This semester, at New York University’s (NYU) Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), we were presented with a very interesting — albeit challenging — project focus in our class “Design for UNICEF”: to design potential solutions for energy poverty in Burundi. While Burundi is a beautiful and verdant country that is chalk full of resources, it is also one of the most energy poor countries in the world: only 4% of the population has access to the electrical grid (which is mostly concentrated in a couple of cities), and the majority of people obtain much of their energy requirements from wood or kerosene, which can be expensive and unhealthy sources of fuel.

Burundi, 2013. Traditional kerosene lamp used in Burundi. Photo Credit: Chelsey Lepage, UNICEF Burundi
Burundi, 2013. Traditional kerosene lamp used in Burundi. Photo Credit: Chelsey Lepage, UNICEF Burundi

Our design team, which included Azure QianErika MaherRucha Patwardhan and Sam Slover, became fascinated with what day-to-day life and basic activities are like under such resource constraints. How do children study at night? How do you run a health clinic? How are people able to move around safely once its dark? By working with the UNICEF country office in Burundi, we were able to talk to many Burundians about these questions. Through these conversations, we learned that many parts of productive life basically stop once its dark.

We became particularly interested in creating a solution that would allow children to have a better environment to learn and study given these constraints. After much ideating and several project iterations, we settled on creating a system that could take existing, small, cheap lighting that is already present in Burundi, and make it bigger and more useful in room settings. We set out to create light modules that could amplify light in Burundi.

Burundi, 2013. Kids studying in Burundian schoolhouse. Photo Credit: Chelsey Lepage, UNICEF Burundi
Burundi, 2013. Kids studying in Burundian schoolhouse. Photo Credit: Chelsey Lepage, UNICEF Burundi

It became clear to us that the solution would need to have a few core components:

  • Be based around education and a workshop model: rather than just prototype lighting modules, we set out to build a system that could teach people in Burundi how to construct better lighting modules that can make their existing lights more useful.
  • Be designed around materials that can be locally sourced.
  • Include an eventual revenue generation component wherein the new lighting modules could be built and sold by local groups, particularly women’s groups that are already active in the country.
Burundi, 2013. Burundian countryside. Photo Credit: Chelsey Lepage, UNICEF Burundi
Burundi, 2013. Burundian countryside. Photo Credit: Chelsey Lepage, UNICEF Burundi

The Solution

After many hours in the shop prototyping different lighting modules, we devised a 2-part lighting module that 1. provides new daytime lighting and 2. amplifies existing nighttime lighting without adding extra power requirements.

The daytime light is based around construction of a “water bottle” light that is installed in a building’s roof, requires no electricity (it directs sunlight into a room using the refracting power of water), and can be made of scrap materials. You can see a working example of this type of lighting in Uganda and the Philippines.

The nighttime light is based around construction of an amplifying (reflective) cone attachment to the water bottle light that can connect with any small light, such as the Nuru light which is already being distributed through a UNICEF-sponsored lighting program, Project Lumiere. By placing the small electric light in the amplifying cone module, the light is expanded and distributed to a much greater part of the room.

Taken together, the rendering of the Amplify Lighting module looks as follows:

New York, 2013. CAD rendering of lamp module prototype. Photo Credit: Team Amplify, NYU ITP
New York, 2013. CAD rendering of lamp module prototype. Photo Credit: Team Amplify, NYU ITP
New York, 2013. CAD rendering of lamp module prototype. Photo Credit: Team Amplify, NYU ITP
New York, 2013. CAD rendering of lamp module prototype. Photo Credit: Team Amplify, NYU ITP

And here is the initial prototype.

New York, 2013. Initial prototype of lamp module, showing distributed light. Photo Credit: Team Amplify, NYU ITP
New York, 2013. Initial prototype of lamp module, showing distributed light. Photo Credit: Team Amplify, NYU ITP

As mentioned above though, our focus was not just to create a lighting module, but to design a system that could teach Burundians how to make existing small, cheap lighting bigger through local construction of these modules. To do this, we designed an infographic-based “Instructable” manual that gives easy-to-understand instructions through pictures and is also translated to the local language of French.

Our vision is to start teaching the construction of these modules in small-scale workshops with women and children-focused groups that are already active in the country. Because the lighting modules can be a very useful and simple solution to enhance light, we also believe the new modules can provide these groups with new revenue as they build and install them in their communities (for example, solar bottle light installations have proven economically fruitful for many groups in other countries).

While we’ve started with just the one module and instruction guide for amplifying light in Burundi, our grand vision is to build a global platform for do-it-yourself maker instructions designed for developing world needs and revenue generation. We believe there is a unique opportunity to build new products that are specifically designed for a developing world context, and that there is tremendous potential to be unleashed if a global community open sources the instructions for how to do so.

Sam Slover
Student of the NYU Design for UNICEF class 2013, Team Amplify

To learn more about the final project, see:

Screencast of the presentation of the project

Presentation of the project

Read also about other Design for UNICEF student projects:

Design for UNICEF student project: Open source cellular network

Design for UNICEF student project: PowerClip

Academia: Design for UNICEF

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