Canadian Brings Light to Third World

DAVE IRVINE-HALLIDAY climbs out of his navy-blue tent, slips into his leather sandals and ventures into the warm Nepali night. It isn't that he's alone, awash in the silence of a remote village, that intrigues him.

Canadian Brings Light to Third World

DAVE IRVINE-HALLIDAY climbs out of his navy-blue tent, slips into his leather sandals and ventures into the warm Nepali night. It isn't that he's alone, awash in the silence of a remote village, that intrigues him. It's the light, visible through the windows of the tiny clay-and-stone homes, that he still finds remarkable. After all, the glow from electric lights was rarely seen in the village before Irvine-Halliday's team arrived with the luminous gift. Now, children, once destined to spend their lives working in the fields, can study at night with the hope of a brighter future, doctors can operate more effectively, and jungle predators no longer freely roam the village under cover of darkness.

This is Irvine-Halliday's obsession - one that has cost him thousands of dollars of his own money. But he would gladly give up his job as an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Calgary if someone would just pay him to fulfill his dream of bringing light into the homes of millions of people in remote corners of the world. His mission began in 1997, when he was travelling through Nepal's Thorung La Pass region. He was distressed to see children as young as six working in the rice fields, with little time for schooling. And since few homes had light, studying after dark was impossible. Irvine-Halliday discovered that by deploying modern technology, virtually anyone could have light, and in 2000 he created the foundation Light Up The World. "It is about giving kids a chance," says Irvine-Halliday, 60, the father of two grown children. "Reading and writing is such a vital part of any successful society. I just felt something needed to be done."

In May, 2000, he travelled over a rugged trail for two days to reach the Nepali village of Thulo Pokhara, where he set up his first lighting system. "I think it was put best," recalls Irvine-Halliday, "when the mother of the village lama said, 'When Light up the World came to the village, they not only brought light into our homes, but light into our hearts.' " This summer he travelled to other villages in Nepal, and also to India, Sri Lanka and Tibet, to install more systems. And since the organization's inception, Irvine-Halliday and his small band of volunteers have brought light into the lives of thousands of people.

To start Light Up the World, Irvine-Halliday injected his family's entire life savings into the organization and maxed out three credit cards to keep it afloat. His group, however, was put on a much more secure financial footing last week, when he and his wife, Jenny, travelled to Japan to accept a prestigious US$100,000 Rolex Award for Enterprise which is given to visionaries who improve the world. He is also shortlisted for a US$50,000 technology award, which will be announced in early November. "Winning the Rolex award is like winning a mini-Nobel," he says. "I'm now more certain than ever that we will reach a million people with lamps by 2005."

Irvine-Halliday's success so far can be attributed to the simplicity and cheapness of the system. Electricity is generated by a pedal-powered generator, a small hydro generator, or by solar panels connected to a central battery. Lines are run to each home and connected to low-energy diode lamps. The lights are extremely efficient, and dozens of homes equipped with them consume less energy than it takes to power a single 100-watt bulb. But a major part of the future lies in solar panels, and last week he met with a large firm in Kyoto, Japan, to discuss acquiring the panels at a low cost. "We are trying to drive the price down so we can put a solar panel and a couple of lamps in each home," Irvine-Halliday says.

Once a village has been chosen and equipped, each family is encouraged to pay a tiny monthly fee, and must keep the system's battery in good working order. "I get letters from people in villages all the time asking to be next," says Irvine-Halliday. "We will not waste money and time on villages that are not 100 per cent behind the project." Occasionally, Light Up the World staff return to villages to ensure the systems are still working. Irvine-Halliday says he is often astounded by the resourcefulness of the locals. "Some of the things they use to keep the systems going are just incredible," he says.

Just reaching the remote villages is hard work. In his rucksack Irvine-Halliday carries only three T-shirts, two pairs of socks, a jacket, a pair of fleece pants, two pairs of boxers, a toothbrush and a pair of scissors to groom his grey-flecked beard. This summer he and his two-member team spent most nights in a pair of small tents. "I have amazingly never been sick," he says. "We are very careful because what use are we if we spend days in bed?"

One of the biggest hurdles has been dealing with the political instability in many of the places they visit. In Nepal, Maoist rebels have been locked in a war with police, landowners and government for the last seven years that has claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people. "I've never been afraid for myself," Irvine-Halliday says. "However, I'm quite concerned for our porters who carry the lights between villages, since they would likely receive less consideration than us." But nothing has so far knocked Irvine-Halliday off course. "We can't just stop," he says. "It's too important."

While the goal of the project is to provide lamps to read and write by, Irvine-Halliday has made a few exceptions. One man, who lived on the edge of a jungle reserve in Sri Lanka, asked him for a lamp to scare away elephants, which had been trampling through his yard. The man also asked for a lamp to leave on during the night so his family could see the snakes that entered his home. In another case, Irvine-Halliday installed six lamps in a children's orphanage in a small Indian village, run by a Jesuit priest. Father Abraham, who moved to the village about 50 years ago from Halifax, was given a few lights for the main hallway. Many of the children were afraid of the dark and would not go to the washroom at night, but with a light now shining, a bedwetting problem has been largely solved.

Irvine-Halliday also gave Sister Regina, the head of a hospital in Bagdogra, a few lamps to light up her operating table. The nun, who seconds as the hospital's only surgeon, was ecstatic with how well the lamps worked while generating only a very small amount of heat - a major advantage in India's extreme conditions. Now, even after installing thousands of lights, Irvine-Halliday is thrilled when each new set blinks on. "It still gives me goosebumps," he says. That alone is reward enough to keep him travelling to remote corners of the world.

Maclean's November 4, 2002