A project, developed by the IEEE South Africa Section in 2015, helped solve a major environmental problem in the informal settlement of Kathrada Park. This settlement is home to some of Claremont, Johannesburg’s poorest residents. Without access to electricity, many of these residents struggle to carry out even the most basic tasks. Children, especially, are at a tremendous disadvantage because they are unable to study and complete their homework unless they use candlelight, which poses a serious fire hazard.

Recognizing the need to improve the community’s living conditions and overall quality of life, eight members of the student chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB) at the University of Johannesburg, in collaboration with 11 high school learners and a science teacher from the UJ Metropolitan Academy (UJMA), developed an engineering solution known as “Light (Sun in a Bottle).”

The Litre of Light initiative, which aims to provide an ecologically sustainable and free-of-cost source of interior light to rooms in simple dwellings with tin roofs, was developed by Alfredo Moser of Brazil in 2002. The approach was first launched in the Philippines by Illac Diaz under the My Shelter Foundation in April 2011. The Litre of Light initiative seemed like a perfect solution for the lighting problem identified at Kathrada Park. Given the challenges of connecting the community to electrical power, a lighting system to significantly reduce the number of household fires by introducing an alternative to candles or paraffin-based options would be especially useful.

As the name suggests, “Light (Sun in a Bottle)” involves filling a glass bottle with water and suspending it on the roof of a shack to provide a working, energy-efficient lighting system. During the day, sunlight strikes the bottle. Due to the reflection and refraction of light as it goes through a change of medium, from air to water, light rays are scattered evenly throughout the inside of the shack. In the evening, a small solar cell is fixed at the top of the bottle. This solar cell is connected to a circuit that charges a rechargeable battery, which then powers small numbers of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) fixed inside the bottle. With a simple flick of the switch, the solar-charged LED units, with the aid of the refraction property of the water, can shed enough intensity to illuminate the household.

Before implementation of the light project could begin, the university engineering students had to set up training workshops for the high school learners at the university’s engineering lab. The purpose of these workshops was to familiarize the learners with the electrical/electronic components used in manufacturing the Litre of Light initiative, as well as to teach them basic assembling and soldering techniques. During the training sessions, the university students emphasized the importance of teamwork by encouraging the learners to come up with their own creative ideas and offer input on the project. In doing so, they gained a critical understanding of engineering and innovation in terms of project design and planning. They were also equipped with the necessary tools to go out and make a difference in their own communities by finding engineering solutions that are human-centered to everyday development problems.

Following the training sessions and the implementation of the lighting system, the students worked together with facilitators to fulfill another essential need: charging technological devices. By utilizing their engineering expertise, they successfully designed and created an electrical/electronic system to charge batteries from solar energy, which in turn drives the relevant circuitry to turn on LEDs and charges low-voltage devices such as cell phones. These outputs can be turned on/off at will by the user, depending on the energy stored.

After successfully installing this system, the team of engineering students took their project one step further by conducting workshops to train selected Kathrada Park community members how to design, develop, and service these Litre of Light solar glass bottles. By teaching them how to operate the project and carry out general maintenance, the students were able to transfer ownership to the community members and give them a whole new level of self-sustainability. The hope is that this new lighting system will spread to other informal settlements in the future, so it can benefit as many underprivileged communities as possible.

According to project leader Mohamed Sameer Hoosain, a postgraduate Masters student in electrical engineering and an IEEE graduate student member at the University of Johannesburg, the “Light (Sun in a Bottle)” initiative funded by EPICS in IEEE allowed students to gain real-world experience in engineering while simultaneously benefitting those less fortunate. It also helped them develop and sustain lifelong partnerships with the Kathrada Park community.

“With technology for humanity in mind, there is room for vast improvement with regard to engineering in South Africa—be it at the tertiary or working environment,” Hoosain said. “The EPICS in IEEE concept contributes towards taking engineering to the broader community (at the same time teaching them and making them self-sustainable), as well as technical/professional outcomes in preparing students for careers in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Hoosain added that he will never forget seeing the bright smiles on the high school learners’ faces as they worked diligently on their project sections—or witnessing the tears of joy shed by residents of Kathrada Park when they received the miraculous gift of light.