Buffalonian of the Week: Sarah Baird, Founder and Executive Director of Let There Be Light International

Edited by Allan Mendoza
Photos by Esther R. Mbabazi

Energy poverty, living with the inability to access safe energy, leaves hundreds of millions the dark—literally. Once night falls, people living in non-electrified, off-the-grind areas in developing countries have few choices. They either use polluting and dangerous kerosene lights to continue their activities or stop them completely because of the dark.

Local Buffalo nonprofit Let There Be Light International seeks to provide these energy poverty-stricken areas with portable solar-powered lights, an eco-friendly and safer alternative to traditional lighting. The organization has donated thousands of these lights to people in Uganda and Malawi as well as installed solar electrification in remote rural medical facilities there.

We talked with Let There be Light International’s executive director Sarah Baird, our Buffalonian of the Week, to discuss the organization’s work and the problems caused by energy poverty in East Africa and around the world.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

What is Let There Be Light International?

Let There Be Light International is a nonprofit and we’re dedicated to fighting global climate change as well as global poverty. What we do is donate solar lights to very vulnerable families in off-grid parts of East Africa, and we focus on Uganda and Malawi. We work with local organizations who know who the most vulnerable people are. For instance, a handicapped elder, a family with young children, or new mother. Most people will use very dangerous kerosene lights, so we get them out of those homes and we donate safe solar lights.

We formed about three years ago in 2014, and I’m its founder and executive director. In the last three and a half years, we’ve donated 5,615 safe solar lights to families, impacting over 30,000 people. We’ve also solar electrified 17 off-grid health clinics, affecting 300,000 people. My role in the U.S. is to raise awareness of energy poverty, which is the state of living without safe energy. It’s also to raise awareness and to raise funds so we can purchase these lights and help people living in energy poverty.

Why did you choose Uganda and Malawi? I know other countries in Africa are suffering from energy poverty, but why these countries?

These are among the least developed countries, or LDCs, which means they have the lowest development and highest levels of poverty. They also have the highest levels of energy poverty. Most of the LDCs are land-locked, so they’re not on a coastline, and many of them are suffering from drought and the effects of climate change. Another primary reason is that English is spoken there.

According some reports from Africa, especially from Uganda. At least 90 percent of the people in Uganda are in poverty, but you choose to give them lights. To fight this poverty, they need money. Why did you choose lighting instead of funds?

We chose lights instead of money because in many of these off-grid communities, they’re not aware of the benefits of the lights. A donation of a single lights can have an impact for three to five years, the life of the light. What ends up happening is that we can give a family a light, and they’re saving 50 dollars a year, while they’re spending in Uganda 3600 Uganda shillings, about a dollar, a week [for kerosene]. They’re saving about $50 a year. Over the course of the life of the light, they’re saving $150-$250 dollars over three to five years. If you’re living in extreme poverty, if I give you $15, you might be able to buy some food or medicine, but it would never last you 3-5 years. The return on the investment is very long- term, and it’s also seeding markets and helping people understand the benefits of solar. That’s why we decided to go with solar.

If you’re living in extreme poverty, if I give you $15, you might be able to buy some food or medicine, but it would never last you 3-5 years. The return on the investment is very long- term, and it’s also seeding markets and helping people understand the benefits of solar. That’s why we decided to go with solar.

There’re two main reasons why I focused on solar lights. One reason is because people, who are using kerosene and living in extreme poverty, really need to have some access to lighting if they’re going to be keeping their family safe and be able to study at night. I recognize that this is a big, unmet need. There’s a lot of people selling lights, but there aren’t people finding people who can’t actually purchase lights and donating them.

Another reason is that when people burn kerosene, it’s incredibly bad for the environment. As we all know, climate change is an issue all of us are dealing with, and I want to make sure when people are using or trying to have access to lighting, they’re not damaging the environment more. Again, the lights have so many different impacts that are beneficial and the impacts are much, much greater than their actual cost.

I know there are a lot of people suffering from energy poverty in Africa and in the world in general. What are you doing to reduce the number of people with this problem?

We’re trying to amplify our programming by encouraging organizations that are already working with the extreme poor to adopt an energy access perspective. There are groups that do vaccine access or bed net distribution. We’re saying, ‘Think about having access to light can also improve your programming.’ We’re partnering with people and working with the international community to try to encourage there to be more movement on this. We are reaching out and joining groups that try to lobby with the governments to try to do this, because, of course, charity is not going to be able to be the answer. It can be part of the answer, but we need to have policy changes.

You were born and raised in the U.S., so you never had to deal with the challenges of not having lights in your home. How did you find out about the issue of energy poverty?

When I was 13, my parents sent me to live in a rural village in Kenya with some relatives. That was an amazing experience, and it was also challenging. I had never seen poverty like that. But sometimes it’s important that I remind people just because there’s poverty doesn’t mean everything was sad. It was really joyful, it was wonderful, and people were so hospitable, loving, and smart. It’s just they didn’t have the same opportunities I had.

I grew up in Buffalo, and we had a nuclear accident in the mid-70s called Three Mile Island, and I was a teenager and I heard about that. I really got interested in clean energy at that point. And people were, in the 1970s, were talking about clean energy, but it took until now for us to really deploy it. At that point, I was interested in the environment. I started becoming an energy activist, and I’ve been thinking a long time about this issue.

Could you tell us about the impact of the lack of lighting, in general, for people who don’t know about the issue?

The global community—the UN, the World Bank, a lot of other organizations—is looking into how a lack of energy access really impacts a great variety of things. If you don’t have access to electricity in your home, when the sun goes down, you either light a very dirty and dangerous kerosene light, or activities stop. That impacts productive behavior. If you have a shop, the shop closes.

