. My wife had this shampoo bottle. We were living in Eritrea, and the shampoo bottle hooked over the shower curtain. So I'm determined to do something to pay Africa, because I really love Africa. And so I'm trying to figure out a design that'll work.

And I see my wife's shampoo bottle. So I squeeze all the shampoo out, I go downstairs to my wife. I'm like, look, this is it! And this is exactly what it looks like now. We'll put a panel on the side, LEDs in the front, batteries in the middle, and we're good to go.

Well, my wife goes, where's my shampoo? (Laughter.)

But I get design innovations from talking to people, from looking at people, and also coming back to the people; and saying, what do you really need?

And you did it this morning -- and everybody does it. We need solar lanterns. Well, that's not the way LEDs really work. If you put a solar lantern -- if you mask an LED with a frosted cover, all you're doing is reducing the amount of luminescence of that LED. It really, truly doesn't work.

This works. This LED puts out light at an 80-degree angle. So if you hang this thing up at night, it's a portable light bulb. And actually, putting anything over this thing only reduces the amount of light that people get. But we're so accustomed to the old technology of a center, incandescent bulb or a kerosene lantern being very bright in the center, we want to put something on the table.

The problem with that is if I put this on the table, and this was my high beam, my eye never adjusts. My pupil never dilates out. If I hang this thing up and I don't look up into it, it's like a regular light bulb. It's a portable light bulb.

The other thing that really kind of annoys me is people go, well, this is a temporary solution, because we need to put -- in Haiti, we need to put the power plant back.

Well, when the power plant was there before, you had maybe 15 (percent) or 16 percent of the population having access to it. How are you going to make it any better this next time around?

This is a power plant. It generates electricity. I have a distribution line. It's about an inch long, but it goes from my power plant to my lighting source. And in most places in the world, power is lighting. The first application is lighting.

I also have a storage capacity and I have the ability to very carefully manage that power into it. And so if this thing lasts 20 years and it costs 10 bucks, it is the solution. It's not an interim solution; it is the solution.

Now, I could play around with it. I can put the panel on the roof and I can run a lead inside. I can put a battery box inside. I can put a permanent light bulb inside. In a lot of societies, that's great. In Kiberia, outside of Nairobi, bad idea.

You put a solar panel on your roof in Kiberia, A, it's gone. And B, it says, I've got money. And so you don't want to do that.

It was funny. When I went to Ethiopia and I talked to the women that I gave lights to -- because I only give lights to women because the men tend to sell them or not use them properly. They would answer every question except for one: Where do you put your light during the day to get it charged up? That was a big secret to them, because they didn't want anybody to know, because they were so valuable to them.

COLEMAN: Let's turn to Lauren now. Lauren works with SELF, and SELF does something slightly different from what SunNight Solar does. And really works more at the village level, rather than at an individual level.

So maybe, Lauren, you can take us through. She's got a few slides she's going to take us through about what SELF is working on now.

LAUREN TAYLOR: So for those of you who aren't familiar with the Solar Electric Light Fund, we are 20 years old. We've worked in 20 countries. We're the leading independent NGO bringing cutting-edge, pilot solar applications to the developing world.

We got started with solar home lighting systems using older technology. Mark is great with the evolution of that technology. But in 1997 we spun off SELCO, which Richenda mentioned earlier.

We proved that the solar home lighting system was an effective commercial model, and so we continued with developing larger-scale applications of how many different ways can we use solar in the developing world, solving issues like food security, solving issues like clean water, solving issues like access to distance learning and education in remote areas?

And so everywhere we work are in off-grid areas. You heard the statistics this morning. And so there is no alternative for power other than diesel generator systems.

What I wanted to share with you this morning was -- (audio break) -- we're going to take a look really briefly at an agricultural application.

One of our core principles at Solar Electric Light Fund is that the villages who approach us self-determine what's of most interest to them. And so in this particular community, in the Kalalé district of Northern Benin, food security was the number-one issue they wanted to address first.

We have a portfolio of applications. We've developed a solar integrated development model where we put discrete solar systems for schools, for health clinics, for street lighting, for agriculture, but we allow them to choose what they want to do first.

So in this region of Benin, there is famine for six months of the year because there is no rainfall. Approximately 85 (percent) to 90 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture. And the women can spend five, six hours a day carrying water just to water the small farming plot.

So here you see traditional women with their family at the river's edge in a community that actually has access to surface water.

