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Why This Famous Artist Is Crowdfunding A Clever Solar Phone Charger

Olafur Eliasson steps away from art to get into the power business.

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In five hours of sunshine, the tiny Little Sun Charge can gather enough solar power to fully charge a smartphone. It’s not the brainchild of yet another Silicon Valley startup, but of one of the giants of the contemporary art world.

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Olafur Eliasson, the Berlin-based artist known for massive installations and sculptures, has also spent the last few years designing small-scale renewable energy tech for his new company, Little Sun.

“The truth is, there’s a lot of connections between how I work with my art and how I see Little Sun,” he says. “When I make art, I do it to touch the world. And I do it to suggest that emotional narratives, abstract narratives, and creative ideas can be as important as pragmatic ideas in the world.”

Through the new products–heavy on design, and meant to be fun–he wants to make people feel differently about energy. “In order to understand energy, we need to see it as something emotional,” he says. “We need to have a physical relationship with it which is not just pragmatic, not just something which is about data and numbers. We’re never going to get any relationship with the climate crisis if we keep thinking about data only.”

A few years ago, he launched the original Little Sun, a solar light intended mostly for use off the grid in parts of the world without reliable access to electricity. The light quickly took off; one of Little Sun’s partners in Zimbabwe now has 60 dealers selling only the lamps. The product sells in 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Eliasson and his team quickly realized that people were even more interested in charging their phones. Without a solar lantern, they could still have light at night by reverting to candles or kerosene. But without power, if a mobile phone goes dead, it’s dead. “Everybody asked us again and again, can you please make a mobile phone charger?” he says.

He also saw an opportunity in places like Europe. “A lot of people said we have to learn to understand climate answers on a micro scale–small steps,” he says. “Five or 10 years ago, maybe they would say charging my mobile phone doesn’t take a lot of power. But I think we’ve experience more and more that it’s great to be able to do things in small steps, and just gradually getting comfortable with alternative sources of energy.”

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It’s also practical–it’s a reliable source of power that can be used anywhere. “A mobile phone is really only mobile if it’s on the move,” says Eliasson. “The one moment a mobile phone is not mobile is when it’s stuck in the wall, charging….the benefit of the solar charger is that you can charge while you’re on the way. It’s like a power pack.”

While other solar chargers exist on the market, most take much longer to suck up sunshine, making them less practical for everyday use. The main difference is that the Little Sun has a much larger solar panel. Other chargers might take 10 or even 20 hours to collect enough light to fully charge a smartphone; the Little Sun takes five.

In parts of Africa where it’s more common to have a cheap Nokia phone, the charger can fully charge two phones using five hours of sunshine. “This means it can offer a business,” he says. “You can charge your own smaller phone, but then you might also make a little money charging another person’s phone.”

The company relies on sales in places like Europe and the U.S. to keep the business going, while selling the products at cost in the poorest parts of Africa. But they don’t plan to give the chargers away.

“We’re not a relief organization,” he says. “We think Africa needs business opportunities. We also don’t tell retailers what they should use as their final price…there has to be a little bit of room for profit for everyone along the way until you reach the last mile.”

The first day after launching on Kickstarter, the Little Sun Charge made its $50,000 goal; the second day, the amount of pledges doubled. “It’s exciting,” Eliasson says. “I think it means there’s a need for it, which is amazing.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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