Let There Be Lightbulbs on Earth

It's the most luminous time of the year. In Chicago, our brilliant holiday tradition began 100 years ago, when the city's first Christmas tree radiated with novel electric lights. This anniversary year, 29,000 glistening bulbs adorn the stately Blue Spruce found at Daley Plaza. I can't imagine how many twinkling lights trim our tree and deck our house. Or put a number on the range of lightbulbs I depend on each day in my home and community. Having abundant light in America, it's easy to take this necessity for granted. Meanwhile around the globe, others have simply been left in the dark.

In stark contrast to our highly plugged-in lives, one fifth of the world's population, or 1.3 billion people, live without electricity. After the sun sets, most of these families rely on burning kerosene for light. The dim light emits smoky toxic fumes harming their eyes and lungs (inhaling kerosene fumes is equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day) and increasing the danger of fire and burns. Kerosene is also expensive, at least 10 percent of household income. Burning this fossil fuel also contributes to climate change. Without affordable light and power, the ability to break free of poverty dwindles.

Yet, hope beams for a brighter future. And we can help make a real difference. When it comes to meeting the energy needs of the developing world, we tend to hear about the mad pace of coal burning power plants sprouting up in China. Lesser known is how emerging markets are leapfrogging to clean, renewable energy and ditching the grid all together. Distributed solar is illuminating remote villages and uplifting the poor. And this is accelerating, in part, thanks to social impact angels.

A few years back, my husband and I became partners in the Acumen Fund, a pioneer in social impact investing. This non-profit global venture fund raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders, and ideas that are changing the way the world tackles poverty. We were attracted to how Acumen truly transforms millions of lives with innovative, sustainable, scalable solutions. To date, Acumen has patiently invested in 75 for-profit social enterprises in health, education, housing, agriculture, water and energy sectors.

I love how Acumen measures success with lives impacted and jobs created, along with revenue earned. So how are they are helping unserved populations gain access to power and light? In November, I attended a deep dive Energy Portfolio session to find out. Since 2007, Acumen has invested $7.5M in six solar companies in India, East Africa and Pakistan. Investees bridging the energy gap -- by selling affordable solar light -- include d.light (hand-held lanterns used in over 40 countries), Orb Energy (residential and commercial systems in India) and M-Kopa (household systems in Kenya). Thanks to these investments, over 23 million people now have affordable access to light, and over 950 new jobs have been created.

Bright, solar light has been lifechanging for the rural poor. With a safe, clean, reliable and more affordable alternative to kerosene, solar customers' productivity and earning potential can rise. Businesses can extend working hours. Women can work from home. Kids can study at night and improve school performance. Health clinics and schools can extend operating hours. Homes can improve nighttime security. Lights can pay for themselves through savings on kerosene in two to six months. Money saved can go toward starting a business or other essential needs. Aspiring customers can move up the energy ladder and add new services such as mobile phone charging, radios and fans. Surprisingly, phone charging capability is a huge driver for villagers to become solar users. Mobile phones have become essential for banking, education, crop pricing, healthcare consultation, verification to avoid counterfeit/dangerous pharmaceuticals, and more. Solar lighting also offsets millions of tons of carbon pollution.

Back at home, I'm hoping all the gleaming Christmas trees and candles on Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras will remind us of the human connection with comforting light. And that the true spirit of the season will shine through: giving with love, especially to those in need. If you're interested in spreading some light around the world, please consider an Acumen Fund charitable donation, or for that person that has it all, an Acumen gift card.

With support, more hearts will be glowing!


Please see my fuller blog posting, "Thankful for Toilets and Lightbulbs," which includes some inspiring Acumen videos.