Little Sun: the power of art

Little Sun is a story about passion, art and power, the power of the sun that people harvest themselves with the Solar Lamp. We met with Olafur Eliasson, the artist behind the project.

Olafur Eliasson at Little Sun in Berlin

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Olafur Eliasson, the artist and co-founder of Little Sun who produces solar lamps for families living in remote parts of Africa. The Little Sun social enterprise and now foundation have already delivered around 280,000 lamps to the continent, helping families save 1 USD per week on fuel for kerosene lamps, thereby avoiding 100,000 tons of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.

Having previously talked about Little Sun in The Beam, physically meeting the minds behind this project gave us further insight into the astonishing modesty of Olafur Eliasson and the Little Sun team.

Olafur began to talk about his travels in Africa, before founding Little Sun, and the first time he experienced a life without access to light. The people he met there were all using kerosene lamps — an expensive and very harmful light source for both the environment and personal health. Staying four hours near a kerosene lamp is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes. In fact, four million people die from household pollution every year worldwide.

Olafur and his friend, engineer and solar pioneer Frederik Ottesen, decided to work together to try to replace these toxic kerosene lamps. “When we started it was very much about health,” said the artist, “but we wanted to focus on the positive: it is a project about solar energy, but it is mainly a project about things we have in common around the world. And the necessity of light is something we share.”

I am the power

The passion of the artist is palpable. This project, for him, is about bringing people together, it’s about equality. “We wanted to make solar energy tangible, something you have in your hands. When they grab the lamp, I want people to think ‘I have the power, I am the power’, because what you do with the Little Sun Solar Lamp is you harvest the energy from the sun!”

Since their first discussion about the project, Little Sun has sold more than 500,000 solar lamps worldwide, of which 280,000 were distributed in Africa. That’s 1 euro per week that families didn’t spend on kerosene lamps. If you do the math, that’s 50 million dollars of petroleum saved in four years, and the equivalent of 100,000 tons of CO2 emissions that didn’t get into the atmosphere. Pretty impressive impact for what the founder calls “a small company”.

This wasn’t achieved without making mistakes, and Olafur shared one of them with us. Once the first prototype was ready, he went to Africa to present it to people for whom he created this project. “I went to a market, it was full of little kiosks, and I went to talk to one of the sellers, an old women, to show her the lamp and I told her it was something for the poor people.” In his mind, the artist was bringing a healthier and cheaper solution to African families. “But there are no poor people here Sir, I’m sorry,” answered the street vendor. Lesson learned! “Don’t be condescending, don’t patronize people. It is not about what differentiate us, but what bring us together.”

Olafur insists on this.

Little Sun has now released a second version of its solar lamp, the Diamond Solar Lamp, the adult version of the Little Sun Solar Lamp. The idea behind it is simple: Olafur and his team asked themselves the question: “what is the most valuable thing for people today? A diamond!”. In reality, this might have been a bit more complicated, especially because the technical part of the lamp is quite complex, but the message here is that light is not something to take for granted. “Light is going to be expensive and rare in the future, and the energy we harvest from the lamp is the most valuable thing we can possess.”

The artist concluded “this is a piece of my art, the only difference between this solar lamp and any other piece of my work, is that this one aims to compete with the petroleum market.”

Article by Anne-Sophie Garrigou