Kenyan students with lights from Extend the Day. The nonprofit is working with the Tembea Youth Center for Sustainable Development to distribute some of the lights. (Extend the Day Photo)
When Jo Lonseth and her dad, Andrew, were designing a solar-powered light for their nonprofit organization Extend the Day, they had to walk a fine line.
The device needed to perform reliably and be robust enough to withstand the wear and tear of their target audience: kids in developing countries that lack reliable electricity doing homework after dark. But if the lights were too good, did too much, their parents would be sure to nab them for their own. That meant omitting the ability to use the lights to recharge cell phones and attaching them to a sturdy cord, as opposed to making them wearable as a headlamp.
To create their light, the two purchased and took apart solar lights found on Amazon, eBay and Alibaba, dissecting the components, size, shape and weight. They settled on a stackable rectangular design that fits in the palm of the hand.
Now, more than five years later, Extend the Day, which is based west of Seattle on Bainbridge Island, has given out 16,000 lights to students in 11 countries. They recently released a documentary reporting on their work in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Jo Lonseth delivering solar-powered lights to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Extend the Day Photo)
The Lonseths are both life-long, intrepid travelers eager to venture off the beaten path into impoverished, foreign communities. They agreed that clean water and a safe source of light were essential challenges that needed more attention in the areas they visited.
“We decided the water was far too daunting, and the light seemed a little more doable,” said Jo Lonseth, executive director of the nonprofit and a former Microsoft employee.
Along with Kelly Sampson, they founded Extend the Day to address the problem. Large solar projects required long-term maintenance and were too prone to failure, so they focused instead on small lights for school children. The kids in these areas had lengthy chores after school, pushing homework into the evening hours. Often their only source of light was a kerosene lamp that created pollution on par with smoking dozens of cigarettes, plus there was the cost of the fuel and risk of fires.
A student at a Rukmini Foundation school in Nepal uses one of the lights. (Extend the Day Photo)
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