This is before we did our solar intervention in one of the two villages where we piloted this. And you can see the tiny size of the plots. And in the distance you can see the woman hand-carrying water, an extremely unproductive way to try to produce agriculture for the village.

These villages are 100 kilometers from a paved road and have absolutely no access to an electric grid.

So SELF was approached by this community and created a very elegant, very simple, very sustainable solution of combining solar water pumping, which is a technology that has existed before, and micro-drip irrigation, which is another technology that had existed before.

But marrying the two of these together created a capacity that had not been used before.

Drip irrigation is rapidly spreading throughout the developing world, but it has a large dis-adoption rate because if you don't have the energy to support it, then it falls into disuse.

So you can see here the solar panels, the reservoir, and a simple gravity-fed system. The reservoir -- we did two pilots. We did one where we drilled a well in a village that didn't have access to surface water, and another project where we bring water in from the river where there is access.

The reservoir holds about a three-day supply, and the energy is stored in the height of the column of water. So it just uses a very simple gravity flow to feed the drip irrigation tubes that also deliver fertilizer to the plants. It's extremely effective in terms of reducing the amount of water used, delivering the water and the fertilizer right to the base, to the roots of the plants.

Core component of all of our work all along has been training women, and not just in the agricultural process, but also in the installation of the solar systems, the maintenance -- (audio break) -- the application, understanding the technology.

The size of -- this is actually very modest. It's about a one-kilowatt system for the village.

And this is the first test of the water being released from the reservoir into the drip irrigation tubing.

And here you get a more visual image of the reservoir itself, and the beginning of the crops.

We've partnered with Stanford's Program for Food Security and the Environment. They have been monitoring this project now for just over two years, and in January they published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Here you see this group of women training each other, learning how to do the maintenance on the feed lines.

We love this photograph, because the women are actually dancing in the fields, celebrating what this has done.

The women report that they spend 50 percent less time in the gardens than they were doing before, and the gardens were 10 to 30 times smaller than the area that they're able to farm now. Our three pilots have been half a hectare each, which is about an acre and a quarter.

So now you can see the difference in just the beginning stage of the crop development.

And here is getting close to harvest time. A huge, very transformative difference from what you saw in the earlier plots.

Each of these are handled by women's farming collectives. There are approximately 30 to 35 women in each of the collectives. Here you see them getting ready to march off to market day.

The women are keeping approximately 18 percent of the vegetables that they grow for their own consumption. Through this project, they've been able to increase vegetable consumptions by up to three to five servings a day, which is our recommended daily allowance.

And so it's having a huge impact on not only food security, but the malnutrition issues that are prevalent in this region. Kwashiorkor, for example, is a very common problem. Up to 47 percent of the children in this region are stunted in their growth because of malnutrition.

So they're growing high-value cash crops. The women, or the people in this region are subsisting on, prior to this intervention, less than a dollar a day, and spending up to 60 percent of their income on food and staples.

With this project, the women have -- are now earning 7 (dollars) to $8 a week. This is the first income these women have ever earned in their life.

So here you can see the healthy harvest being sold at market day. And one of our women -- we lovingly refer to her as Cabbage Lady -- (chuckles) -- showing off very proudly her produce that she's growing.

And I believe that's our last slide.

COLEMAN: How much does one of these systems cost? How is it being installed? What's the financing mechanism here?

TAYLOR: So the villagers themselves provide the local labor. We have a video that shows how -- the men get involved in clearing the fields, and everyone takes part in the village in terms of doing (natural ?) local installation. So they supply the labor.

The cost of the equipment involved is about $18,000. And Stanford calculated there's a 2.3-year payback period on this investment, which -- we're very excited to see that. It means that there are applications here for access to capital. (Audio break) -- payback period.

Our cost as an NGO, and again, we're piloting this, so this is first time -- everything from ordering the equipment to navigating customs, shipping logistics, and getting it to this very remote part of Benin -- our cost involved in getting it in is $125,000.

COLEMAN: In addition to the 18 (thousand dollars) for the equipment?

TAYLOR: No, that's including.

COLEMAN: That's including?

TAYLOR: That's including. But our hope is (their ?) commitment to this region -- there are 44 villages, two of which we've served.

The next step is to bring them clean water and to bring them micro enterprise centers -- again, with discrete solar systems so that the women can begin using electricity to generate income in additional ways, now that we've freed them up from having to carry water and we've dramatically cut short the amount of time they're having to spend to produce these high-value vegetables.

Each of these gardens is throwing off something like just under two tons of produce a month, which is pretty staggering.

