A light in the darkness
Nighttime isn't the right time for many people in developing nations, where electricity is often still a luxury. When globetrotting entrepreneur Mark Bent realized this, a light bulb went off.
Thu, Jul 09, 2009 at 05:05 AM
LET THERE BE LIGHT: Mark Bent's innovation shed some light on the Third World. (Photo courtesy SunNight Solar)
Mark Bent is one of those guys who's been everywhere — in the middle of Sarajevo during the war, on a Marine Corps base in Japan, near the refugee camps of Somalia, heck, even Texas — and has a delightful way of beginning stories by saying, "for example, when I was a diplomat in Tunisia ..." The man is an action movie waiting to be written. Only in his version, the hero would save the world with solar power.
Bent was living in Ethiopia, working for Perenco (a major oil company) after a decades-long career in the U.S. military, making lots of money but lacking a purpose in his life. He'd take long walks off the compound where he was living, admiring the unique baboon species in Asmara until he found them in a garbage dump, wrestling for food with local, starving children. He stood there with his camera, feeling simultaneously powerless and inspired to leave his current job and do something to help. He gave his notice, packed up his house and prepared to move back to the States to figure out his calling. On his way out, Bent's house staff politely asked whether they might have his garden lanterns.
"But you don't have a garden," Bent told them, unsure why they would want his decorations.
"Yes, but Mr. Mark, it's dark at nighttime."
Bent was aghast at the weight of this statement. In the 20 years he'd lived in Africa or Asia, he'd been on military bases, U.S. embassies or corporate compounds. He'd enjoyed the benefit of generators and never stopped to consider that it gets dark in Africa. Really dark. With no light pollution and irregular electricity, it's a middle-of-nowhere dark that Americans rarely experience. He began to think about the ways we use light: to study at night, to meet with business associates, to converse with one another, to cook. This was it. Light. Bent had found his life's work.
Over the next few months, Bent returned to Texas, stole his wife's expensive French shampoo (the bottle hung over the curtain rod just like Bent realized his lights could hang in the middle of a room), and inspired his former employer Hubert Perrodo to finance Bent's new company: SunNight Solar. This was going to be unlike any other light, he decided, horrified that flashlights seemed to be designed with planned obsolescence. Bent, who had spent his career amassing information (about culture and politics and societal customs), dove into researching solar panels, rechargeable batteries, plastic polymers and the ways Africans used light.
Bent found that families spend 30 percent of their monthly income on kerosene to illuminate their households. If they bought his lights, and recharged them with the sun for free, that money could go toward anything. "People in the developing world don't have capital," Bent says. "If you give them disposable income ... they will use it for something that has long-term, positive effects on their family. That's what's going to change Africa!"
Bent and his team came up with an LED, solar-powered flashlight that lasts for 6,000 hours (1,000 nights of darkness) on three AA batteries. When those batteries finally die, the client only needs to purchase another set. Not a new flashlight. "I'm not inventing something complicated like a starship transporter," Bent says of his simple-seeming idea. "But people really need [these lights]." The product had immediate and profound impact.
Bent discovered that African goat herds were growing, since farmers could assist kid deliveries at night. Tribal council leaders in Afghanistan could gauge body language and facial expressions at meetings that lasted into the night. Female students could read their homework assignments away from the fear of Taliban attackers. Even U.S. troops in Iraq could navigate after dark without using the valuable batteries that power their night-vision goggles. His lights might use an unsustainable plastic product in their casing, but Bent has developed a new vision of "green" and sustainability: "How do our products impact lives," Bent asks before each stage of design.
He calls his company a "3P" endeavor: people, planet and profit. Since he wants to use his profits for good, he's excited to sell thousands of his lights domestically to groups like Boy Scouts, but thinks all of America will get interested in his business model. "Consumers can change the world," he says. "At one point, we are going to recognize that we can no longer take things from the ground, use them once, and then throw them away in a dump ... give people an option and they won't tolerate [this model] anymore."
SunNight Solar offers a Buy-One-Give-One program, so when Americans buy these longer-lasting flashlights, Bent donates one to various charitable endeavors, from relief in Gaza to rural Asian schools to Sudanese refugee camps.