It’s something most children in Davis take for granted. With the flick of a switch, their bedrooms are illuminated, making it possible to do homework, read a book or play after dark.
It’s clean, it’s safe and it’s oh-so-easy to come by, thanks to electricity.
But for children living off the grid, light is a precious commodity.
In fact, for the 1.6 billion people across the globe who live off the grid, everything becomes more difficult after sunset — children can’t study, their parents can’t work, and relying on kerosene or candles can be dangerous. An evening of breathing in a kerosene lamp’s emissions is said to equal smoking two packs of cigarettes. Meanwhile, the open flames have been known to burn entire houses down.
Then there is the expense of buying kerosene and replacing candles — a huge hurdle in itself in Third World countries.
That’s one of the reasons Davis residents Nancy and John Keltner were so excited to come across a Little Sun while traveling in Europe recently.
The couple first encountered the little flower-shaped lights in an art museum in Austria. Created by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen, the lamps are powered by three AAA batteries and a solar panel on the back. After five hours charging in the sun, each flower provides 10 hours of soft light or four hours of bright light.
The Little Sun designers called their product “a work of art that works in life.
“It transforms the light that is for all of us into light that is for each of us.”
Little Suns were created for a simple purpose — to bring clean, reliable, affordable light to the world, and since the Berlin-based business behind them was launched in 2012, more than 165,000 Little Suns have been distributed worldwide.
But they aren’t given away; rather, Little Suns are sold online for $30 each.
“That’s a shockingly high price for Africa,” Nancy Keltner noted, but the profits are used to help individuals in eight African countries launch their own small businesses selling Little Suns at locally affordable prices. Jobs are created, communities benefit and most important of all, there is light, she explained.
The company behind the lamps acknowledges it sells the lights for higher prices in parts of the world with electricity and works with retail partners who agree to take a reduced profit margin to support the project.
The Keltners were thrilled to learn about all of it.
“There was just something so exciting about bringing light into darkness,” Nancy Keltner said.
The couple returned to Davis and began spreading the word about Little Suns, including to their grandchildren, who attend Willett Elementary School in Davis.
Now, thanks to an anonymous donor, the Keltners’ two grandchildren at Willett, along with their classmates, have received Little Suns of their own.
Nancy Keltner met with both classes last week — second-graders in Lindsay Upcraft’s class and fourth-graders in Jim Reevesman’s class — and told them all about the lights and what they can do for the people who need them most.
“I told them how many people in the world are without electricity,” she said. “We talked about poverty, talked about the difference electricity can make in a child’s life. And I told them how they use candles and kerosene, and how dangerous it is, how it can burn down houses.”
“Then I asked them, ‘Why would anyone give kids from a place as privileged as Davis… these lights?'”
Because, one student promptly told her, “we’ll be ambassadors.”
“Hopefully our parents or anyone else we see will see these and want to help people in Africa,” fourth-grader Aubrey Brosnan explained the next day.
Kids in Africa, she said, “need these lights, because their candles are each only good for less than an hour. With these, they can do homework at night, check on their animals at night. It will be so much better.”
“They’re really helpful,” agreed classmate — and the Keltners’ grandson — Kai Keltner.
When asked by Reevesman how many had already told people about Little Suns and what buying them would mean for people around the world living off the grid, many hands went up. Apparently, the little ambassadors were already at work.
“Children helping children,” Nancy Keltner noted. “There’s something magical about it.”
They’ll get good use in Davis too. Kai, for one, plans to use his when he takes the garbage out after dark or while camping.
Little Suns may be purchased only online from the Berlin-based company operating the Little Sun Project. The website, http://littlesun.com, explains how profits are used to strengthen off-the-grid communities from the inside out, training young local entrepreneurs in eight African countries to become Little Sun sales agents, and powering their small businesses with an initial seed capital of Little Sun lamps.
The company also provides business starter kits and entrepreneurial training and makes it easy to build up a customer base.
“People are allowed to have them and, as they save money on candles and kerosene, they pay for them,” Nancy Keltner said. “It’s not a charity, they are empowering the people to buy and sell them.”
The savings add up — over the course of two years, Little Sun users will save 90 percent of what they would spend on kerosene lighting, all while using strong, better light, the company explained.
Currently Nancy Keltner said, Little Suns are being distributed in eight countries — Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Senegal, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria.
Since the lights were introduced in 2012, 40,374 have been sold in off-the-grid areas and 2,200 tons of CO2 emissions have been eliminated, the company reports.
For the Willett students, said Kai’s dad Carter Keltner, being part of this movement “opens up not only their world geographically and socially, but also makes them more aware of environmental issues.”
And he hopes the presence of Little Suns in the hands of some little Davis residents raises awareness of the help that can come to countries off the grid around the world.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.