Dahlia Rawji

Interview with Eric Verploegen | Off-Grid Energy Specialist at D-Lab


1. Describe D-Lab in a sentence or two. What does D-Lab mean to you?

MIT D-Lab has many different arms more than 20 MIT courses, research groups, and global programs including international development design summits, trainings, and other fieldwork. D-Lab’s mission is to help address problems of poverty through dialogue, design, and dissemination. This means that we engage with our partners in developing countries around the world in order to help them to create and implement solutions that address issues in their communities.


2. How do you recommend young people (undergraduate students and recent graduates) get involved with D-Lab? What opportunities exist for individuals who meet this criterion? 

For students, the primary way to get involved is to take one of D-Lab’s 20 or so courses. There are courses that introduce students to the field of international development and D-Lab’s approach, as well as courses that focus on specific sectors, such as energy, water, mobility, and waste. Another way for students to engage with D-Lab is to apply for a UROP (an undergraduate research opportunity), which can be taken for college credit, cash, or simply as a volunteer experience. Students and recent graduates can also engage with D-Lab through the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) or by attending events such as the upcoming MIT Scaling Development Ventures conference. MIT graduates who are developing a product or service intended for poverty alleviation are eligible to apply for the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship, a one-year program providing mentorship, training, and a $20,000 grant to social entrepreneurs. For students (or anyone) just wanting to check out D-Lab, we have tours every Thursday during the semester at 12 pm.

3. Explain the new online solar comparison resource and some of the goals that D-Lab has in presenting such a resource. (We would like for our readers to have some background information on the topic itself)

Many organizations that D-Lab works with in developing regions are looking to disseminate existing technologies or develop new technologies to alleviate poverty. The goal of the online Solar Lighting Product Comparison resource is to disseminate information related to products that are designed to address a lack of access to basic electricity.

The website provides technical specifications for high-quality solar lighting products. The resource compares products ranging from solar lanterns used for basic lighting needs to solar power and lighting systems with the capability to power appliances such as mobile phones, radios, fans, and TVs. In essence, it serves as a directory for solar lighting products, many of which can meet a range of electricity needs.

This project is part of the D-Lab Off-Grid Energy Group’s work to support organizations looking to develop programs for increasing off-grid energy access in their communities. We provide our partners with information and guidance related to conducting energy needs and market opportunity assessments, identifying suitable technologies and business models, and implementing programs to increase energy access in off-grid communities. In addition to our direct partnerships with organizations based in off-grid regions, we have created an off-grid energy resources page that provides a list of selected resources related to the off-grid energy sector for people interested in learning more about this topic.

4. Could you explain the details of the resource; like the number of products, countries and distributors that are being evaluated? How were these products, countries and distributors chosen?

We developed this resource by using data available though Lighting Global, a subsidiary of the World Bank. Lighting Global conducts quality assurance testing for solar lanterns and solar home systems, and provides the testing results of the products that passed the quality standards.

The D-Lab Solar Lantern Product Comparison provides country-specific information sheets with key technical specifications of solar lighting products in a table format that makes comparison easy, and contact information for distributors that sell the products locally. The database includes information on more than 100 distributors operating in 47 countries across Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceana, allowing consumers to determine which products are available and where they can purchase them.

Additionally, a full product comparison table is set up in a straightforward, sortable Google sheet. There you can find detailed information on model, manufacturer, price (in U.S. dollars), battery and solar panel specifications, lighting output, runtime, features and accessories, as well as information on the warranty and certifications for some 50 products.


5. How is this resource being distributed/received (since the goal is to provide consumers and distributors in the developing world with a resource to make solar lighting purchase decisions?

This resource was developed out of an interest in solar lighting products from people in the D-Lab network. D-Lab often receives inquiries from individuals and businesses interested in where they can purchase high quality solar lighting products for their community. We assumed that there must be others outside of the D-Lab network who are looking for this kind of information, so we generated a website to fill this need. 

The Solar Lantern Product Comparison is designed for entrepreneurs and businesses that are looking for products to market and sell. Distributors who are already selling products can contact D-Lab to be added to the database so that information can be publicly available. Of course individuals looking to purchase products either for themselves or for family and friends can make use of the resource as well.

We are distributing this information about this resource through a number channels including the D-Lab website and e-newsletter, direct engagement with D-Lab’s partners working in off-grid regions, and larger organizations such as USAID, Mercy Corps. We have also been featured on MIT News, Sun Connect News (a leading international source of news for the off-grid industry worldwide), and promoted through social media. And we look forward to reaching more of BNID’s members!

6. To a person who does not have much experience in the field of renewable energy, how are solar panels an investment that the developing world is willing to make? What makes it so appealing, and how is that reflected in the resource? 

Most of the 1.2 billion people in the developing world without access to an electricity grid connection rely on fossil-fuel based lighting, such as kerosene, natural gas, and candles. While a solar lantern or home system may cost as much as a third of a family’s monthly income, it is an investment that many in the developing world are willing to make. Over time, households that purchase a solar lantern save money compared to what they would otherwise have spent on fuel such as kerosene, while avoiding negative health impacts of fossil-fuel based lighting.

Improved lighting can enable children to study into the evening, make household chores easier at the end of the day, reduce the risks of moving around outside after dark to tend to animals or go to the toilet, enhance social time with friends and family, and many models enable families to charge cell phones. 

Our goal is to provide information that increases the odds that people who need solar lighting the most are able get the products that are the best investment. We not only want to increase access to energy for some of the people that make up that one billion currently without, we want to help increase the odds that they’ll get access to the right products for them.

For more information please feel free to contact Eric Verploegen at [email protected].


Interview Conducted by Dahlia Rawji
Wellesley College Class of 2016

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