Thursday, September 22, 2011
It seems so simple. A small, basic lantern, little more than a flashlight, but bright enough to illuminate a small room.
In a place like Kenya, though, it can mean everything: a chance to study the day’s school lessons, the possibility of completing some stitching to earn a bit of extra income, the very opportunity to improve one’s life.
But this light, while basic, is also costly. Kerosene costs 50 cents a day, and the average Kenyan family has less than $2 to live on each day.
Enter Evans Wadongo, a CNN Hero in 2010 and one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Bonfire Heights Conference seeking to “ignite flames through positive association” at the Asilomar Conference Center Sept. 23-25.
The 25-year-old Kenyan engineer often burned the midnight kerosene in order to complete his homework. But using the kerosene triggered eye and lung ailments, while the 50 cents it cost meant one less loaf of bread, or a half kilogram less maize flour.
“These are families who survive on less,” Wadongo says.
The idea for a sustainable alternative to kerosene congealed one evening when he was walking home and saw a discarded piece of a solar reflector.
That was 2004. Since then he joined up with Sustainable Development For All Kenya, and relying upon a design he developed, has overseen the production and distribution of over 18,000 solar lamps. Critical in this development scheme is the employment of Kenyans.
“We train the communities on micro enterprise,” he says.
The solar lamps eliminate health hazards, but also to free up money.
“We have also helped poor communities set up over 20 economic ventures from the money initially spent on kerosene,” he says. “We help them set up small businesses, like poultry farming.”
Some have called the lamps mwanga bora, Swahili for good light. Illumination is the theme at Bonfire Heights. Organizers hope attendees see life’s possibilities more clearly through the eyes of visiting visionaries.
The event was dreamt up by Darius Seddiqui, a world traveller, financial advisor and entrepreneur who has attempted to put together a conference which aims to approximate the energy of “TEDx meets Burning Man.” After working in high finance and real estate in the corporate world, Seddiqui decided he wanted to work in a more creative environment, and ended up starting Bonfire Heights, a group that spreads experiences and ideas at workshops with inspirational speakers.
Strong youthful voices will make their presence felt. The youngest of the presenters is 12-year-old Birke Baehr, who will speak on “What’s Wrong with Our Food System” after working on farms in the U.S. and appearing as the youngest presenter at TEDx Next Generation in Asheville, N.C. conference in August 2010; the video of his presentation received 350,000 hits, a record. Kaylee Marie Radzyminski is a 14-year-old who won the Jefferson Award (which some consider the Nobel of public service) after starting Tunes for Troops and collecting thousands of CDs for soldiers serving abroad. She’ll discuss how to take a simple idea and turn it into an organization with more than 200 branches.
Another of the conference presenters is a man known as the human calculator. Featured on the Discovery Channel Program Real Superhumans, Rüdiger Gamm has competed in the Mental Calculation World Cup, and asserts that, with a little coaching, most anyone can perform the mental gymnastics he has mastered. Daniel Seddiqui, brother of the event’s founder, is a guy who decided to travel the nation and work 50 jobs in 50 states one week at a time. David Blume is an author who works with Project Gaia to distribute clean-burning alcohol stoves to African villages, putting in play his theory that alcohol produced from local crops can be a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative fuel to petroleum. Fellow presenter Maria DiSilva built Jacaranda School for Orphans in CheMoboma, Malawi, out of her family’s home and money she earned as a nanny, earning her a CNN Hero nod.
Organizers hope the speakers, individually and collectively, achieve something like spontaneous combustion. But even if the results aren’t so dramatic, that’s OK too. After all, sometimes it’s the little actions – like the passing of a small light in the night to someone who needs it – that can mean the most.
BONFIRE HEIGHTS CONFERENCE happens Friday-Sunday, Aug. 23-25, at Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove. $380 standard conference rate; $320 student rate; $150 Sunday only admission; with online discount code “fearless”: $145/three-day pass; $95/student. 650-776-6205, www.bonfireheights.com.