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Sustained innovation
Sustained innovation

Apr 25 2022 / Round the Table Magazine

READ 00:05:16

Sustained innovation

MDRT Annual Meeting charity partner Liter of Light teaches people living without electricity how to build solar lights from plastic bottles.

Topics covered

The Philippines, November 2013. Typhoon Haiyan has killed 6,000 people and displaced more than 4 million. Light is scarce after 20-foot waves destroyed sea-adjacent power plants, and lamps will take five months to arrive from China or India.

The solution comes from the 2022 MDRT Annual Meeting charity partner Liter of Light, which teaches people in electricity-deficient communities how to build solar lights using common items like plastic bottles, motorcycle lightbulbs and PVC pipes. When the illuminated villages caught the eye of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the organization (which will receive 50% of the donations to the MDRT Foundation during the meeting, held June 26–29 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA) got the first boost of funding to expand its work. Liter of Light now operates in 32 countries, including Senegal, India, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.

“We’re not only able to help in a disaster situation,” said Liter of Light board of trustees director Ami Valdemoro, “but we also give the people livelihood.”

It wasn’t until a few years later, however, that Liter of Light (which is also the charity partner for the MDRT Global Conference, held August 28–31 in Sydney, Australia) crossed paths with the MDRT Foundation, thanks to Janet N. Ng, FChFP, CEPP. After hiring a lead generator to help find new prospects at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the 13-year MDRT member from Metro Manila, Philippines, connected with Illac Diaz, Liter of Light executive director. Diaz explained the organization’s work as well as their resource challenges due to COVID-19. Impressed by the passion for helping people, Ng particularly liked that Diaz and Valdemoro shared her belief in helping others support themselves (possible community chapters are evaluated based on local leadership, availability of parts and more) rather than merely handing out money.

"I am not rich in such a way that I can shell out a huge amount of money myself. What I am rich with is connections."
—Janet Ng

“I was born and raised here, and I’ve seen how poor the poor really are,” she said. “If you want to help somebody, you have to help them not only establish the foundation but make sure that they can get out of the situation they’re in.”

Ng then helped Diaz prepare the necessary materials to apply for support from the MDRT Foundation, and the rest is history. While the details and impact of Liter of Light’s work could fill many pages of this magazine, here are just a few important points to start with:

  • Liter of Light emerged from Diaz’s My Shelter Foundation, which started building schools in rural areas in 2006. In these locations, bringing in manufactured materials is expensive, and there is little access to electricity. For light, Diaz says, women travel as long as four hours to get a drum of kerosene to fill kerosene lamps, which are expensive, toxic and dangerous. Diaz wanted to shift the communities’ dependence from kerosene to solar light, with each solar light reducing carbon emissions by 1,000 kilos over five years.
  • Another benefit of this change is preventing accidents. Children were often burned when they accidentally knocked over kerosene lamps as they slept in their homes.
  • Training people to build solar lamps (which pre-pandemic took place in person but has been virtual since 2020) takes just 30 minutes. The lights last five years.
  • More light, not surprisingly, has many other benefits, such as safety. After creating corridors lit by the hand-built solar streetlights, Valdemoro says, crime incidences declined by up to 70%.
  • During the pandemic, Liter of Light created an ice bucket challenge-style campaign that led to more than 4,000 people building solar lights from inside their home and sending them to communities that lost tourism revenue — which previously provided money for the kerosene lamps — because of COVID-19. Since the campaign started, the organization has helped empower 15,000 families (an estimated 75,000 people).
  • Diaz’s passion for work like this took off when he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a teacher set up a development laboratory and encouraged students to devote their time and energy to solve problems for those in need, rather than come up with ideas that make money for those who are already living well. Valdemoro started her career as a public health advocate, working on policies and grassroots interventions in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. She and Diaz, who are married, met in graduate school at Harvard University.

Seeing the light

The organization, with offices in the Philippines, Italy and the U.S., is a case study in using effort and intelligence for good. When people ask why Liter of Light doesn’t charge the people empowered to build the lights a franchise fee, Diaz explains that the point of the technology is not to exist as one philanthropy or to be owned by one person or government but to get into the hands of millions.

“Many of these villages have not seen light for generations,” he said, noting tribes in Kenya who use fire inside their houses for light and to cook. “We teach them how to make the light, and it’s amazing to see them realize they can do this by hand.”

“The fact that these communities feel empowered to do something that measurably improves their lives is a beautiful thing to witness,” Valdemoro adds, recalling a visit to a community in Brazil, where one Liter of Light ambassador had lost two sons to gun violence and works to light the community so that tragedy doesn’t happen to another family. “To see what happens when knowledge comes into play and people have more tools that give them access to build new solutions inspires us to continue this work.”

Meanwhile, Ng’s involvement shows how members can help facilitate great things for causes they support.

“I am not rich in such a way that I can shell out a huge amount of money myself,” she said. “What I am rich with is connections. What I can give in huge amounts is time and talent.”

How you can help

  • Donate: All donations to this campaign will be split evenly between Liter of Light and the MDRT Foundation’s Global Grants Program.
  • Volunteer: Sign up to make solar lights at the 2022 MDRT Annual Meeting and Global Conference
  • Learn: Visit mdrtfoundation.org/LiterofLight

Contact: Janet Ng janetnng@bridges-ph.com