Impact 2014: Mothers of Light shine in Indonesian villages

They sell solar lamps to fellow villagers, helping to light the way out of poverty

As the sun sets over the zinc-roofed huts of the ramshackle seaside village of Pasir Panjang in Indonesia's Riau island, Imelda Sapitri, 11, darts barefoot between trees into her aunt's home excitedly.

"Dinner!" she cries with anticipation in the gathering gloom.

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But nightfall also signals the beginning of a difficult time for the 100 families in the village.

Here, half an hour's drive from the nearest paved road, night is a blind man's world: Without electricity, there are no lights to switch on.

By the time Imelda's aunt Sumhari, 45, emerges, the trees in her front yard are lost in the darkness.

In the past, Ms Sumhari and her neighbours would have stumbled along the path, by the light of dim homemade kerosene lanterns fashioned from used drink cans. Thanks to a fledgling Singapore-based non-profit, however, the villagers of Pasir Panjang are no longer prisoners to the night.

In August last year, Nusantara Development Initiatives (NDI) brought the first solar lamp to the village, and life in Pasir Panjang has not been the same since.

Every night, in homes across the village, these handy, lightweight lanterns have been producing the glow of priceless bright light for four to eight hours, powered by batteries charged for free by the sun.

They have not only enabled children like Imelda to continue studying in the evening, but also removed the constant fear of not having enough kerosene for that midnight trip to the outdoor toilet, as well as the pollution from the burning of the fuel within their homes.

"Soot would go up my nostrils," says Ms Sumhari. Children would fall ill, after spending a night near the burning kerosene lamp that leaves a coat of soot on their faces.

Last year, one family watched their home burn to the ground after their cat knocked over a lantern.

Now, at the flip of a switch, villagers like Ms Sumhari can cook a meal, visit their friends or go for a walk by the seaside, accompanied by their faithful lighted friend. Weighing just 300g, the solar-powered lantern is unbreakable. Fishermen have even taken the lantern out to sea, to illuminate their nocturnal fishing.

"I don't have to consciously think of light now," says Ms Sumhari. "We can always grab the lamp when we need it. It makes it hard for me to imagine what life was like without it."

The success of the solar light, and NDI's efforts, is a significant one, in Indonesia and beyond. Two out of every five Indonesians, or almost 100 million people, do not have access to electricity - along with 1.4 billion others around the world.

This fact was not lost on NDI's co-founders, Singaporean polytechnic lecturer Fairoz Ahmad, 33, and Indonesian market researcher Gloria Arlini, 31.

It is not charity they are giving, or even simply the promise of light: They are creating jobs. Rather than hand out the solar lamps to villagers, the two are looking to nurture businesswomen with a heart.

For the past four years, they have been training ibu rumah terang, or Mothers of Light, to sell the solar lamps to their own kind. It takes just one or two weeks to teach the women how to find and convince buyers, and how to manage their accounts.

Since 2010, working in just three villages in Riau, NDI's efforts have created more than 20 entrepreneurs who have sold no fewer than 3,000 lamps. It aims to reach 500 women across Indonesia by 2018.

"If we empower women, we are also empowering future generations," says Mr Fairoz.

NDI sells the lamps, which are designed by an American social enterprise and cost US$12 (S$15) each, to village entrepreneurs like Ms Sumhari at cost price. The Mothers of Light then sell the lanterns to fellow villagers for US$14 to US$16 on instalment plans - often no more than what they would have to pay for kerosene each week. With kerosene costing each family US$1 to US$2 a week, villagers find the solar lamps save them money in the long run.

The sales also give the saleswomen a few dollars' profit, which NDI checks regularly to ensure that they keep to the recommended prices.

This sum is far from trivial - millions of Indonesians live on less than US$5 a day. For Ms Sumhari, those few dollars mean that she can now pay her 16-year-old daughter's school fees, especially as her husband, a former village head, has fallen ill and is unable to work.

NDI's founders also say the idea can be replicated elsewhere - they are, in fact, looking for partners to scale up their efforts in Indonesia, using systematic procedures and processes that they have drawn up.

In Pasir Panjang, it is nearing 10pm. Little Imelda, bored from playing outside, lies on the verandah. Under the glow of her solar lamp, she whips out a school notebook to practise her ABCs.

For her, this one lamp is already brightening her future.

davidee@sph.com.sg