Changemaker Interview with Mark Lozano of One Million Lights

Every day, fifteen million Filipinos plummet into complete darkness. With little to no access to electricity, Filipinos rely on the dangerous, dim flicker of a kerosene lamp. A WHO study revealed that inhaling four hours of a kerosene lamp is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes. Every year, 4.3 million people die due to illnesses caused by household air pollution.

One Million Lights is a non-profit eliminating the need for kerosene gas lamps in the developing world by replacing them with rechargeable, safe, solar-powered lanterns. 

For the past five years, Changemaker Mark Lozano has been the co-founder to One Million Lights Philippines. As of January 2015, he has sold 11,940 lights across the Philippine islands. 

 

Q: At sixteen you co-founded One Million Lights Philippines. What drove you to take such an alternative path from your peers so early on in life? 

A: I wanted a way to help people in my community and thought I could do more than what the opportunities available to me let me do.  Also there was something intriguing about starting something on our own. It had its own pull.  I guess it was the uncertainty of what the outcome of our actions would be that drove us as well to push for this project. In the process of putting things together, I also saw the uncertainty as an opportunity to learn new things that staying in my comfort zone couldn't possibly teach me. 

Growing up, I had been exposed to volunteering in medical missions, typhoon relief, and the usual school charities and activities. I had always wanted to play key roles in these projects, but as a kid, I was never afforded these positions, after all who would give someone so young a lot of responsibilities. I was left to believe that in order to make a difference in the lives of others, I must be older. This mentality changed for me when I was 16 years old. I attended the Global Young Leaders Conference (GYLC) 2011 in New York. I guess I met a lot of people my age who I was shocked to find out were doing so many great things for their community and for some in distant countries. This made me realize that I didn't have to be older to help other people. Coming home from this conference, I decided to look for an initiative that would allow me to help others in a way that I not only enjoyed, but also made a lasting impact. 

Q: Where does the name "One Million Lights" (OML) come from and why is it important?

A: The name comes from our parent organization, One Million Lights located in Palo Alto. What's interesting about the Philippines Chapter is that it is the only other OML office, and it is completely youth driven on a volunteer basis. 

To me the name is figurative to represent we will continue to light up communities until every Filipino home has access to clean, safe, and affordable lighting.   We've been working on this project for almost 5 years, and yet we've only distributed just over 13,000. A million is just so far, but it's not exactly out of reach. It communicates the idea that we'll be here for the long haul. 

Q: What has been your best mistake since you co-founded One Million Lights in the Philippines?

A: We've made many mistakes. The best one we made was starting the organization unprepared and making promises we didn't really know we could keep. In August of 2010, we committed to provide solar powered lights to an isolated community in the Philippines by April 2011, way before we raised funds, figured out how to source and send lights to the community, and deal with other issues like getting local support. Essentially we told the community that they would have lights in a couple of months time. 

Why was this a big mistake? We started fundraising not really knowing all the details of our advocacy. We didn't exactly know how to make the project sustainable, or how to present our ideas in the best way possible. The end result of this was rejection, multiple times by multiple groups. We also didn't know how we could stick to our timeline, given that we had no light supplier, means to get the lights to the Philippines, or knowledge of how to go about a distribution in the most effective way. These factors put a lot of stress on me and my co-founder. The setbacks also meant delays and many clutch moments where we barely made deadlines. We also had many of those moments where we thought there is no way we would be able to distribute lights to people we promised in April. 

Why was this the best mistake? That promise we made kept us going through hard times. We had so many moments we wanted to quit, the funding rejections, difficulty in sourcing lights, difficulty in getting lights shipped to the Philippines (we were able to get free airfreight but had so many problems because of the batteries in the lights), the long nights spent on problem solving, missing school to work on philippine customs and talk to sponsors,  and also the small fights that me and my co-founder would have from time to time.  We promised hundreds of families we would light up their homes. Without that promise, there would be very little holding us back from quitting when things got hard. I guess this promise is what eventually made us turn our vision of lighting up homes in the Philippines into a reality. 

Moreover, going into the project unprepared forced us to really step up our game really fast. Sure, we had so many set backs from this, and some would call the subsequent rejections wasted time, but for me and my co-founder Tricia, these were moments that taught us valuable lessons on how to conduct ourselves in presentations, how to present, and even how to make our project better from the insight of people's criticisms. I suppose our lack of knowledge motivated us to learn things more quickly considering the looming deadlines. This trial of sorts helped us internalize what would be needed to make things work, and also internalize what the initiative really meant to us. It made us more invested in the initiative. If things were easy for us, our passion in sustaining this dream of ours may be less. Going into things unprepared and striving to make things work at the end of the day by learning from mistakes and applying learnings asap made us more experienced, invested, and equipped to handle the challenges to come. 

This also showed me that even bad things can become good things if the right attitude is applied to the situation.  

Q: Why does One Million Lights personally matter to you? 

A: One Million Lights personally matters to me because it provides me an avenue to help my fellow countrymen in a simple way that I know can transform their lives. I see light not as an end  solution, but rather an enabling factor that allows people to combat the symptoms and causes of poverty. Solar Lights increase disposable income for families by freeing them from the alternative of purchasing costly and toxic kerosene to light up their homes, which could make up 30% of their monthly expenses. These savings could be used for other things such as purchasing better food, making investments, education, and for emergencies. Moreover, light gives people more productive hours in a day that allows kids to study at night, and parents to take advantage of other livelihood opportunities, thus further increasing income. I guess seeing these results after our post distribution assessments and from people's stories really gives me a sense of fulfillment. 

