by Matt McDonald
In a video from last year, climbers Megan Sullivan and Chris McNamara climb Yosemite’s Half Dome at dusk, illuminating their route with 39 solar-powered, LED lanterns as they ascend. Red lights went on the bolts and anchors, white on the rest. The Luci lanterns they used are ultra-simple, require no maintenance or batteries, and pack down to a four-ounce, inch-thick disc slightly larger than a DVD. The video eventually found its way to John Salzinger, co-founder of MPOWERD, the Manhattan-based producer of Luci lights. He was ecstatic: it validated his company as a major player in the outdoor space. Still, MPOWERD measures its success far from Yosemite.
In 2012, Salzinger was working at a marketing consulting firm when he took a trip to Haiti. The country had recently experienced a devastating earthquake, and the journey sparked an awakening—seeing thousands of kids living in darkness and raw sewage will do that to you. A few weeks later, he quit his job to build a b-corporation with the mission of eradicating energy poverty. A small crowd funding campaign paid the bills up front and a year later, Luci lights arrived in Nigeria, South Africa, and the Philippines.
With Luci, MPOWERD took innovations in solar and LED technology and, essentially, put them into a beach ball. Although the PVC lights do resemble toys, they’re also waterproof and shatterproof, making for a product that holds up to harsh, isolated living conditions in the developing world. It’s easy to see why international distributors and outdoorsy folk alike took notice.
Today, a large portion of MPOWERD’s 100,000 retailers are places like REI and Eastern Mountain Sports, as well as the more ethically dubious Walmart. Still, large-scale growth promotes the project’s morals. As a for-purpose/for-profit model, MPOWERD ensures everyone in the supply chain is incentivized to do its part. More sales to people like those climbers in the developed world ($10-25) means lower manufacturing costs, leading to more lanterns sold at more affordable prices, or distributed for free, to those in the developing world. Today, international partners—including distributors, companies, and NGOs—have brought Luci lights to more than 100 countries, from rural markets in Ghana to post-earthquake Nepal.
When Salzinger considers the estimated 1.7-2 billion people living off-grid worldwide, he sees a massive market. Plus, photos of impoverished kids studying by Luci light helps him sleep at night. “Here, it’s a nice item,” he says. “In the developing world, it’s a must-have.”