The Little Sun project was founded in 2012 by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen to affect significant global change in the area of sustainable energy access – specifically, to bring clean, affordable, solar energy to the 1.1 billion people worldwide living without electricity in ‘off-grid’ areas. The project’s first product, the Little Sun Original solar LED lamp, is a personal, portable, easy-to-use light source so people in off-grid areas can light their nights safely. The second product is Little Sun Charge – a solar lamp and charger- in-one. People can light up a whole room safely as well as charge their small devices like mobile phones, without having to rely on expensive charging stations. The third Little Sun is Little Sun Diamond, to be launched in September 2017. This beautiful solar lamp is featherweight, pocket-sized and very robust, and gives off a sparkling glow to inspire all those who use it.
Little Sun is at once a suite of solar products, a work of art, a social business, a global project and a way to connect the world through sharing energy.
Little Sun currently has distribution in around 10 African countries as well as in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan. We utilise the funds generated from on-grid sales of Little Sun products to spread light and livelihoods in off-grid communities. Every Little Sun sold in an on-grid area of the world delivers one Little Sun to an off-grid region at a much lower, locally affordable price.
Launched at London’s Tate Modern, the Little Sun project has since distributed over 500,000 Little Sun lamps worldwide – and that number is quickly growing. Little Sun’s unique combination of beautiful design and exceptional engineering has made the products popular across the globe. The products are fun, accessible tools educating people all over the world about the benefits of solar power and sustainable sources of energy.
The Little Sun project addresses the need for light and energy in a sustainable way that benefits off-grid communities, creates local jobs, and generates local profits. Rather than a short-term fix of donating products to an off-grid region, we focus on the longer-term goal of building profitable off-grid businesses that distribute Little Sun energy at locally affordable prices. We work with our vast network of Little Sun sales agents in off-grid areas to kick-start their businesses, providing business starter kits (with an initial seed capital of Little Sun products to sell on credit), micro-entrepreneurial training, and ongoing support to those who need it.
In only four years of operation, the Little Sun project has already made a significant impact in both off-grid and on-grid areas of the world. Of the over 500,000 Little Suns distributed so far worldwide, over 250,000 have gone to off-grid areas. As people replace their toxic fuel-based lighting and energy with Little Sun solar-powered energy, 99,995 tonnes of CO2 emissions have been reduced from the atmosphere thus far. The products have saved off-grid users a total of $55,137, 283 on household energy expenses to date. And over 600 African entrepreneurs have become Little Sun sales agents.
Objectives and beneficiaries
The Little Sun project has two objectives:
• To provide clean, solar-powered Little Sun energy to as many people in the world as we can, focusing our reach particularly in off-grid areas, which need energy the most
• To strengthen off-grid communities from the inside out, training young local entrepreneurs to become Little Sun sales agents and powering their small businesses with an initial seed capital of Little Sun lamps and Charges, which allows them to get their start
The beneficiaries of the Little Sun project are many. Little Sun was founded to bring clean, affordable Little Sun light and energy to the world, particularly focusing our reach in off-grid areas of the world without reliable electricity, like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Gaining access to a clean, reliable, and affordable light source is a critical issue in these areas. Light is a fundamental need we all share, and those who do not have it face significant challenges. When darkness falls without energy access, the structure of entire communities is affected. Poverty reduction strategies are difficult to implement, as working hours are limited to daytime and income is thus lowered. Medical care, such as delivering babies at night, becomes more dangerous to provide. Education levels drop, as children cannot study. The quality of family activities like cooking and socializing is compromised.
Kerosene lanterns are a common off-grid light source used to combat these issues, yet breathing a kerosene lamp’s emissions is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day, and its open flames are fire hazards. Additionally, off-grid households spend 10-25% of their monthly budget on kerosene – a cost that is far too high.
While polluting homes at the local level, kerosene impacts the environment on a global scale, releasing 190 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year. Access to solar power increases off-grid quality of life and health and is an environmentally and economically sustainable solution. In terms of climate change, the entire world stands to benefit from a reduction of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Strong points of the practice
While there are other solar products on the market, Little Sun's approach to product design is unique and innovative. Developed in close dialogue with users in Ethiopia, Little Sun Original is the first solar lamp to incorporate aesthetic and practical feedback from off-grid African regions. The lamp's unique design was inspired by the Ethiopian meskel flower, a national symbol of positivity and beauty.
To founders Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, it is very important that all the Little Sun products possess not only exceptional functionality, but that they are beautiful objects to which people are attracted. Everyone wants beauty in their lives, and our customers in off-grid areas are no different. As The World Bank Group (WBG)'s initiative Lighting Africa states, 'Design is as important a need as the amount of light delivered by a solar portable light (SPL).’
The only solar products that are also part of a global art project, Little Sun is inspiring people worldwide to take action as no awareness campaign can. Understanding what we must do to affect positive worldwide change often does not translate into taking meaningful action. People have become desensitised to common awareness raising strategies, which use pathos and guilt in attempting to solicit donations. Little Sun bridges the gulf that often exists between knowing and acting in an innovative way, through feelings and direct experiences.
Little Sun founder, renowned artist Olafur Eliasson, states: 'Art, I believe, has great potential for changing the way we communicate an issue as urgent as energy access. It makes something not just comprehensible for the mind, but also physically tangible.’