If you’re using the traditional methods of burning kerosene, which 1.1 billion people—one in seven—in this world are still doing, what’s happening is that there are big health impacts, especially with children. The under-five rates of pneumonia are very, very high. Many people I speak with after they’ve gotten a solar light from us will say they no longer have the ‘black stuff’ in their nose every morning. That’s a very, very concrete thing. When you burn these lights, it makes all this soot. People will wake up with soot in their nose. The roofs of the huts are often covered with this soot. When you burn kerosene something called 2.5 particulate matter, which we know as soot, is small enough to get lodged in the lungs, so the rates of lung cancer are very high.

Another health impact is that people are burned, and about 20% of the homes have had children burned by these lights. We’re addressing their need. Another thing people don’t talk often enough about is the high rates of poisoning. If you’re extremely poor, you’re not buying an entire liter of kerosene. You’re going to the market and buying a little baggie of it. You’re then putting them into your lights, but sometimes children will drink the kerosene.

If you’re using the traditional methods of burning kerosene, which 1.1 billion people—one in seven—in this world are still doing, what’s happening is that there are big health impacts, especially with children. The under-five rates of pneumonia are very, very high.

Could you tell us what some of problems that women face when giving birth in the dark without lighting?

It’s very hard for us to relate to, but in many of these rural villages not only do many of the homes lack lights, but many of the health centers lack light. I’m a mother of three children and giving birth in a beautiful hospital was difficult. I can’t imagine what it’s like for many of these women who have to go to a rural health clinic with no electrification and they’re expected to bring a candle. The rates of maternal and child mortality are very high.

When we go into a rural village, we work with the local health ministries, and they prioritize the health centers that are not going to be electrified by the government any time soon, and we get the solar systems there. When a woman arrives there, there’s lighting. If a woman has a solar light and there isn’t a clinic that has electrification, she can bring a solar light with her.

We have a recent example of a new mom who is so proud of her light, and she says everywhere she goes, people say ‘That’s the one who brought her light to the delivery!’ She didn’t have money for kerosene or a candle, her husband was away, and the health care workers did not have money. They would have turned her away without the light and she would have given birth at home or with a health attendant. That’s devastating and scary.

Tell us about the impact you’ve made in the three years since you’ve started this organization.

As I’ve mentioned, we’ve impacted, in terms of pure numbers, we’ve reached over 300,000 people with increased access to health care that has lighting. One of the interesting side notes to that is when we solar electrify a health clinic, we make sure to solar electrify the staff quarters. In very remote, very poor, low-resource areas, health care workers—nurses and administrators—don’t want to stay in these low-resource areas. It can be a little isolating and sometimes dangerous. When we put these solar systems in these very remote health clinics, we solar electrify the living quarters, giving the staff an ability to charge their cell phones and giving them safe lighting.

Now, all of all of a sudden, the staff consider the health centers to be modern. In the West, they’re not really considered modern, because it’s just electrification to charge cell phones and small appliances. But for people in these remote, low-resource areas, they’re now seeing decreasing staff turnover. The staff is staying in these places, and they’re asking to come to them. The local clinics now have on-time reporting that’s getting to the district health centers, so the district health ministers are very happy about this. The district health ministers also created battery funds; some of the systems in the health centers will last 20-25 years, but after three to five years, these batteries will sometimes need replacing.

Where do you get these lights and how do you get them to hold power?

We’re working with local distribution partners, such as NGOs and local community organizations, in Uganda and Malawi. We go to the local vendors who have lights that have been approved for these off-grid, low-resource settings. We usually purchase about 200, 250 lights at a time, so we get very good pricing. These are lights—we’re not importing them—that are available in local markets.
But there’s a lot of junk in these local markets, too. Unfortunately, the developing world had been a dumping ground for some bad technology. But there is a group with the World Bank and the International Monetary Bank, which created an organization LightingGlobal.Org, a nonprofit, and they test all the lights. They will give an approval rating to lights that are okay for these distributions. We’ll only distribute lights that have been approved.

The way we make sure people are using them and not selling them or being careless with them, is we have everyone sign an agreement with us. It has the light, for the first year, belong to the local community organization. We’re very careful that we’re supporting the people we’re working with as well as the people who are going to benefit from our programs.

Could you tell us about the challenges you’ve faced as an organization?

I hear from a lot of people who worked in Uganda and other East African countries that’s hard to find wonderful partners. I haven’t’ found that at all. We have an incredible group of people we work with who have done community development in Uganda since 1994. The biggest challenge is in raising awareness, and that’s not just here in the States, where we have to raise awareness to raise funds and to get the programs going, but also in off-grid communities. 70 percent of the people we’re meeting there have never heard of solar. What we also do is fund community outreach and education.

How do you work with governments?

We have the benefit of being small enough to not have to work with governments at this point. I don’t think we’re on the governments’ radar, and I actually have been fairly active in avoiding that. There are parliamentarians in Uganda who are interested in meeting, and that would be an honor, but that might complicate our independence.

You’re doing an amazing job in Uganda and Malawi. What’s the contribution of the American community in this project?

Among the American population, in the particular case of Let There Be Light International, there have been individuals and small foundations that have donated money, and that’s how we’re able to do what we’re doing. I don’t know if the immigrant or refugee communities are aware of how to help, but I know many people who have countries like Malawi, Congo, and Uganda who certainly know about the problem.

How can people donate money to this great project?

We have a website, www.lettherebelightinternational.org It’s safe to donate through the website. You can donate through our mailing address if you prefer to send a check. We’re a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3), which means if you itemize your deductions, you can write it off your taxes.

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