Bloomberg invests $5 million in off-grid solar lamp venture


Bloomberg Philanthropies, which oversees the charitable activities of business magnate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has provided a $5 million impact investment in the Little Sun initiative to help the organization reach its goal of providing clean energy to homes, schools and local businesses that lack grid connection, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Founded by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun creates portable, solar-powered lamps and works with local entrepreneurs to sell them to households where electricity is scarce or unavailable at prices that are affordable to families currently using costly kerosene for their lighting.

Describing Little Sun’s operation as a social business, Bloomberg said the company is seeking to address a social problem rather than to maximize profits.

The funding, which Bloomberg provided as its first-ever impact investment, provides a low interest rate loan that will allow Little Sun to grow and provide clean and affordable energy to homes, schools and local business in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Bloomberg foundation said it undertook a rigorous due diligence process to evaluate the viability of the Little Sun business model and determined that "solar powered lamps can provide enormous environmental and social benefits."

"Today, seven out of ten people lack access to even the most basic electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa," said Little Sun Managing Director and CEO Felix Hallwachs. "Over the next 20 years, Africa is poised to hold the world’s largest un-electrified population.

"The impact investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies will help us reach our goal of providing clean energy to homes, schools and local businesses, replacing toxic kerosene lamps everywhere we work. We consider access to clean, safe and sustainable energy a fundamental human right."

Currently, households in Africa not connected to the electric grid can spend up to 20% of their total budgets on kerosene — the primary source of light for many of these households, according to Bloomberg.

One solar-powered Little Sun light lasts for two to three years before needing a battery replacement and can save households up to 90% over three years compared to what they would have spent on kerosene, the foundation said. The targeted price point still allows profits to be collected by the local entrepreneurs who sell the lights in their communities.

"Too many families are forced to breathe in toxic kerosene fumes because they don’t have access to electricity. Solar-powered lights can improve their health – and at the same time, protect our environment — by keeping pollutants out of the air they breathe," said Michael Bloomberg.

Little Sun is also sold at museum stores and other outlets in the U.S. and Europe at a higher price. The organization uses the profits from these sales to keep off-grid sales prices locally affordable and to kick-start local businesses in off-grid communities.

The Little Sun project was launched in 2012 at the Tate Modern in London, where the lamp continues to be available for purchase. They are also available for purchase online and in such museums as the MoMA Design Store in New York City and select retail stores in the U.S. and Europe.