Little Sun mobilizes high-level networks in the arts, politics, and social business arenas to raise awareness about sustainable energy access. Through the power of creativity and the arts, Little Sun provides a way to understand abstract concepts like global energy access and what having power means – with Little Sun, you can literally hold the power of the sun in your hands.
Little Sun uses the language of creativity to inspire both individuals and organisations to action. Major museums and cultural institutions have decided to support Little Sun and bring focus to energy access issues, including Tate Modern, The Museum of Modern Art, Palace of Versailles, Rappongi Art Night, Fondation Bayeler, Art Basel Miami Beach, Andersen's Contemporary, The Nairobi National Museum, Sustainia, Doual'art Center, COP18, COP21, COP22, and Raw Gallery Senegal.
The enormous creative potential contained within the project has inspired big-name music festivals like Roskilde, Coachella, Sonar, SXSW Eco and Lollapalooza Berlin to advocate for sustainable energy access with Little Sun. We are collaborating with a selection of international well-known bands and musicians to spread the message of Little Sun and solar energy to their audiences while on tour.
Little Sun has brought together voices from around the world that encourage renewable energy access, their writings composed into a growing Charter of Light and Energy, to which politicians, scientists, artists, writers, and philanthropists have all contributed. Responding to an invitation from Olafur Eliasson, 18 international filmmakers produced 16 short films about light, life, and energy access to create the 'Little Sun Films' series.
Little Sun provides many 'hands-on' interactive experiences to introduce people to solar energy and universal access. First debuting at Tate Modern, Sunlight Graffiti lets people write their own designs or words with the light of their Little Suns, and a long-exposure photo captures their movements into a single image. Museums and galleries offer Little Sun Blackouts in the dark, so visitors can explore exhibitions using the light of their Little Suns. Offering interactive experiences like Sunlight Graffiti and Little Sun Blackouts serves as a call to action and creates an emotional connection, giving people a unique way to engage.
People travelling off-grid often buy a few lamps to distribute, documenting their trips in photos and impressions, providing content for our Little Sun Stories collection. It is rewarding for us to see the positive impact people around the world are making by embracing solar light, creativity, and Little Sun.
Expected results and benefits for climate change adaptation and mitigation
Little Sun's vision for the future is a world where the vital resource of clean, affordable energy is available to everyone and where the usage of toxic fuel-based light and energy sources that contribute to climate change has been dramatically reduced.
Current projections indicate 1 million Little Sun lamps will be sold by 2020 – that is a huge impact in terms of sustainable energy and ecological restoration. Of those, 666,000 will go to off-grid areas, replacing the use of kerosene lanterns, candles, and other types of fuel-based lighting. As an example, 1 kerosene lantern emits an average of 100 kg of CO2 per year. Replacing kerosene with clean, non-toxic Little Sun solar light over 3 years will reduce 66.6 million kg of CO2 from the Earth's atmosphere.
This increased usage of Little Sun solar light and energy will make off-grid poverty reduction strategies more effective, as businesses can extend their hours, increasing revenue. Education levels will rise. Cooking and socializing will become more enjoyable. Little Sun will help shape this vision, as ultimately, we will become a large-scale solar energy provider, with the long line of products we are developing that will positively impact climate change, acting as the first important step – of many – up the sustainable energy ladder.
Replicability potential of the practice
The Little Sun project has an enormous capacity to replicate and scale, with a potential market of around 1.1 billion people worldwide currently living without electricity. In African regions, the market is ready for affordable solar solutions; the number of people living off-grid is increasing due to a population growth rate accelerating faster than electrification rates.
As Lighting Africa states:
'In Africa, population growth is far outpacing the extension of the grid. The number of people living off the grid has grown by 114 million people on the continent since 2000, with several more million joining every year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects there will still be 530 million people living off-grid in 2040, even though 950 million people will have gained grid access by then. The absolute number of people living off grid will continue to rise for the next decade, according to the IEA.’
(OFF-GRID SOLAR MARKET TRENDS REPORT 2016, pg. 5. Published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Lighting Global.)
The International Finance Corporation states, 'Poor households spend about $37 billion annually on 'traditional' energy’, representing a major opportunity for businesses to reroute existing expenditure to safer, cleaner, and more cost-effective solutions.
Little Sun employs an innovative, inclusive business model using revenue from on-grid sales of Little Suns (sold at higher prices) to subsidise Little Sun's off-grid distribution at lower prices, making sure sales agents profit while bringing affordable solar light to their communities. And when our off-grid distribution systems scale, they will be financially self-sustainable, needing no additional funding from us.
Little Sun solar products are also attractive to on-grid users, who enjoy using them during outdoor activities like camping, hiking, festival-going, and to brighten their homes, balconies, or gardens as well as to charge their phones, MP3 players and cameras when they’re on the go. Little Sun is beloved by children worldwide, and we are focusing on the large market of kids' retail shops in Europe and the USA as well as developing educational materials for classrooms. Little Sun is a fun way to familiarise the next generation with renewable solar energy and making a positive environmental impact. Our target on-grid audiences fall into a few categories, namely, those interested in art and design, outdoor adventurers, and those inspired by the social, global, and environmental impact of Little Sun.