Uncorking Bottled Light: A Study In Energy Access, Acceptance: A pilot project is testing solar ‘bottle’ lamps to curb illegal energy usage
Like its neighbors in South Asia, Bangladesh has witnessed an explosion in its urban population. With rural-to-urban migration continuously on the rise, it is estimated that more than one-quarter of Bangladesh’s total population lives in cities, and according to UN-HABITAT in 2005, 70.4 percent of urban residents lived in slum communities.
With such a high number of slum residents relegated to living in crowded quarters of a city, it is no wonder that because slum dwellings are so closely built next to one another, they have limited access to natural daylight from inside their homes. Traditionally, slum dwellings are dark, one-room structures with no window or passage through which sunlight can enter. As a consequence, slum residents end up using illegal electricity lines to power light bulbs in their homes. In Dhaka, this illegal consumption amounts to approximately 275MW of electricity per year.
Challenges of Electricity Access
In Dhaka, the Mirpur district has become a perfect study into the electricity needs and habits of slum-dwellers, as well as the potential for alternative light sources. Mirpur is a northeastern district in Bangladesh’s capital city. It is home to the Dhaka Zoo, the National Botanical Garden, the Grameen Bank’s head office and nationally recognized colleges and universities. Mirpur is also home to the Muslim Camp slum, where electricity consumption for daytime lighting is more than 1 kilowatt per household per day. According to Sajid Iqbal, a budding entrepreneur and a senior environmental science and management student at North South University in Dhaka, nearly 100 percent of Muslim Camp slum-dwellers use illegal electricity lines.
As is the case with other cities in the region, Dhaka faces serious energy challenges. The proliferation of slum communities across cityscapes directly translates into an upsurge in the demand for electricity. And since slum-dwellers are considered “illegal” residents, they cannot procure legal electricity connections and are instead forced to procure illegal lines. Unfortunately, this exacerbates the deficiencies of existing energy infrastructure by further overwhelming and draining electricity networks.
In the context of such a challenging energy scenario, daytime usage of electricity must be closely monitored. For slum-dwellers, a substantial portion of daytime electricity usage is on lighting. Slum-dwellers face two critical challenges that force them to use light bulbs during daylight hours. The first challenge has to do with access to natural light: with little or no sunlight coming into dwellings during the day, slum residents are forced to either keep a light bulb on all day or sit in by-lanes outside their homes to get work done. Clearly, neither option posits an energy-efficient or convenient solution.
The second challenge that slum-dwellers face concerns the inconsistency of electricity supply. The consequences of power outages and load-shedding are more cumbersome for the poor than for the middle or wealthier classes. In Dhaka, load-shedding alone contributes to an average of six hours without electricity every day; power outages would drive that average much higher. Most city residents, irrespective of where they live, face these electricity blackouts, but load-shedding tends to most adversely affect the poor, especially since the middle and wealthier classes can afford back-up generators to tide them over during blackouts.
Load-shedding is split almost evenly between daytime (46 percent) and night time (54 percent). This scheduled switch-off of electricity usually only affects certain parts of a network; authorities are unlikely to turn off the electricity in the wealthier areas of a city where so much business activity is concentrated, but are more likely to do so in less developed or poorer districts. Since slum communities, for example, are not openly acknowledged as productive contributors to the urban economy, load-shedding worsens the inconsistency of electricity access experienced by the poor, regardless of whether or not their lines are legal.
There are no easy solutions to resolve Dhaka’s electricity woes, but the challenges faced by Dhaka’s slum-dwellers have inspired an innovative lighting project. Iqbal has come up with a solution he calls botol bati (“bottled light”), or a bottle that emits natural light. “It’s a very simple and effective technology for using sunlight directly without any complex mechanism,” he explains. “Even slum-dwellers can install their own after some training.”
Iqbal learned about the solar bottle light concept when he saw a documentary on Liter of Light, a project by the My Shelter Foundation in the Philippines. The project was popular in Manila’s slums, and Iqbal wanted to see if such a project could similarly work in Dhaka’s slums. He did research to understand if a bottled light project had already been launched in Bangladesh, or in any other South Asian country, but learned that it had not.
As a pilot run for his project, Iqbal used his own money and installed bottle lights in 12 households of the Muslim Camp slum. By walking through slum lanes, he deduced which homes received the least sunlight and determined their interest in participating in his project. He enlisted the help of his friend and national fencing teammate Mamun, an electrician without a formal education. Iqbal taught Mamun how to construct each bottle lamp, and since then, they have been working together to install solar bottle lamps in slum households.
