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Kenyan students with lights from Extend the Day. The nonprofit is working with the Tembea Youth Center for Sustainable Development to distribute some of the lights. (Extend the Day Photo)

When Jo Lonseth and her dad, Andrew, were designing a solar-powered light for their nonprofit organization Extend the Day, they had to walk a fine line.

The device needed to perform reliably and be robust enough to withstand the wear and tear of their target audience: kids in developing countries that lack reliable electricity doing homework after dark. But if the lights were too good, did too much, their parents would be sure to nab them for their own. That meant omitting the ability to use the lights to recharge cell phones and attaching them to a sturdy cord, as opposed to making them wearable as a headlamp.

To create their light, the two purchased and took apart solar lights found on Amazon, eBay and Alibaba, dissecting the components, size, shape and weight. They settled on a stackable rectangular design that fits in the palm of the hand.

Now, more than five years later, Extend the Day, which is based west of Seattle on Bainbridge Island, has given out 16,000 lights to students in 11 countries. They recently released a documentary reporting on their work in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Jo Lonseth delivering solar-powered lights to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Extend the Day Photo)

The Lonseths are both life-long, intrepid travelers eager to venture off the beaten path into impoverished, foreign communities. They agreed that clean water and a safe source of light were essential challenges that needed more attention in the areas they visited.

“We decided the water was far too daunting, and the light seemed a little more doable,” said Jo Lonseth, executive director of the nonprofit and a former Microsoft employee.

Along with Kelly Sampson, they founded Extend the Day to address the problem. Large solar projects required long-term maintenance and were too prone to failure, so they focused instead on small lights for school children. The kids in these areas had lengthy chores after school, pushing homework into the evening hours. Often their only source of light was a kerosene lamp that created pollution on par with smoking dozens of cigarettes, plus there was the cost of the fuel and risk of fires.

A student at a Rukmini Foundation school in Nepal uses one of the lights. (Extend the Day Photo)

The Extend the Day light “allows them to study past sunset and have a safe, clean light,” Lonseth said.

After using a slightly modified off-the-shelf light that performed miserably in the field, Lonseth and her dad realized that they needed to come up with their own design. Andrew Lonseth, who is president of U.S. operations for APsystems, an international company that works on solar-powered technology, partnered with the company’s engineers to build the light.

The devices charge for 6-8 hours, depending on the sunlight available. They provide up to 16 hours of light and cost $5 each to make. APsystems, which has its U.S. headquarters in Seattle, is providing the lights to the nonprofit at cost.

Kristen Dailey, executive director of Global Washington, a nonprofit supporting charitable organizations working in developing countries, said that Extend the Day has taken a smart approach to the problem.

“It’s really important to think about how technology is transferred to poor countries,” Dailey said. It’s a lesson her sector learned the hard way.

About a decade ago, Americans were sending old computers to Africa, thinking it would bring technology to poor communities. Instead, the outdated and sometimes broken machines sat useless in schools and other settings. “They are ending up as toxic waste and doing more harm than good,” Dailey said.

Organizations realized the mistake. “People understand that they have to work in local communities,” she said, “and find out what is needed and appropriate and can be maintained and is useful.”

Extend the Day checks each of those boxes, Dailey said.

The organization partners with orphanages, schools and programs supporting girls’ education that already operate in the communities they’d like to serve. Their goal is to make sure the lights are provided in a way that is culturally appropriate and helps the kids.

Lonseth almost always travels to the countries herself, delivering the lights and coming back over the years to see how they’re performing. On a recent trip to Kenya she found that of the 6,000 lights that they’ve distributed over the past 3-5 years, only six needed to be taken back because they had broken.

Jo and Andrew Lonseth visit a school in Myanmar where the headmaster has created a light library from which students can check out lights for doing homework. (Extend the Day Photo)

The group is funded by individual donations and corporate support from 9point9 Architects; Amersco, an energy efficiency company; Seattle Center; Firstgear, which sells motorcycle gear; and the University of Washington.

Lonseth is working on a more sustainable funding model and is eager to share their recently released documentary. She wants to expand her reach, but it can be difficult to grow a charitable effort.

“It’s always a challenge, especially with nonprofits, thinking about how to scale things they believe in,” Dailey said. Jo is growing the model “really thoughtfully, and making a difference for those kids’ lives.”

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