eColamp is a 3D-printed solar light and charging unit that uses a Coca-Cola bottle as a light chamber and fits in the empty space between bottles in Coca-Cola crates for easy distribution through existing networks. It can charge a mobile phone and be charged from its solar panel or the grid. It is inexpensive, simple to produce and easy to repair.

eColamp was designed by Nicholas Miti, an MA Product Design student at the Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the staff of Gearbox, a makerspace supporting creative and local manufacturing in Nairobi, Kenya. The following is the story of his experience with the Circular Solar project.

Even before beginning the Circular Solar challenge, Nik had taken an interest in the distribution networks and infrastructure that affect marketability of products in rural areas. While the challenge brief focused on the product itself, he also wanted to incorporate distribution considerations into his design.

Before traveling to Kenya, Nik looked at ColaLife, an enterprise that distributes social products through the same principles and networks as Coca-Cola and other commodity producers. He also worked alongside the other students in the project to take apart different solar lamps and examine how they were made and their potential to be repaired or have parts replaced. However, it was largely through the intense time he spent on the ground in Kenya that Nik defined four core issues that shaped his design.

First, when talking to the solar lantern companies that were working in country, he discovered that they had become as much distribution companies as anything. Distribution was one of the biggest barriers to marketing their products, and the companies were putting significant resources into organising, creating and implementing distribution networks. Some had had substantial success, but for most it was an ongoing process of testing and refining different models to find which one worked best in which place.

Second, he learned that in many people’s minds, solar power and grid power, light and electricity were not separate entities but were integrated and interchangeable. People wanted the option to charge a solar lantern from the grid and charge a phone from a solar lantern. Solar lights were also not only a product for rural areas without grid connections but were used frequently in cities to back up unreliable grids or provide light in homes that, despite being in the city, were not connected to the grid. People used different items for different purposes according to what worked where, and a successful product needed to offer multifunctionality.

Third, the time that Nik spent with the Gearbox staff and in the Gearbox makerspace inspired him to design a product that could be easily replicated in other locations by other people. FabLabs and creative spaces with 3D printers and a range of technical equipment were empowering the average person to experiment with and create innovative products anywhere in the world. In this Nik saw an alternative to designing and manufacturing products aimed at sustainable development far from the place where they would actually be used and the people who would use them. Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and a collaborative process of discovery and design could support a much more holistic conception of sustainable development that included people as well as product.

Finally, he recognised the value of designing a product that could be personalised according to individual preferences. Offering different colour choices, interchangeable and mix ‘n match parts, and modular options that allowed a product to be built up over time could make it more appealing, more adaptable and more likely to be upgraded instead of binned.

Returning to Edinburgh, Nik began working on incorporating these points into his design. He created a shape that could fit between the bottles in Coca-Cola crates to be paired with their distribution chain. Using Coke bottles as light chambers minimised the amount of plastic necessary, and a simple cork and an ergonomic design allowed the light to be used upright as a nightlight, upside down as an atmospheric light, pointing forward as a torch or with a handle as a lantern. He found batteries that could be matched to the solar panel and were strong enough to charge phones and added a mini-USB that could take charge from a grid. He added a modular interlocking system that allows individual lanterns to be connected to each other in a ‘cake’ shape, in a straight line, or in a curve. All of the basic plastic parts were 3D printed and could be reproduced at very low cost.

When reflecting on the whole experience, Nik found himself humbled. He was impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness that he saw in many places. “The guys we met in Africa were awesome. It really opened our minds to the fact that the way we’re designing for a place where we’ve only been for four days is hyper-critical. We are assuming that we know better – it always feeds back to people hearing or reading about a problem but being miles and miles away and detached from the actual problem – thinking, here is a solution and bringing it over to Africa and thinking, that’s it, done. There is great ingenuity – people are really interested and want to do their own lights, their own solutions, their own designs – if only they were given the chance or the opportunity.”