An NYU Student Tackles Energy Poverty in India—Before Her 21st Birthday

Mansi Prakash’s bright idea has helped light up more than 5,000 homes in one rural village.

A girl switches on a solar-powered light in the village of Morabandar on Elephanta Island, off the coast of Mumbai. (Photo: Sajjad Hussain/Getty Images)

Jul 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jake Kilroy is an award-winning writer based in Southern California. He currently writes for Playboy, The Venue Report, and Column Five Media.

Most college students don’t know what they want to major in, let alone what their mission in life might be. But New York University student Mansi Prakashs goals couldn’t be clearer: to bring clean energy to developing nations, support education, and fight poverty.

Not bad for a 20-year-old economics major who first witnessed the energy dilemma on a 2010 visit to her grandparents’ village in India and later founded the nonprofit Brighter Today.

“Most families have light bulbs—they just werent turning them on and using them,” Prakash recalls of her trip. “I was intrigued by this, and as I interacted with them more, I learned that this living condition stemmed from low incomes and electricity costs. For someone who couldnt afford food three times a day, paying the high electricity bills was not an option.”

An idea clicked for Prakash: Do away with the energy-efficient 60-watt incandescent bulbs that only work for two months and replace them with 11-watt compact fluorescent lamp bulbs, which—while initially costing more at $2 per bulb instead of 20 cents—would last significantly longer, averaging three to four years. In the end, the swap would reduce household electric bill payments by 80 percent.

Mansi Prakash. (Photo: Courtesy Brighter Today)

That family savings could easily go toward education or health care, Prakash says.

Her idea made waves in the aid world, where her project has already gained major traction thanks to partners like the Clinton Foundation, Philips, and a $20,0000 grand prize from Glamour magazine, which Prakash took home in April after winning the publication’s Top 10 College Women competition.

So, Why Should you Care? About seven out of every 10 households in rural India have no access to electricity, according to the United Nations. More than one-third of the country’s massive population—1.24 billion people—also lives below the poverty line, with an average annual income of $1,330. An electricity revolution would not only help save money in the near and long term but would also ensure that families have more hours in the day to be productive, and that children are able to study and play safely at night in their homes.

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Prakash pitched her idea at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference in March 2014, where she was named a winner in the Social Venture Competition. Awarded with a fellowship to pilot her 100-household program in India that summer, she soon partnered with Philips, which agreed to sponsor 100 percent of the light bulbs. Together, the team brought cost-effective, eco-friendly, long-lasting lighting that same year to all 5,300 Behlana Village residents for the first time.

Kids holding a Brighter Today light bulb. (Photo: Courtesy Brighter Today/Facebook)

During the pilot phase, Prakash founded Brighter Today, with 100 percent of the organization’s donations going directly to her team’s efforts. And a little goes a long way—an entire household can be electrified for $10. Brighter Today’s next step is figuring out how to implement a long-term, one-for-one model.

These days, though, Prakash is focusing on a new project for the Philippines called Light for Life. Powered by daylight, it’s a solar panel prototype that can provide 24-7 lighting and fan power as well as a station for recharging mobile phones, says Prakash, who will be partnering with Philips again for the rollout.

“The device has been assembled with local materials readily available and has been tested for the last six months with encouraging results,” she says, adding that it requires no maintenance, is easy to install, and has zero running costs.

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The innovation will bring free, clean, and sustainable power to homes, and will be made possible with the grand prize money from her Glamour win, all of which will go directly to the project. Prakash and her team plan to assemble and distribute the Light for Life devices in rural communities throughout the Philippines in coming months.

“We hope to implement the device on a large scale and light up thousands of lives and ultimately improve their quality of life,” she says.