The bottle lamp requires a small sheet of corrugated tin, tools to cut and cork, rebids, sealing glue and a two-liter plastic bottle. In a March 2012 interview with The Daily Star, Iqbal explained how to construct the bottle lamp:
“Take a tin frame and make a small hole in it where you have to fit the bottle. One-third of the bottle will be exposed outside, while two-third[s] will be inside the house. The bottle will be filled with water. Place the sheet with the bottle on the tin roof of the house and rebid the sheet with the tin roof. Then place [sealing glue] around the bottle and the sheet, so that when it rains, water does not go inside the house. If it was just a hole to let light inside the house, then the light will only fall in one direction. Using the bottle in this case will allow light to enter the bottle and reflect all around inside the house due to the water inside the bottle. The bottle does not need to be replaced for one or one-and-a-half year[s]. One bottle produces light equivalent to a 55W power bulb.”
Let There Be Light
Iqbal’s primary objective with the bottle lamp is to educate slum-dwellers about power misuse and developing sustainable habits. He acknowledges that as the project stands now, the bottle lamp and its installation is not cheap. Material and human resource costs are high since he is using his own system to construct and install each bottle lamp. Iqbal says:
“I have to maintain a full-time employed team because no one will work voluntarily or with poor payment. They have to depend on day-to-day basic income. And most of the people are employed here from [the] slum community. Also, all the materials are not available in Bangladesh, [especially] the sealing glue.”
To resolve the latter challenge, Iqbal is trying to forge a partnership with SIKA, a manufacturer of specialty chemicals for construction and industry. Such a partnership would save Iqbal approximately TK400 (~US$4.90) in additional fuel costs, which he must spend during load-shedding periods. For now, Iqbal has no plans to change the design of the bottle – the current shape optimizes low carbon dioxide emissions, and he wants it to stay that way.
Most users of the bottle lamps have positive feedback and are satisfied. Iqbal notes that when slum-dwellers saw how light emitted from the bottle lamps, they were “amazed.” This amazement, however, has yet to overcome the challenges of acceptance of the botol bati concept by slum-dwellers. Though there is growing interest in bottle lamp installation, Iqbal observes that some people feel “more poor” to have to use a bottle lamp in their home instead of a traditional light bulb. He has organized community-based workshops and distributed pamphlets to combat this bias and help slum residents see merit in bottle lamps. So far, such efforts have been received positively.
Achievements and Next Steps
The botol bati concept started as a pilot project, but it has inspired Iqbal to launch his own social enterprise called CHANGE. He is currently hard at work making that happen. Iqbal considers his pilot project the beginning of a movement, and he wholly supports youth involvement and other similar initiatives. For example, a colleague of Iqbal’s from the Bangladesh Youth Environmental Initiative has launched a similar botol bati project in another slum community of Mirpur. Iqbal feels it is his role is to support these peer projects and regularly monitor their impact.
Iqbal has made the botol bati concept the focal point of his university thesis and is looking into “how effective and socially accepted this technology is in Bangladesh as it is spreading all over the world.” His passion and commitment are receiving global recognition: recently, Iqbal has entered into a global partnership with Liter of Light, now operating in 11 countries. A research team from Switzerland will be visiting Dhaka in the near future to get further training on the botol bati concept and to discuss Iqbal’s research.
The botol bati concept is relatively simple and its accessibility should be mimicked to address other challenges. Tools that are developed for the benefit of the urban poor need not be overly complex – simple design that is sophisticated enough to meet basic needs, such as a clean bottle lamp or a hygienic water tap, guarantee ease-of-use, accessibility and potential for scale. With the success of the botol bati project, there is tremendous scope for similar bottle lamp projects to easily start in city slums throughout South Asia.
The case of Iqbal and the botol bati concept illustrate a particularly important lesson for urban planners. There is no need to continuously reinvent the wheel. Globally, there are numerous projects and initiatives underway addressing the challenges faced by the urban poor, and there are many to learn from and, in some cases, adapt. More of such global, integrative thinking is needed to help successful projects proliferate and make deeper impact. Botol bati has spread from the Philippines to Bangladesh. Who knows where it, and other ideas inspired by it, will go next?