OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign up, Login or Learn more

Solar EMpowered Communities

This idea offers solar microfinance as a tool that, combined with increased social cohesion, might effectively empower communities to enjoy a better quality of life, locally and sustainably. It attempts to directly address physical elements of unsafe spaces with solar-powered, public lighting and also the social and economic challenges that too often coincide. The ideas presented here are far from new: solar microfinance is successfully practiced around the world in recognition that more money in people's pockets can go a long way in improving their quality of life; decades-old theories on public safety from Jane Jacobs and public space design from Jan Gehl and W. H. Whyte tell us that well-lit and actively used public spaces are safest.

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes
16 13

Written by

Essential to the process of developing pilot programs, and eventually scaling up, are the elements of local control and customization.  An initial process by which community members are engaged and trained in co-developing local projects will reveal the motivators, barriers, and potential synergies that make each community unique.  For example, in the dense, low-income, coastal community where I live in Costa Rica, though safety is a serious concern, interviews and observations reveal that any related financial incentives would be of top priority.  Other communities that have implemented similar programs in India have reported that better access to electricity for home use, resulting in improved grades among their children, was the most noteworthy result.  For some communities, solar-powered lit bicycles or other mobile units are practical and in line with the geography.  For others, a fixed location of lights with emphasis on corresponding social activities is more appropriate.  Different climates present distinct challenges to solar panel upkeep resulting in varying levels of necessary maintenance from place to place.  Ultimately, a participatory process of co-development grounded might offer the most sustainable benefits, for example:
Local Control (“True participation”)
  • Provides community members with decision-making power over the distribution of resources (Offer benefits similar to those of participatory budgeting)
  • Local ownership and workforce training allows for timely maintenance and repair of lighting to be conducted by local residents rather than large, bureaucratic public utilities 

  • Identifies, in addition to public safety, the major concerns and hopes that residents have for their community and/or family
  • Allows for development of complementary products for local use
Promote activation of public spaces in evenings through activities that are already popular

Step 1: Form a female-led, intergenerational, local committee to identify and vet trusted community residents to receive solar panels and to determine the the local program design and any relevant rules.

Step 2: Select local organizations, businesses, and/or residents to receive solar panels and additional residents to receive workforce training on panel maintenance and repair. 

Step 3: Install solar-powered, motion-activated lighting in strategic locations around the community. Equip panels to provide electricity to owners´ buildings and to neighbors, as desired.

An example of how this might play out in a community like mine…
Current Situation:
In Chacarita de Puntarenas, Costa Rica, safety is threatened not only by a lack of inadequate lighting in certain locations, but also a lack of social capital and limited opportunities and motivation for neighbors to work together.  Within an area of approximately 3 square kilometers live around 23,000 people, their homes divided into a series of neighborhoods that originally formed as squatter settlements that were eventually razed to make way for government housing projects organized into dense residential blocks with some retail built into homes.
Unemployment in the area is around 25%, though women and men participate in the informal economy, either making food for sale or doing odd maintenance or light construction jobs, respectively.  The minimum wage in Costa Rica is around $500 per month yet many residents compete arduously for employment in a government-sponsored workforce training program that offers just 40% of that amount for full-time work.  The average electric bill is around $60 per month, around one-third of the earnings of program participants.
Each neighborhood of around 2,000 people has the opportunity to form a neighborhood association and receive government funding for improvement projects.  Many of such organizations exist within the broader community and are most often headed by female women who are either retired or have adult children. Neighborhood associations have little participation from mothers of young children, largely due to the demands of children’s schedules and limited time available for non-childrearing, non-income-generating activities. 
Despite limited participation, neighborhood associations have been effective in making improvements such as parks and hosting community events.  A few years ago, one such neighborhood association successfully solicited assistance from the public utility company for street lamps. While a sufficient number of lamps were installed, a year or two later, perhaps one-third of them are non-functioning.  And, like the streetlamps, it is not uncommon for the leaders of these neighborhood associations to burn out, often expressing frustration at the lack of participation from younger residents. If Chacarita were to become a Solar Empowered Community, providing solar panels and lighting to younger mothers might be a way to not only make their streets safer and potentially more attractive for food customers, but also strengthen their connection to neighborhood associations, which would likely be tapped to manage such a solar microloan program.
Possible Outcomes
  • More reliable lighting of public spaces
  • Safer, activated public spaces through possible evening food markets formed to take advantage of existing food production activities
  • Improved social capital generated from involvement of parents (esp. mothers) of children and adolescents in the project
  • Guaranteed savings and/or additional income to solar panel recipients and trained techniciansPossible additional income from increased market for informal economic activities

A few suggestions at "rules" to consider:

- Recipients of panels must be open/available to public at least two evenings per week to serve an additional function of "eyes on the street".
- Local committees must work with local organizations to host public, free events at least one evening per month.
- Solar panel "loans" must be repaid with electricity cost savings and/or income from sale of electricity to neighbors.