So what we hope is that as we ramp this up to scale, we'll be able to achieve economies and the cost will come down significantly.

COLEMAN: But even if the cost comes down to, say, $30,000 all in -- the village could never afford that. So what's the idea? Someone would front the up-front costs and then there'd be a payback? Is that the idea from the village, or --

TAYLOR: Well, the idea, on the long term, is to have supply chains where you have local manufacturers, you have local distribution, you have local installation. We train technicians there on the ground so we're creating the future generations of that.

But the -- to not have to deal with an NGO providing this, and so getting the cost down, with the equipment at 18,000 (dollars), now if we can get women access to traditional banking capital --

Which, if you have hard assets, which we do, and you have a payback period of under three years, which we do, then it becomes creating the political will and the institutional will to grant access to capital to these women in these communities.


Questions from any of you? Sandy?

We've lost our microphone for -- here it is. Microphone.

QUESTIONER: So -- I have a question for both.

Mark, so with the previous panel, you heard how important it is that women have their hands free. So I just wondered when you might have access to your light that has -- so that women can have their hands free.

And for Lauren, I would just like to ask how do you choose which countries you do your pilots with, and then are you going to do another pilot, or what's next?

BENT: The hands-free is really easy to do, because the three technologies, you can put them together any way you want -- the solar cell, the batteries, and the LED. So it's a matter of just adjusting the end use.

And it's really important. We're working with JHPIEGO, and we're working with them on midwife programs in Afghanistan. And obviously, that's something where they want to have their hands free. It's really easy. It's just a matter of capital and a matter of people ordering it.

Again, I really thought when I made these things that I wouldn't have any problem selling them. If somebody came to me and said, Mark, we'd like to have 100,000 of those -- a heartbeat, no problem. I can do it. It's just a matter of --

You know, Richenda pointed out there's probably three, maybe four companies that are in this field. All of us are about on the same level. And there's 2 billion people out there, so it's not like we don't have a big market share. So -- and the competition is good, because it makes us all get better.

But with the limited capital, it's just really hard to do all the different fun things that we could be doing. Trust me, there's a ton of stuff that we have that I want to do. My wife keeps saying no, do this first, make this accessible, then you can play with all the other toys you want to play with.

Because I think Steve Jobs is a brilliant guy, but he doesn't really invent anything. He puts together existing technologies and says you've got have an iPhone. Well, he didn't really invent anything; he just took stuff that's already there and put it together.

I want to do the same thing for the developing world. It's just a matter of capital, in getting there.

QUESTIONER: I have one of your flashlights.

BENT: Thanks.

I didn't pay for that. That wasn't set up or anything -- (Laughter.) No, they're good stuff.

TAYLOR: So to answer your question about how we choose our countries, the communities come to Solar Electric Light Fund. And it's -- the saddest part of our day is how many people we turn away, how many phone calls we get every day from all around the world of people who want what we have.

Our biggest constraint is funding. And so we're unable to take on new projects that don't at least have the beginning of the funding component going to them. But what we focus on is trying to develop and perfect the model in the pilot stage to prove the commercial viability of it.

So the next step in this process, we've proven the model here, but we want to replicate it, grow it to 44 villages in this district where we can then prove the economies of scale.

And our hope and our belief is that there will be a commercial company. Much as we spun off SELCO in the days of the early home lighting, there will be a commercial company that sees the viability of this application, not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but all around the world, for a much more efficient form of irrigation and agricultural production and addressing issues of food security.

And so -- but it's getting it to that next step.

COLEMAN: Mark referred to an article that I wrote, I think it was last summer, with Congressman Israel called "Roll Back the Darkness," about the potential of solar and other technologies in a whole variety of ways.

When we were writing that, Congressman Israel, for obvious reasons, kept asking what's the domestic economic here in the United States? Who makes these things? Where is it manufactured? Where are these panels coming from?

And I think the answer is the fact that very little of it comes from the United States. It's pretty much all sourced, this stuff, from China at this point.

Could you talk a little bit about -- and also Lauren -- those solar panels that we saw being installed? Where are they coming from? Who's making it? And is the United States missing out on a huge commercial opportunity here?

BENT: Oh, we're missing out big-time. It's --

I worked for our government for -- I worked for the American government for 20 years, going to China and giving China employment in my technology. I transfer technology.

I bring my engineers from New Zealand and Canada and the United States, and when I go to my Chinese factories, they literally videotape everything that these guys put on the board.

