A/D/O by MINI | Little Sun, Big Impact

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Product/Industrial/Furniture

Little Sun, Big Impact

Little Sun’s eye-catching solar gadgets provide light for those without access to electricity, and help raise awareness of affordable energy for all.

For many, it’s difficult to fully comprehend words like ‘energy’ and ‘climate change’ in a tangible way. And yet, instigating change requires that people – on many levels, from governments and companies to local communities and individuals – understand the important issues at hand and can grasp how they will impact the future of our planet.

According to the United Nations (UN), some 800 million people are still living without electricity in places known as ‘off-grid’ areas around the world. Since access to energy is strongly linked to improving people’s lives in a variety of realms, including health, education and the economic growth, as well as helping to eradicate poverty, it’s no surprise that universal access to clean, affordable and reliable energy is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the UN to build a more prosperous future for people and the planet.

Photo by Nicky Angunwa.

Felix Hallwachs, managing director of social enterprise Little Sun, believes that art and design can play a role in helping people around the world connect to causes in a more concrete way. “It’s often difficult for people to understand what renewable energy is and how to emotionally connect to it,” he told The Journal. “If you give people a solar-powered lamp that they can charge during the day and use at night, people start to get a feeling for the amount of energy and sunlight that was harvested. It becomes alive and personal, you can relate to it in a completely different way.”

Launched by renowned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen in 2012, Little Sun started as a project to create solar-powered lamps in an effort to bring clean energy to people living in places with little or no electricity. Since then, it’s grown into a full-fledged social business on the mission of “designing and delivering affordable clean energy solutions and inspiring people to take climate action.”

Photo by Penny Wang.

Currently, Little Sun offers three solar tech products designed by Eliasson: Little Sun Original (a practical and portable solar lamp), Little Sun Charge (a solar charger for everything from your phone to an e-reader) and Little Sun Diamond (a sleek solar lamp with an in-built stand). Selling Little Sun products at a higher price in areas of the world with electricity enables its products to be retailed in off-grid communities at lower, more locally affordable prices.

Photo by Michael Tsegaye.

How it works: when you buy a Little Sun product in its online shop or partner stores around the world, the profit goes into helping the organization train sales agents on the ground, develop local economies and make sustainable solar energy accessible to communities that lack electricity. The initial idea was to use the Little Sun solar lamp to connect people to the issue globally, from someone buying a lamp in a museum shop in New York to someone retailing the lamp in a rural area in Zambia, said Hallwachs.

“In the beginning, people suggested that we should make the most efficient-looking energy tool, but we thought we should make the most beautiful energy tool. And that’s how the Little Sun Original evolved,” he recalled. “It looks like a mix of a sunflower, the sun and the Ethiopian meskel flower, which is somewhat of a national treasure. If you look closely, you can see it almost resembles a wind turbine because there’s a certain directionality to its petals.”

Photo by Michael Tsegaye.

According to Little Sun’s website, the enterprise has distributed over one million of its solar lamps worldwide and nearly 650,000 of them have been delivered to off-grid areas, as of December 2019. At the moment, the team at Little Sun, which is also a certified B Corporation, consists of 25 people spread across Germany, Denmark, the US and Zambia, Ethiopia and Senegal.

After looking into the nonprofit sector as a way to expand its educational programs, the team launched the Little Sun Foundation in 2017 to tap into philanthropic funding to complement its activities as a social business. “Right now, we see ourselves overall as more of a not-for-profit structure that uses business principles,” Hallwachs explained. “We use business to sell lamps, raise funds and deliver products to people, for instance. On the other hand, we use philanthropic funding for research and development, to deliver lamps to school kids and, on occasion, to deliver solar-powered mobile phone chargers to community health workers.”

Photo courtesy of Imagine Burundi.

Looking ahead, Hallwachs said that Little Sun will be exploring ways to use renewable energy and solar-powered tools in specific contexts, such as farming and in the health sector, to help enhance productivity and empower communities in rural areas.

“We really need to change the way we inhabit the planet to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and I think it’s important to create a discourse together around positive climate action,” he said. “I’d invite anyone who is interested to help expand the conversation on how solar energy can be a solution to at least a certain number of problems in the world.”

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