Possible challenges for community feedback:
- How to prevent theft of solar panels and lighting equipment?
- How to ensure compliance among solar panel recipients?

See "Additional Files" for complete slide deck on Solar EMpowered Communities.

Explain your idea in one sentence.

A community-managed solar microloan program to build local skills and social capital, create well-lit streets, and reduce community electricity costs.

What is the need you are trying to solve?

This idea is an attempt to empower women to feel and BE safe in the places they live, work, and play. It will address the need for increased lighting by offering locally-owned, solar-powered lighting; the need for additional "eyes on the street" with increased evening activity; the need for social capital with a local committee to lead the program; and the need for economic opportunities with training on solar panel repair and maintenance and solar panel infrastructure to lower electricity costs and generate local income.

Who will benefit from this idea and how would you monitor its success?

While this challenges focuses on women´s safety, this idea hopes to offer improved quality of life for all community residents. Compliance with the program among the recipients of solar panels might be enforced by the local committee and with opportunities for residents to observe and report non-compliance to the committee using mobile technology. In terms of the impact on crime, equipment theft, and general public safety, data from from local police, the guiding committee, and local residents could offer insights as to progress in actual and perceived improvement in public safety. Finally, data on income generation and electricity cost savings can be collected from solar panel recipients and those who have been trained on repair and maintenance.

Who would be best equipped to implement this idea in the real world? You? Your organisation? Another organisation or entity?

The implementation of this program requires initial investment of solar panel and lighting equipment along with training in leadership, project management, and repair and maintenance of panels. It could be implemented by any development organization or consultant group with experience in this area and with the capacity to engage and train local partners. As a urban planning and public health professional with over ten years of experience in development program implementation and evaluation, I would be available and honored to be a part of any implementation team. Further, I am prepared to make recommendations as to additional qualified partners in the field, as needed.

Where should this idea be implemented?

This idea can be implemented in any community within a climate that can support solar-powered electricity. The program elements can and should be tailored by the guiding committee to best fit the community.

How might you prototype this idea and test some of the assumptions behind it?

This idea could begin as a pilot program in a set of 3-5 communities selected for particular characteristics that could be helpful to observe, for example, a certain prominent building type or climate, or existing community group that could prove to be an effective vehicle. A pilot program should last at least six months in order to effectively gauge impact.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great thinking & we're digging your visual approach, Alexis. We thought you might want to also check out this initiative and see if there are learnings from that which you could build into your idea: It's interesting to check out how they generate money by hiring out lights.

We wonder whether you or other here might have examples of community-run micro-loan initiatives which could provide further lessons? Often micro-loans are focused on individuals (like this: ) – so it might be interesting to explore micro-loan initiatives which are focused on communities and run collectively, even beyond the realm of lighting, to see what we could learn to build this idea further.

We also wonder whether you have any interaction with low-income communities in Costa Rica? Might it be possible to discuss your idea with a local community there to gather insights _ feedback? Looking forward to seeing your idea grow...

Photo of Carmen  Escano

Hi Alexis, great idea! I also like a lot what your have shared Meena, and I think you can learn a lot and apply to your concept, like the mobility of the lights, offering more flexibility to the residents of the community based on their needs. This solar panels can also be apply to other facilities, like public phones for reaching out for help or just communicate with others.

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes

Thanks Meena and Carmen! Love the idea of adding solar-powered communications to the program offerings. This makes me think of also extending the idea to public facilities which can often be underutilized due to operating (utility) costs.

And, Meena, I will definitely look into other examples on community-owned and comparable programs. I am actually serving in the Peace Corps right now in an urban, pretty distressed area of Costa Rica and this idea is informed by the experiences of my neighbors, and myself, who essentially live a 6am to 6pm public life due to safety concerns after dark. After being transplanted here from NYC in 2012, it´s been a huge lifestyle shift and has offered a deeper perspective on the physical and social impacts of feeling unsafe where you live. I will spend some time this week talking with local community orgs and individuals and will be sure to share their feedback.