And I have a real problem with theft of my technology. And I have a law firm in Shanghai that says no, Mark has three patents in China to do that. But I come back to the United States and -- I live in Houston -- and I try to manufacture my lights in Houston, I can't do it.

The Chinese government pays my manufacturers 18 percent every time they export my product. I pay 12.5 percent duty to get my product to the United States.

And so -- and I've talked to DOE, and DOE helps me informally, but to go through any of the bureaucracy with any of our government organizations, I don't have the bandwidth to spend the months and months and months of going through the different levels of funding to do it. So I don't even do it. I don't even try, because it's just -- it's such a daunting task.

And I complain a lot to different people. I was in Afghanistan. Like I said, I talked to USAID. They have hundreds of millions of dollars they are trying to get out to the Afghan people, but they come back to me and they say, well, where's this been done before on a large scale?

And I say, well, I've done it with ExxonMobil, I've done it with these other groups, but never with AID on a large scale. And so our government, the bureaucrats tend to not want to do things that are the first ones out of the box.

And then I go to AID contractors -- and I don't mean to be critical. I don't mean to shoot the people that are trying to help me. But I go to them and I say, hey, about my lights? And they say, well, how many people can we hire? What's the training program? I'm, like, there is no training program. You hand it to them.

And they go, well, what's the distribution program in Afghanistan? And I say, you get a really fast pickup truck, put them in the back, get to a village, kick it out the back, go to the next village, do it again.


And they say, well, we normally hire consultants. We normally do this, and how many offices are we going to -- I'm, like, you can't. Just buy my lights. And that does not sustain a large AID contractor.

And so the system, in my opinion, needs to be reviewed. If we have a $100 million program in Afghanistan and $60 million of that stays in the United States, boy, something's wrong, folks. It really is.

COLEMAN: Lauren?

TAYLOR: The sourcing for our solar panels has come traditionally from American companies and European companies. And their manufacture has been largely in the United States and Europe, although I know a lot of that manufacture is shifting.

There are other component parts -- batteries, wiring, things like that. Although there are no batteries involved in this particular project. This is directly coupled; it only operates during the day, so there's no need to store energy.

But we're in a little bit different of a situation because we're not dealing with an assembled product, where you're trying to -- you drastically reduce the labor component from the assembly of the small bits and pieces.

BENT: Speaking of labor, people ask me a lot -- and I talked to the Clinton people yesterday here in town, taking advantage of this trip up -- and I'd love to assemble in Haiti. I really would.

But you're not going to manufacture this in Haiti. You're not going to do a solar cell in Haiti, and you're not going to do batteries in Haiti. You might do the injection molding in Haiti, but then you're going to run into the problem with power.

And so I can do it, but from an economic aspect it's a subsidy. And then at end of it, why do something that you know in advance doesn't make economic sense? Because if it's not sustainable, it's not going to happen.

And so all the time -- I'll be going to Africa next month for a Lighting Africa meeting in Nairobi, and every single African that I know says we want to make these in Africa.

Well, I can, but it's going to cost you more than it would be doing it the way the rest of the world does it -- have the Chinese make it. And I don't like that system, but it is the system. I can't make these for six bucks in Houston.

COLEMAN: Christina?

QUESTIONER: Hi. Mr. Bent, I completely agree on the immediate recovery of Haiti and the need for lights and the safety they provide for 10 people or so.

But I'm just curious. In the long-term recovery plan, if you have the same -- if you have one pool of money, aid to spend, how would you marry the two needs of putting up the grid in Port-au-Prince to get the production center back up with the possibilities that would be available to the rural people with these lights?

So if you had the same pool of money, how would you spend it on those two?

BENT: Well, it's a great question. And I think the answer is we need to look at it in a totally different way.

If you look at a concept of distributed power -- meaning instead of coming from a grid, coming through a distribution line into my home -- what if I could have all of the needs that I really want met and generated at my home?

And I think that's going to be a combination of technologies. And I'm personally a fan of a hybrid system, a solar/wind system.

But the cool part about this thing is, as I mentioned earlier, all three of these technologies are going down in cost and going up in reliability and performance. And so what if you had in your home not the air conditioning that we -- that's going to take so much power in the United States, but what if you had solar power consumer products?

What if you were able to purify your water using UV LEDs that penetrated the water and either killed the organisms or disrupted their DNA, and so you had the ability to filter water in your home using a coconut carbon, a charcoal? And you were able to treat the water using UV LEDs?

