Stewart Craine: Dream Job in Progress

This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.

PHOTO: Sandra Upson

Stewart Craine cofounded Barefoot Power in 2005 to sell cheap, ultraefficient electric lighting to impoverished villagers around the world. By working with local entrepreneurs in Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Uganda, and elsewhere, Craine is finding creative ways to distribute his rechargeable white LED lamps around the world. Here is the transcript of IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Sandra Upson’s interview with Craine.

Susan Hassler: This is Spectrum Radio. I’m Susan Hassler.

TAPE: Nobel Prize announcement about Muhammed Yunus (”and in the field of…we award this year’s Nobel Prize to…”) and then fade under the next anchor track

SH: When we hear of engineers and scientists making great discoveries or winning awards, we don’t always reflect on the decades of struggle that usually precede success. One man who’s now battling to realize his dream is Stewart Craine, founder of a company called Barefoot Power. Craine sells cheap, ultraefficient lamps to villagers in Africa and the South Pacific who don’t have electricity. Spectrum ’s Sandra Upson caught up with Craine in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.

TAPE: Doorbell rings, door opens, friendly chatter

Sandra Upson: A tall, 34-year-old man who favors rumpled T-shirts and flip-flops, Stewart Craine greets me at the front door of a small bungalow on a quiet, tree-lined street outside Melbourne.

TAPE: ”Hello, I’m Chris. Sandra, Chris…” [sound of people talking]

SU: Craine’s casual dress and eager smile cloak his fervent intensity. This is a man obsessed with realizing his vision. Craine hopes to put bright little LED lamps in the austere homes of villagers who currently burn toxic-fume-producing kerosene for light. That sounds simple enough, but his journey has been neither simple nor easy. And it’s demanded sacrifice. At the moment, he’s camping out at a friend’s house to save money while he pitches his business plan to organizations that he hopes will finance his company.

TAPE: Sounds from their conversation

SU: Craine is a man in the process of engineering his dreams. Ordinarily, he lives in a factory town in China, where his lamp kits are made. He’s taken to working all night and sleeping during the day because of daytime traffic and construction noise too loud to allow him to concentrate. When he does see a moment of daylight, Craine sneaks out for a bowl of noodle soup at the corner restaurant. In short, his life is all about work.

Stewart Craine: It’s also a heck of a challenge. Most of my work is on the supply side in China. And dealing with Chinese factories is tough work. There are a lot of lonely men in China who are dealing with factories. But when it all gets too hard, you think about the villagers carrying 50 kilos on their back each day and getting paid less than a dollar per day and children dying of very basic diseases and things like that.

TAPE: Chinese music fades up

SC: The core love of what I enjoy is getting to a village and seeing big, huge smiles on people’s faces as they get electricity for the first time, when they never really thought it was gonna happen. It really is just a joyous moment to see people with their houses lit up and proudly showing the kerosene lamp in the corner not being used anymore.

TAPE: Triumphant Chinese music

SU: Craine got his start as a village engineer after college, when he volunteered in a program that sent him to Nepal. He got his first taste of rural life there, and soon after he found himself working for Hydro Tasmania, an electricity-generation company. That job took him to Papua New Guinea, where he lived in a tree while studying rural electrification. He learned that even poor people have some disposable income. For example, each household spends about one dollar a week on kerosene. So Craine and a friend launched Barefoot Power, selling lamps that run on as little as 1 watt for the price of a few months’ of kerosene.

SC: So I figured if there really was a bit of a market there, probably the Chinese had already invented it and I just had to find it. That’s been my principal sourcing most of the time—it’s to look, find, adapt, and tweak, rather than design from scratch. So in about 2006, I packed some bags and took a flight into the unknown abyss. I knew one person there who’d had a factory making compact-fluorescent lamps—that was an Australian-Chinese joint venture. So he managed to find me a [US] $5-a-night hovel nearby his factory to stay for a few weeks and see what I could find. So I went for a few weeks and didn’t leave.

SU: Craine’s factory town, about an hour’s bus ride from the Hong Kong border, was far from the glitz and gleam of Shanghai or the ancient glamour of Beijing.

SC: I was actually right out in the factory areas, in a tiny little district called Shangzhao. That word brings nightmares to me now. I was out there for about nine months. I was so busy, buried in a several-foot-high mountain of LED lamp samples from 100 factories around the place. And that’s what I was doing. I was getting samples being sent into one area instead of traveling around China looking at all the factories, which was very expensive. I just didn’t have the budget for it.

SU: After several months of working with his suppliers to tweak the lamps to fit his needs, Craine began putting together kits consisting of lamps, batteries, chargers, and some small solar panels.

TAPE: Stewart Craine ambient noise

SU: The idea was to find local entrepreneurs willing to buy several kits and resell them throughout the villages. He spent days ironing Barefoot Power decals onto the kit bags that traveling salesmen would carry. Craine shipped his first container last year and so far has distributed more than 10 000 lamp kits.

TAPE: Zipping sound

SC: We don’t want to just deliver lamps to people. We want to deliver electricity to people. But the first step is to get those first watts of power in there and mobilize that money that’s being spent on kerosene. A lot of people live near electricity; they’re only a few hundred meters away from it. They have electricity at work, their kids see electricity at school. They just don’t have it in their homes.

SU: Bridging that electricity gap—and leaving the industrial wasteland he now calls home—may take Craine one or two more years. And it may take four or five years before he’s rebuilt his personal life back in Australia and is finally enjoying the fruits of his labors. But in the meantime, thanks to Craine’s lamp kits, some lucky villagers in Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Tanzania, and elsewhere are beginning to see a healthier, brighter future. For Spectrum Radio, I’m Sandra Upson.

TAPE: Harmonious and upbeat music

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2009.

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