Is it possible to build fairly-sourced, repairable and recyclable solar powered lighting systems for use in East Africa?

In 2016 four graduate students in Product Design from the University of Edinburgh’s College of Art accepted the ‘Circular Solar’ challenge and addressed their end of year dissertation projects to this question.

Each student – El Webster, Nicholas Miti, Rowan Spear and Fangxin Cao – aimed to design a prototype solar lamp that would address as many points of the challenge as possible.

This included using primarily recyclable or reusable materials; providing sufficient light to replace kerosene lanterns; having a replaceable battery, modular internal systems with a high number of interchangeable parts and fairly sourced components; creating an end product that would be technologically ‘smart’ and aesthetically desirable.

111Photo 11-06-2016

Supported by a grant from the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme, the circular solar design challenge was devised as a novel opportunity for international engaged, experiential learning tied to faculty research. The challenge was embedded in a wider programme of research on equity, justice and sustainability in value chains for renewable energy technologies, led by Jamie Cross, senior lecturer in social anthropology.

In June 2016 the students spent six weeks in Edinburgh working and living with solar lighting devices, taking them apart and interrogating their material parts, and interviewing people directly involved in the design and manufacture of sustainable solar lighting devices.

In early July, the students travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, with Jamie Cross and the director of the MA in Product Design, Arno Verhoeven, to develop their ideas and build prototypes.

Their visit was hosted by Gearbox Kenya, a start up company that offers access to high- end manufacturing facilities to an East African community of makers, designers and artists. The Edinburgh team was joined by Gearbox team members and students from the University of Nairobi.

In Nairobi the students made field visits to off grid solar companies, GreenLight Planet and SunnyMoney, electronics bazaars, repair shops and a Chinese-Kenya trade fair, guided by University of Edinburgh PhD researcher Declan Murray, who is involved in a doctoral research project on solar waste and repair in East Africa. Over two days the students were granted open access to the Gearbox space and facilities. They built four prototype lighting systems and presented these to a small group of invited guests at a pop-up exhibition.

The students returned to Edinburgh to complete their projects and, in August, 2016, their final designs went on display at the Edinburgh College of Arts Masters Degree Show.

The Masters Degree Show runs from 13-27 August at the Edinburgh College of Art Main Building, 74 Lauriston Place.