Aside from the direct impact on people, OML matters to me because it serves as validation to me that there is no such thing as being to young to pursue our goals and make a difference. When we started the organization, we received a lot of criticism from our peers who said our project would never work, that our intentions were corrupted by the promise of better looking resumes, and that our inexperience and age will eventually make our project ineffective. Looking at where the organization is now, gives me a sense of satisfaction and proof to myself that with passion and an attitude of perseverance, anything is possible.  Since we started, we've received 2 awards in the prepense of the Philippine president for being an outstanding student organization and for the initiative itself. At a certain point, our age, which was a main hurdle that prevented people from supporting our cause became a big advantage as people were surprised that young people could do these things. We found that people wanted to help us not just because our cause was good, but because we were young. 

Lastly, One Million Lights provides us with so many opportunities to be part of other initiatives, such as conferences and other projects that build our capacity in helping others. Moreover, we feel that these opportunities also open doors for us to take advantage of opportunities that develop us into better people. 

I see One Million Lights Philippines as some sort of universal key that not only enables me to help others, but also develop myself. 

Q: What is your biggest fear?

A: My biggest fear is to be powerless, to not be able to influence or impact a given situation. I don't like the feeling of not being able to act on my passions and not be able to do do anything about issues I care about. I get restless when I know nothing can be done. Sometimes I'm able to just discard these thoughts and forget about the stress since I can't do anything anyway, but most of the time I get stuck thinking of what I can do. This happens quite often in One Million Lights, especially when waiting for outputs from partners when organizing projects in far flung communities, problem solving during projects, or putting together grants with other organizations. 

On another note, an equivalent fear is losing my family. I am who I am and where I am because of them. They give me fuel for my passions and guidance to help me live them. I share my greatest and most memorable moments with them. I just can't imagine a world without this cornerstone in my life. I am motivated and inspired by having great people around me. Their absence would be quite scary. 

I'm also somewhat afraid of getting eaten alive by bugs. 

Q: Could you describe a moment or interaction where you realized what impact you had made with One Million Lights?

A: Ah, there are so many, let me describe some:

Getting into an in depth conversation with a beneficiary made me realize this. We did an interview of an elderly woman named Susana in an off-grid community not very far from Manila. It was here where we were really able to ask someone about how our solar lights help them. She told us how not having lights only allowed her to save, but also to make brooms in the evening, something she could not do before because of the lack of light, and sell in the market in the morning to augment her income. Her house supports her kids and their kids as well. It's a big household. Asking about her dreams, she tells us that she wants her grandkids to finish schooling. Surprisingly lights play a part in this dream. Not only do they help the household save enough money to send their kids to school, but the lights served as motivation for the kids to study at night. We were told that when their family got lights, their kids would constantly bug them to teach them how to read or how to write in the evening. The much brighter lights excited the kids served as motivation to study when compared to the dim pin-light flickering kerosene lamp they were once used to. The impact of this according to Susana and the teachers were improved reading and better penmanship, something teachers noticed across their grade 4 class. 

More than the benefits of light is the part of the interview where you hear beneficiaries talk about how the light makes them happy or gives them hope that really makes us realize we are doing something good. we were told of stories about how the lights increased morale and promoted camaraderie within the community. We were told stories of how kids would like to hangout with friends later in the evening or how older ones would interact more because "the sun was still out", referring to the lighting they had now. 

Stories like this make me realize that the impact of our project affects people in many different aspects of their lives. To know now that more than 13,000 families have benefited from our projects makes me realize how much we've done, but in the same breath makes me realize how much more we have to do to reach our goal. 

Another instance of realizing our impact is during the light distribution itself when beneficiaries turn on their lights for the first time. Sometimes, they have bland expressions as if its expected they get something, but in others, you see expressions of great joy, amusement and gratefulness. Some of these people turn on a light for the first time and are just so amazed at how it works. At that point we ask what they would use the light for and we get a long list of things. Seeing their expressions is enough to know we'll be changing their lives. 

Also, I am reminded of the impact we make every time I give a talk in a high school about the projects we do. Sometimes, we get desensitized to the impact of our projects make, because of the fact that its become a norm to talk about it and see it in action. However, every time we present our work to school kids, parents or other organizations, we tend to realize that while we aren't quite at a million lights yet, the fact we are changing the lives of our current 13,000 is something big in itself. We get asked questions about the projects and unexpected reactions to the different facts and tidbits we present, these make us realize maybe we are on the right track. It's funny how it takes the insight of others for us to realize how much we are actually doing. But I think that's good, because we are never content with where we are, and look for ways to continue to improve. 

Lastly, living in some of these beneficiary communities when we do these projects also makes us realize what exactly we are doing. We see how hard life can be without lights, and directly see the impact, when the sun sets and all these white lights turn on in the row of huts in front of me. That's a really good feeling. 


Mark Lozano is the Co-Founder and Country Head of One Million Lights Philippines, a non-profit dedicated to providing clean solar-powered lighting to the most remote regions of the world. Mark is the recipient of the Spirit of Edsa Award, given by President Benigno Aquino III for "lighting up the lives of those less fortunate rather than being insensitive to the darkness that surrounds them.”