Just a heads up that my computer and internet access is very limited in case it takes a bit longer to receive my responses. But please keep the collaborative ideas and feedback coming, very excited to be participating in this challenge!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Awesome to know you'll be talking to local groups about this idea. You can add their input to your post as your thinking grows at any time by hitting the Update Entry button on the right of your post. We're looking forward to seeing this exciting idea evolve.

And here's a friendly tip: update your OpenIDEO profile so folks can dig who they're collaborating with. Think skills, experience, passions & wit!

Photo of Leandra J Gordon

Hi Again - see also - Magnus Murray has some costings I think that may help you.

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes

Thanks so much, Leandra! I´ve been going back and forth in my mind about the motion sensor thing. I was thinking that motion activated lights that stay on for at least 5 to 10 minutes have the advantage of letting someone know if someone else has been on that street recently or not, to prevent anyone from be able to hide out there, but I think you have a good point. Maybe it could be left up to the local community to decide? Thoughts? Í´ll keep thinking about it and really appreciate your comment and the info referral.

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes

Good call, thanks Meena!

Photo of Leandra J Gordon

Hi Alexis, I think you have a point - the motion sensor would show if people are moving about up ahead. But then again they could be triggered off by animals as well and maybe scare people walking unnecessarily. It's a tricky one and I think your idea of letting the community decide might be the best option - maybe by letting the lights have both options.

Photo of Luisa Fernanda

This is a very interesting idea. I am really curious to know what you have found out from the community. What are their current source of light? Are they already using any solar products? If so what are their advantages and limitations ?

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes

Thanks Luisa. In my particular community, I have found that the most desired elements of this idea would really be the economic and social ones. I've only heard of one building here in Puntarenas that uses solar power and we get a LOT of sun. In other parts of the country, solar is used in rural areas for water pumps, etc., but the public utility seems to control most of the street lights. However, at least where I live, the lights do burn out or are stolen fairly often. Theft would be a possible limitation to solar power here as well as the climate demanding very regular maintenance. The buildings are generally all one-level though so access is not a challenge, nor would be setting up an off-grid network as the buildings are all connected for the most part. From what I've learned about solar power thus far, it seems to be a good fit.

As far as the social and economic impact, I think a program like this one could be a big help here. Of course, the extra income available would make a difference in the lives of women and families in general. Though electricity is widely available, electric bills are also relatively very high. People here work miracles with such limited amounts of money to care for their families. Also, I think a program like this would open up a whole new market of evening community activities and opportunities for food sales. The training in solar panel installation and maintenance would also provide skills that can be used right away, as opposed to the future, which could be a good incentive. In a place where unemployment is closely related to the thefts and muggings that frequently occur, opportunities to add more local income that is circulated within the community could have a big impact.

I recently I added more details about the community I live in to my submission in case you want to check it out and/or let me know if you think any other specific info might be helpful to envisioning how this might work here. In the meantime, I am thinking more about how the core elements of this idea might be packaged and tailored for other places, as every community has unique physical and social aspects. Thanks again for your comment!

Photo of Tony Li

Hi Alexis, I really like your idea of hooking the community up with solar power panels so that it can provide the source of energy for public lighting. It has been shown that places that are better lit tend to be safer.

In the movie, Urbanized, it mentioned that there was a township in South Africa called Khayelitsha that tried to tackle the safety issues using public lights and 24-hr watch towers that also lights up at night. I thought you'll be interested in checking that out. Below is a couple of links describing the general idea and results of what was implemented in Khayelitsha township since 2005.

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes

Thanks so much, Tony. Wow, those are pretty amazing results! This is example is really helpful, especially as it ties in the various social and physical factors at play. I'm so glad to see that emphasizing community buy-in and promoting pride of place were found to be so impactful.

Photo of lameck Ochola

Hi This is a good a great Idea almost same with mine on safe energy for the market women, I think we can share more and see how best things can work out for our community especially female gender in developing countries. you can check out my idea on OpenIDEO.

Photo of Alexis Rourk Reyes

Thank you , Lamek! I really like your idea also and would love to share more ideas. I have read about other examples of solar lights being important for students and women, and I think your idea really has potential for impact in many places. What is the outdoor or street lighting like in Kisumu City?

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this post being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Leandra J Gordon

Good Stuff Alexis,
The only thing I was wondering about is whether the lights should be just motion sensored or on the whole time. I just feel that being able to see what's up ahead and behind you when walking at night would be a lot safer than just seeing what's around you.