*This article by Avni Nijhawan, is featured on the Palo Alto Patch website: www.paloaltopatch.com.
One Million Lights: Non-Profit Brings Rays of Hope
2011, August 16
By Avni Nijhawan- Author for Palo Alto Patch
Impoverished communities in over 20 countries are basking in the glow of a Palo Alto resident’s non-profit organization, One Million Lights.
Anna Sidana founded the organization, which delivers thousands of solar-powered lights to people in need, in 2008, a few years after a visit to her rural hometown in India, where her father had founded a school 50 years earlier for village children who didn’t have access to education.
The village inspired and impressed Sidana, who saw the growth of the school and the potential of the children she saw in her trip back home. But while that part of Rajasthan still doesn’t have electricity, it does have hundreds of the organization’s lights – as do communities in the Philippines, Kenya, Ghana, Cambodia, among many others.
More than 1.6 billion people worldwide currently live without electricity, or 25 percent of the world’s population, according to Sidana.
“The issue is very similar across different countries, and the need is very intense,” Sidana said. “It’s urgent not only for the children and societies that live without electricity and are dependent on kerosene, but also for the environment, and for health, and for income generation.”
The idea to bring light to rural areas came to Sidana after she returned and began to mentor some Stanford students, part of an entrepreneurial program, who worked on solar lighting. As a mentor for the students, Sidana said she learned much about solar technology and the ills of kerosene.
One Million Lights, which has around 30 volunteers and a handful of paid employees, currently runs on donations from companies and individuals. The lights range in cost from $20 to $50 due to shipping and manufacturing costs, and use NiMH AA batteries that must be replaced every 3-5 years. Available everywhere, the batteries the greenest option today, wrote Sidana in an email.
The organization hopes to create follow-up programs to recycle the batteries once they have initially “seeded” the areas. One Million Lights has received positive feedback from the communities it has served, and Sidana has even won a Human Values Award in Cupertino for the non-profit last month.
Before Sidana and One Million Light went into a community, she felt it was important to understand the community’s culture so that when they delivered lights they weren’t seen as foreigners imposing their own ideas of how things should be done.
Sidana does acknowledge the organization’s limitations in terms of sustainability, pointing out that in the long run, the people they serve must eventually turn into entrepreneurs—a vision the non-profit does not yet have the resources to fully implement.
However, this has yet to stop the organization’s members who come from a diversity of backgrounds.
Gunn High School student Sierra Fan came across One Million Lights after she created a similarly themed club at school, called One Billion Bulbs.
The club aimed to replace traditional light bulbs with clean energy CFLs in local neighborhoods, but Fan wanted to expand her vision of clean lighting internationally. She and other students single-handedly implemented the delivery of 250 lights to the Philippines. Having successfully accomplished this, Fan now hoped to sent another 1000 lights to that area.
Not everything came easy for the students, though, who battled manufacturing and shipment issues and had to communicate with the Filipino airlines, Chinese manufacturers, as well as the countries’ embassies.
“We had the money, but there was no source for the lights and that was only two months before our planned distribution,” she said. After days of relentless calling and convincing in more than one language, Fan and her team were ultimately able to deliver the lights just on time.
The senior, who just got back from six weeks of volunteer work in Nicaragua also participates in Model United Nations, speech and debate, to art and music. But out of all her priorities, Fan says One Million Lights is number one despite the time commitment.
“It’s something that I built up from the very beginning, I was involved since its very, very start,” she said. “Because I’ve seen it grow so much it definitely has a special place in my heart.”
Sidana, too, worries about her schedule, since she still works full time in addition to running the organization. When asked how she manages, she responded with a laugh, “I don’t!”
“It’s very tough,” she added. “I value my quality of life and I have two teenage kids that I want to see through college–and I want to live here–I treasure it more than anything after traveling the world. So I work for it. It’s very tough.”