Juakali is a solar light that aims to address the challenges of sustainable design. Composed of a minimum number of simple materials, it is easy to make, repair, replace and recycle.

Juakali was designed by Rowan Spear, an MA Product Design student at the Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with Monique, a Kenyan engineering student, and with assistance from 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.

Rowan entered the Circular Solar challenge with high aspirations: “Originally I wanted to take everything on the initial brief – reparability, modularity, environmental and economic sustainability, local resources and local labor, responsibly sourced materials – but I was slamming my head against the wall trying to get all these things in one design.”

He quickly realised that he would have to prioritise. Selecting reparability and sustainability as his top aims, he focused on designing a product that could be made inexpensively and easily in Kenya through as few processes as possible. Keeping the materials separate, he envisioned being able to break down the entire lamp into a small number of readily recyclable components.

Although the students were encouraged to begin working on their designs and developing prototypes as soon as they were given the challenge, Rowan decided to focus on concepts and broader problems and wait until being in Kenya to begin exploring specific solutions. He wanted to experience the challenge firsthand and then identify how it might be solved.

Once in Kenya, during visits to manufacturers, retailers and distributors of solar lighting products as well as to local craftsmen, he listened carefully to their different viewpoints and tried to understand their aims and goals. He observed the challenges faced by social enterprises that are working to meet people’s needs and simultaneously trying to turn a profit.

A few experiences in particular influenced the direction of Rowan’s design work. After some time spent at a trade fair, he began to sense that Kenya might be importing far more goods than it was exporting. In addition, manufacturers from other countries were making copies of solar lanterns that didn’t carry the same warranty or quality offered by better known and established brands. At a substantially lower price, these lanterns were quite attractive to the average consumer, but they would inevitably break and end up contributing to a growing waste problem.

The waste began to weigh on his mind. Even the established brands contributed to it, by offering replacement services instead of repair services on their products. “I see all these lights [about to be distributed] and I don’t see, oh, all these people are going to have lights. I see all this stuff in a landfill with all this useful stuff still inside it. Somebody needs to be able to take them apart and replace the bits that need replacing. If you can’t open the thing, you have to throw the whole thing away, even though it could be fixed.”

Second, a visit to a local home goods store emphasised the contrast between lights designed for traditionally electrified homes as opposed to solar lights. The home lights were clearly designed with form as a primary aim – they were visually appealing and made of attractive shapes and materials. The solar lights on the other hand seemed more like “lumps of ugly plastic” that were designed primarily with the purpose of giving off light. Was this really what people wanted?

Could he create a prototype that could be manufactured in Kenya, that would create minimal waste and that would be attractive? These were the challenges on his mind when he returned to the Gearbox workshop for two days of intense designing and making. Working in partnership with Monique, a Kenyan engineering student who was interested in similar questions, he began experimenting with different materials and components.

He spent a long time thinking carefully about each part of the lamp. AA batteries could be charged by the solar panel and then used in other devices. Wood and aluminum were both locally available and could either be found and upcycled or recycled if the lamp came to the end of its life. A light of 18-20 lumens would serve most purposes and was less expensive than a multi-setting light. The components fit together with a very small number of securing pieces.

The final design, down to the wing nut, is intended to represent an honesty of both form and function – easy to open up, to take parts out, and made from distinct and separable materials that can be replaced or disposed of in a sustainable manner. Despite not being able to fulfill all the specifications of the Circular Solar challenge as he had originally hoped, Rowan thinks his design has demonstrated the possibility to move toward a different set of standards for solar lights.

“There are so many different problems to be solved out there. What’s nice about this project is that each of us [the students] is handling a different aspect of the greater problem. Our designs are in their infancy. None of these are by any means finished products – they are prototypes of ideas.

“How do we take these things further? Develop them more? Introduce them to market? You don’t know how people are going to respond to them, how you supply the parts that need repairing, how it would compete with other products, whether it’s worth investing in – or whether you would just be creating a lot of waste again. We’re on the road…” But there is still a long way to go.