How Expo 2020 is helping residents light the way for power-starved African communities

One year before the world fair opens, Expo grant brings vital American University of Sharjah project to market

Thousands of villagers in Africa will soon crank up a UAE-made power bank that will light up their corner stores and homes in electricity-starved neighbourhoods.

With one year to go before the Expo 2020 Dubai opens, the commitment to create change is clearly visible with definitive projects that will transform lives.

By harnessing energy to create change, the $10 LED light promises to brighten lives in cities and villages in January, helping children in Nigeria and Zimbabwe study after dusk and small shop owners run their businesses late into the night.

Being readied for market by a group of five engineering and management alumni of the American University of Sharjah, the U-Light device has received more than 20,000 orders in Africa.

Supported by Expo 2020 Dubai, the product is the final stage of development to reach communities who grapple with sporadic or no electricity supply in shanties and villages.

“We have targeted off-grid communities in rural areas where people don’t have access to reliable electricity to give them a solution to generate their own power using our hand-cranked technology,” said Omar Mohamed Ghanem, co-founder of the U-Light university project that has matured into a start-up.

For every minute the hand-wound device is turned, it generates 10 minutes of light. The charge powers the battery stored within a small unit.

A full charge of 16.5 minutes provides a maximum 2.5 hours of light on low mode or 1.1 hours on high mode.

When the light dies down, it can be cranked yet again to recharge.

The small device has generated interest due to its low cost compared to solar-powered products more than double the price in overseas markets.

“We are first looking at where light is a necessity that is required because children drop out of school since they cannot cope with studies as they cannot study at night,” Mr Ghanem said.

“A worker loses income every day because he has to close his shop after the sun goes down because it is too dark for him to sell.

“Now a family that lived with a kerosene lamp or candle can sit down with a light at the dinner table.”

Interest has also built up from India, Pakistan where communities face struggle with similar power outages.

Our mission is to be part of the drive to end energy poverty

Omar Mohamed Ghanem

Mobile devices can also be charged with USB outlets available on the device but the initial focus of the U-Light project will be to address basic power concerns.

“We will first try to get people out of energy poverty,” said Mr Ghanem, 23, who graduated with a management degree from AUS last year.

The team of mechanical, electrical, chemical and civil engineers ran a pilot programme in Kano, Nigeria that reached 200 people in shanties in August last year.

They realised people had an appetite for the smaller unit instead of the $18-20 larger version that generates more than 15 hours of light with a 45-minute charge.

“We got more interest from people who said they would rather pay less so we entered the market with that mindset to be a simple, affordable and reliable solution,” he said.

Reliability is a key factor for people from impoverished communities since U-Light comes with a minimum guarantee of one year that stretches to three years if the battery is discharged properly as per the instructions.

Omar Ghanem shows off the U-Light device, which is set to help bring African communities out of the dark to boost their lives. Antonie Robertson/The National
Omar Ghanem shows off the U-Light device, which is set to help bring African communities out of the dark to boost their lives. Antonie Robertson/The National

This is unlike solar products in the market that last three to six months, Mr Ghanem said.

Roughly 840 million people live without electricity, according to United Nations figures, and families spend their budget on kerosene lamps that pose serious risk of fires and pulmonary diseases, as per the World Health Organization.

The young team was among college students from across the country selected in a university innovation programme, part of an Expo Live flagship that identifies innovators who create social change to address the world’s pressing problems.

“U-Light is a great example of what we hoped for but never really knew would happen to a group of UAE students,” said Yousuf Luiz Caires, vice president of Expo Live.

The programme launched by Expo 2020 Dubai funds solutions to improve lives and help preserve the planet.

“It is great to see this transition from the university project to entrepreneurs taking place.”

The advice went beyond a Dh50,000 grant and helped mentor and connect the fresh graduates with other start-ups and organisations globally dealing with impoverished communities.

The team first conceptualised the project when competing for the Hult Prize, one of the world’s best known social entrepreneurship programmes that challenges university students to solve tough issues from the food and energy crisis to education and health care.

U-Light placed among the top six in a global field of more than 20,000 university teams last year.

The young UAE residents are driven by the desire to have an immediate impact.

“We started asking the question whether it was really worth waiting for technology to develop in the future or can we provide something now,” Mr Ghanem said.

“We wanted to try to provide a solution that is immediate, that people could depend on right now to better their lives.

“Our mission is to be part of the drive to end energy poverty. You cannot tell people who don’t have access to power that they need to wait for reliable electricity to reach them,”

The work has changed their lives too.

“This broadens your perspective about the kind of life you want to live,” Mr Ghanem said

“It shows the impact you can have on the world no matter who you are, where you live or where you are from. Life does not have to be all about making money, we can have an impact from the very beginning because there is so much we can do.”

Updated: October 21, 2019 10:36 AM


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