What if you were able to do the cooking at home with a solar cooker? What if you were able to do your lighting at home?

So basically, you're getting all the benefits of a consumer society, a consumer product society, but you're not relying on the grid.

Because let's look at Congo, for example, DRC. You're never going to put a grid across Congo. It's just not going to happen. And maybe they have the hydro, but let's look at Uganda. They're having a terrible problem right now because all their hydro plants are suffering from global warming and the change in the flow of water.

And so the only things that are really going to be reliable are solar and wind. And wind, if you look at the maps of Africa, a lot of the places wind's not going to be feasible. And so I think solar is the way to go, because of the reduction in cost, the long --

One of these panels will last 20 years. The silicone will generate electricity for 20 years. So I think what you need to do is shove the technology forward. And we're almost there, that you can have everything that we have in the United States, but you do it distributed-power. Totally distributed.

And it's feasible. It's not science fiction. I invented this thing, or developed this thing. And so -- and I Google really well, is my only secret. And if I can do it, it's -- trust me, it's not that hard.

COLEMAN: I would just comment, again, I was so taken in Rwanda about this lack of electricity.

And the biggest investment that has been made in Rwanda is a $320 million energy play to capture methane from Lake Kivu, which will dramatically increase the energy supply in that country.

But right now, 5 percent of the population's on the grid, and they're saying that this huge investment could potentially double it to 10 percent. But still, 90 percent of the people will not be on the grid.

And Rwanda's a tiny country that, in fact, had strong economic growth and is very tightly managed today, and --

BENT: Good government. Good government.

MS. : Good government. And to compare that, which is a tiny, little, relatively well-managed country, to a place like Congo or many of the other countries in Africa, you just realize that we're going to be waiting a long time for the grid to come.

BENT: One of the things that I think people really don't focus on, and I didn't focus on it till a couple of years ago -- I was in Addis Ababa, and I was at the ambassador's residence, (Donald Yamamoto ?) was our ambassador at the time.

And there were probably five or six of us around the table, all experienced people in Africa. And we all kind of came to the same realization that when we put lighting in a village, it wasn't like they'd had a temporary power outage and we're giving them something back. They never had lighting.

You look at the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan right now. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times called it Fred Flintstone Land, which is probably the best explanation of what it is, just a place that hasn't changed since Biblical times. They've never had lighting. The government of Afghanistan, they didn't have lighting before the Russians came in.

And so if you introduce lighting in these societies that never, ever, ever had lighting, how will it transform them?

And I'm sorry, I don't like the argument of, well, do they -- is this beneficial to their society? I'm sorry; when it gets dark, people still want to have lighting. I don't care if you're in Afghanistan or you're in Rwanda. You're not disrupting their society in a negative fashion. You're giving them the ability to have a social change in their culture which is transformational.

Most of these societies, as everybody knows, everybody disperses during the day. They go to their village, their farms, they do everything else. They come back at night and then, if they do have a collective time together, it's in front of a fire.

And most people, as I said earlier, they just go to sleep. I gave a talk to some zoologists in Houston, and they said mammals have the ability to hibernate. And it's true. Until quite recently, in Northern Europe, most people hibernated most of the wintertime because they didn't have enough food just to stay alive.

And so you are disrupting their societies, but you're doing it in an incredibly beneficial way.


QUESTIONER: I just have a question for each of you.

Mr. Bent, you talk about the challenges with traditional aid. And I wonder to what extent you find it's helpful to create demand from the bottom up? So to go to either women's groups or women's organizations or to farmers' collectives or whatever, in terms of growing the demand for a product like yours?

Because perhaps that's a suggestion for making the aid model in some ways more responsive -- although I know that that's a significant challenge.

And Ms. Taylor, I was wondering to what extent the traditional aid delivery is helpful or a hindrance to the work that you're doing.

BENT: You know, one of the cool things about our society nowadays is communication is so instantaneous. And so --

We had a group talk to us. They called us up and they were laughing. It was a church group; they were going back to Uganda. And they said that they had called the person that had access to the village, and they had communicated with him and then they got an e-mail from him.

And they said, look, we're going to come back again this summer, and we're going to be bringing Bibles and clothes and food and toys. And what do you want?

And the village came back and said, we don't want food and we don't want books and we don't want toys, because we've got all of those things here. What we want is those solar torches you gave us before, because we can't get those here.

And every society that we've been in, every single one, whether it's South America or Africa, the response has been overwhelming. I just talked to a woman in Tanzania; she was in Dar es Salaam passing out our lights.

