Erica Estrada first encountered life off the power grid in 2006, while on a spring break trip to Burma and India.
As part of her research for an Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class at Stanford, Estrada met Kamla Devi, then a 27-year-old mother of three. In her Indian village, Kamla would awake daily at 4 a.m. to feed and milk her buffaloes by the light of a kerosene lantern.
When the kerosene ran out, Kamla was forced to start her days in the dark.
Estrada returned to Palo Alto determined to help people who lack access to electricity. Since she could not afford to go back to South Asia, she found ways to do it from home, teaming with Stanford classmates to focus on what she calls a “human-centered approach to design.”
The idea is to first examine the needs, dreams and behaviors of the people you are trying to help. So, from their Palo Alto backyards, Estrada and her collaborators began to replicate scenarios within an Indian village. They turned hollow Coca-Cola cans into makeshift LED lights. They took turns living for days without electricity, studying and eating by candlelight.
“We set up a storefront modeled after a picture we took in India,” Estrada recalled. “We created an archway from recycled stuff, Top Ramen plastic containers (and) masking tape, and hung cans all over.” She refers to this as low-resolution prototyping — whatever you have around you, try to use.
In 2007, they went on to form D.light Design, a start-up company committed to providing eco-friendly lighting solutions to Indian villages.
Estrada is one of many social entrepreneurs who work to prototype and test solutions for developing countries while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the founders of start-ups such as OneBreath and Driptech.
Michael Callaghan, the founder of OneBreath, a Bay Area start-up that produces affordable mechanical ventilators for the developing world, agrees with Estrada’s approach. “For a medical device, you can start with little core bits and see if you can answer one question. Start with duct tape,” he said.
With duct tape and a hodgepodge of materials found in recycling bins, Estrada and her team re-created a village storefront to better understand the lighting conditions in which the storeowners were used to operating. In the case of the Indian shopkeepers, it was candlelight. “LED gives off a white light; it’s a different light than candles emit and it casts different shadows,” Estrada said.
After an intensive research processes — including asking families in South Asia to keep journals about their lighting consumption patterns — she and her team settled on their product: a handheld LED light that was portable, solar-powered and compact. They worked with a manufacturer in China to start producing the multipurpose LED lights, and have found local non-governmental organizations to start distributing their products.
The lights are priced at between $10 and $30 because the company wants to reach people who earn less than $2 dollars a day, Estrada said. D.light products are sold in 40 countries, she said, and the lights initially born of Coke cans affect the lives of an estimated 2 million people.
And through it all, they keep learning. A few years ago, Estrada was in India testing one of the early versions of the D.light Nova when she found that people wanted a handle on top, instead of on the side. She got in touch with members of her team in China, where the manufacturer was molding the product for final production. They held things up while Estrada flew to China in search of handles that could be put on top.