At last week’s Greener Gadgets conference in New York, SunNight Solar chief executive Mark Bent admitted to having a problem that most execs would kill for in these tough economic times: too many customers. The company is rushing to keep up with escalating demand for its solar flashlights. Originally developed to illuminate refugee camps and replace costly and dangerous kerosene lamps in developing countries, SunNight’s flashlight is already a hot seller throughout the African subcontinent. But now, the hardy, cost-effective product is winning fans among American outdoorsmen and eco-consumers. In the process of solving a problem for the world’s most impoverished, Bent seems to have hit upon a new business paradigm that could take solar tech down a practical, consumer-oriented road.

SunNight’s success can be attributed in part to its business model, which runs counter to the trickle-down philosophy that dominates the technology sector today. Instead of developing a sexy gadget that would appeal to the 500 to 750 million people who can afford such things, Bent turned his attention to the needs of the other 6 billion folks on the planet. Applying knowledge gained during 14 years with the U.S. State Department, he identified the dire need for rugged and reliable solar-powered lights in Africa. Using much of the sub-continent as his focus group, he put prototypes of his solar flashlights in the hands of farm workers, herders and relief workers. His goal was to observe how people would use them, and if and how they would break, he explained in an interview with VentureBeat. Drawing on lessons learned, the final production model flashlights include a sturdy clip hook that lets users easily suspend them over tables or on tent poles. They also incorporate a second set of wide-angle light-emitting diodes that provide area lighting, and replacable NiMH AA batteries for energy storage. (See the video below for full details.)

Despite its international roots, the product is now gaining ground in North America, where SunNight earned 40 percent of its $1 million sales revenue in 2007. And Bent says he could have sold a lot more if the company hadn’t been limited by the capacity of its Chinese manufacturing partner. He spent much of 2008 correcting this supply problem and finally found three factories meeting his quality standards. Plans are also underway to bring some production operations to Houston, where American workers would perform final assembly tasks and packaging for units bound for domestic retailers. “We’re an American company, and it’s only fair we create some American jobs,” he said.

With production glitches at a minimum, SunNight has shifted its focus to expanding sales. Currently, about 30 percent of its flashlights are sold in Africa, with another 30 percent being distributed by relief organizations and NGOs. On top of that, the company has received more than 100,000 orders from police forces and social service agencies all over the world. It looks like Bent and SunNight can bet on a profitable year, especially if it can nab more clients like retail giant Target. Negotiations are also on the table with Cabella and several other large outdoor gear retailers. Bent is also slated to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show in April — a traditionally lucrative stamp of approval.

“My goal is to beat the billions that companies like Energizer and Ray-o-Vac make with their disposable products,” he says. “With the average service life of one of their products at around 15 hours, it’s a no-brainer to buy my light, which goes 500 to 1,000 hours before you even need to think about replacing the rechargable batteries.”

But the potential rewards aren’t just monetary. Bent has heard that the company’s flashlights have allowed students in poor areas to study more hours during the day and have reduced the damaging effects of regularly inhaling kerosene. In the past, rural families in Africa have spent up to one-third of their household incomes on fuel. SunNight is looking to change this game. In one unique example, Bent said, he heard from a young customer that had used the solar flashlights during the delivery of dozens of baby goats on his farm. Without this lighting, many of the goats would have probably died — a financially devastating event for a lot of families in these regions. The customer wrote stirringly that that one night made the difference between eking out an existence on the edge of poverty and having the small surplus he’d need to keep his children well-fed and in school.

“It’s kind of tough to put that kind of return on investment into numbers for your business plan,” Bent said. “But it’s certainly one of the things that helps me get excited about getting up in the morning.”
SunNight Flashlights from Camille Ricketts on Vimeo.

Video produced by Jennie Bourne /