Every person on earth is capable of shining a little light.
For Illac Angelo Diaz, that has meant something even bigger and brighter.
The son of Ramon Diaz and Silvana Ancellotti-Diaz (who runs Galleria Duemila) and founder of Liter of Light has created a pathway to distribute one million solar LED lights worldwide to the poorest communities, and a mechanism to keep those lights lit and sustainable. And that is just the beginning.
Liter of Light began with Illac’s AIM studies in social entrepreneurship. First he founded MyShelter Foundation in 2006 as a way to promote grassroots sustainable housing (such as Pier One Seafarer’s Dormitory).
But a more glaring problem hit home with the devastation of Tacloban by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013: the absence of light. Visiting there, it struck Diaz that local populations surviving in refugee camps needed a sustainable answer to yearly disasters. This wasn’t a luxury for people; it was a life-and-death issue. “Lights were badly needed,” he says. “Children were getting third-degree burns using kerosene lamps, a lot of people coughing from toxic kerosene fumes, a lot of women died when they went through the aid camps all the way back to their tents. So I knew we needed these corridors of light, corridors of safety.”
Instead of kerosene lamps or donated, imported lights, Diaz had a proposal: “Why don’t we build a solar enterprise? And people said that’s impossible, it’s complicated, it’s only done abroad.” Diaz knew that parts were readily available: he knew toy manufacturers with large supplies of cells used in solar-powered toys. The solar lights could be built in nearby industrial parks.
The design tackled another environmental problem plaguing the Philippines: tons of empty plastic water bottles. The solar LEDs could be easily inserted in the neck, providing up to 55 watts of light.
His innovation was to make these lights sustainable, easily repairable with a screwdriver and new parts. No more tossing out broken lamps, adding to the waste pile. The assembly and replacement of these lamps would give local refugee camps and women’s cooperatives regular work.
“We started with about 7,000 lamps per month,” he says now. The Liter of Light initiative soon spread to 32 villages—but it was a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Tacloban in 2013 that really blew things up. “He went by helicopter and was amazed to see villages upon villages with streetlights, lights in their houses. And he couldn’t understand how, without a big port system—the American aid workers didn’t even have a generator to scale yet—how come this village was being lit?”
Kerry mentioned Diaz in his speech in Tacloban (“Illac is not only a brilliant entrepreneur but a generous human being. He took recycled materials and made handheld, environmentally friendly, very simple solar lights, turning plastic bottles into something useful they can use in their homes”) and grant money soon poured in from around the world.
“I took it and ran. The John Kerry thing went around the world and people started asking me, how did you do it? And so slowly, slowly, I expanded around Asia to 32 countries around the world.”
From ice bucket to light messages
It was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that inspired Illac to continue further: “I wanted to create this sustainable model that was not based on charity. Because I believe that the reason Filipino NGOs don’t really grow around the world is they’re based on waiting for people to give, but with the social enterprise we’re earning every week, every day, every month by interacting and doing workshops.”
The result was the Light it Forward campaign in 2020, which drew thousands of celebrities and personalities worldwide, earning the initiative an Asia Pacific Social Innovation and Partnership Award (APSIPA) for empowering people, businesses and social service groups.
In 2018, Liter of Light, collaborating with the Zayed Future Energy Prize, even set a Guinness World Record for the “Largest Environmental Sustainability Lesson” with 282 students from across the UAE participating in the eco-themed lesson.
It was later the pandemic, and watching movies like Pay It Forward, that made Diaz realize the multiplier effect possible. “Before the pandemic hit, we were invited to Abu Dhabi, we won the Zayed Sustainability Prize in 2015. And one of the conversations we heard is that you can teach anyone how to build solar light. So they said, ‘Hey, how many young people would it take to break the world record?’ So I was challenged to do that. And we broke the world record for the largest sustainability lesson.”
Then, during the COVID lockdown, he thought of how to inspire a social media movement: “I started doing messages of hope in my front driveway and posting it. I would make an artwork from it—my mother has one of the oldest modern art galleries in the country. So there’s art all around me.”
Posting led to more lights being built around the world, more messages posted, more seed funding pouring in. The UN started inviting him to COP (Conference of the Parties) events in Italy, England and Egypt, where at COP27 last year, Liter of Light presented the largest solar-light artwork ever near the Giza pyramids of Egypt, with messages like “WE ARE THE SOLUTION” and “NET ZERO 2030” illuminating the desert during the UNESCO International Day of Light. (All lights, incidentally, are hand-built by youth members and community volunteers and later donated to places hardest hit by “energy poverty” around the world—what Diaz calls “the One Billion Problem.”)
Talking with Illac—who apologizes for just coming back from Zambales where he was busy installing lights when he takes this Zoom call—you realize there are no limits to what this path forward could achieve. For COP28, set for UAE this year, he hints there will be 28 messages lit up by some 20,000 solar lights—double the previous record. (On top of that, he was recently wed to Ami Valdemoro, whom he met in his Harvard studies.)
Next stop could be the Vatican: “There’s so many foreign artists that were able to do large-scale artworks at the Vatican. I think we should be allowed to make the largest rosary in the world. So that’s my ambition for 2023, is to make the largest rosary in the world, in the Vatican, built by Filipinos.
Yet another bright idea.
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Visit https://literoflight.org for more information.