And I said, what's the reactions when you pass out lights to women that have AIDS in the slum? Because they're shunned. And she said, either one of two things. Either they're just totally quiet, they're so stunned, or they cry.

And so I have no doubt that the response on the ground level is there. The problem I face is none of us really look at lighting as an issue, because we take it for granted. We walk over to the wall and hit the switch.

And so when I go to people and say -- even people in the developmental world, and say lighting's an issue, they go, no, it's not. Food's an issue. Safety's an issue. Security is an issue. Health is an issue. But lighting's not an issue.

And I try to convince them that, hey, wait a minute. All those things you just talked about, lighting has a positive impact on. But it just --

This is the reason I love coming places like this, because people go, oh, wow, this is transformational. And so a lot of it's education, I think.

TAYLOR: And Mark, I think that leads nicely into your question for me, because in the early days of Solar Electric Light Fund, the organization really struggled in terms of building relationships with the institutional aid, traditional aid, for exactly these reasons.

And it's a small organization. SELF is very tiny and has had limited internal resources to navigate the waters of these institutions and to get on their radar screen.

So what happens, we find, is if we can get in front of them, get some visibility and show them the impact of what we're doing, we're gaining greater acceptance. But really, the challenges for our organization have been about limited visibility and some of the resistance that you just pointed out in terms of directly with lighting.

And then just getting the word out about what we do and the dramatic success of the impact of the programs that we have.

COLEMAN: I think we have time for just one more question.


QUESTIONER: Hi. This question is for Mark. Alice Dear.

Mark, to what extent are you partnering with the private sector to put in the lights in different places? I think immediately of Coca Cola. You mentioned that the sales increase when the kiosk is lighted.

How about them putting a logo, or how about you putting their logo on a light and distributing that? It's great advertising; people can see to get to the kiosk that's lit.

But other companies as well, just as promotion. I think about the Niger Delta power -- energy companies putting -- (inaudible).

BENT: Oh, yeah. I totally agree with you --

QUESTIONER: And one last part of that, I think when you were talking about people say, people go to bed at night. I would think family planning organizations would see a great benefit in having the lights distributed.


BENT: You know, I put on my website one time that -- (continuing laughter, call from audience). No, you're totally right. Please, no one be offended, because I love Africa.

But if you don't have a strong Judeo-Christian social prohibition against having sex, you tend -- a lot of people tend to have -- (laughter). AIDS researchers, friends of mine -- people have sex with a lot of different people in Africa, because there's not a social prohibition against it.

I lived in Eritrea, and people'd come in and try and talk to the young people, saying don't have sex unprotected. And they're, like, okay, we're going to be going against machine guns tomorrow morning against the Ethiopians. We're not really that concerned today about that.

And so I totally agree with you. Having options of things to do at night is wonderful.

I'd love to work with PIH or some other people saying, putting AIDS messages on the side of the lights and doing things like that. I'm very open to collaboration, and I work with as many groups as I possibly can.

Like I said, I try to do one thing really, really well, and that's make a really great product. And I spend a lot of time and a lot of energy going --

The encapsulation of this solar cell is epoxy. In three to five years, it's going to darken. After eight or nine years, it's going to be useless because the epoxy just does not withstand the UV. Okay?

This is totally different. Ten years minimum, 100 percent UV protection.

So I spend a lot of time on developing the products, but I depend on my partners, like ExxonMobil and other groups, to help me get them out. And so I'm on board.

I don't want to be out there. All I want to do is make the lights and use all the contacts I have in the oil industry, other places, to make them.

COLEMAN: Okay. Well, I think I certainly learned a lot from this, and I'm going to go buy some lights so I have them in my suitcase when I travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan this summer.

So both Lauren and Mark, thank you so much for helping us understand just the products and the innovation better.

And we're going to take, again, just a very short break and have the next panelists up here. And there is lunch between 12:00 and 1:00. Mark and Lauren will be around; you can ask them additional questions then, and if you haven't had a chance to look at some of the products and play around with them.

Thank you. Thank you both. (Applause.)







Top Stories on CFR


A comprehensive U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement would benefit U.S. companies, bolster Taiwan's economic security, and underscore Washington's interest in cross-Strait stability.


Arab citizens of Israel represent one-fifth of the population and could be poised to gain a larger voice in the country’s domestic affairs.


Iran holds its presidential election on June 18, and turnout is expected to be low as the country deals with a battered economy and the ongoing pandemic. But does the Iranian president matter?