Lighting up lives in Africa and beyond


Local entrepreneur Michael Suttner has set South Africa ‘on fire’ with his recent invention, The LightieTM, which is winning awards and gaining international interest. This simple yet powerful tool utilises a special lightbulb in a Coke bottle, and could empower millions by bringing low- cost lighting to Africa and beyond. Michael tells us more.

Tell us about your invention The Lightie:

The LightieTM is a patent-pending, test tube-shaped, solar-powered Lighti bulb. When placed in the sun, the LightieTM absorbs the sun’s rays via its flexible solar film core and converts this absorbed energy into electricity, which in turn charges the lithium battery core. Once charged (it can hold its charge for up to a year without use) you simply insert the LightieTM into the mouth of a soda bottle (most are manufactured with the same size mouth) and then screw the lid over the LightieTM to keep it in place. This also happens to keep the entire unit airtight, so it can now float. On the final twist as you tighten the lid, the Lightie’s pressure switch is activated and this sets off a 120 Lumen LED light. You now have 120 lumens (brightest setting) of light at your disposal and this can be used for up to 20 hours. This is ideal for lighting up a 50m2 interior space, where a family can read/write and do chores. If you don’t require a large amount of light, you can slightly loosen or tighten the lid of the bottle and this will lower the brightness, which will give you up to 40 hours of light.

Repeat this step once more and you will activate the LightieTM ‘s third setting, being the emergency SOS flashing signal, which is internationally recognised. So In layman’s terms, the LightieTM is equivalent to a light bulb that you would buy at your local supermarket and the soda bottle is the lamp/structure.

What inspired you to create the LightieTM?

I spent three years trying to bring safe, sustainable and low-cost lighting into Africa. I found that there was a huge market for it, not just in Africa but worldwide. I wanted to understand why in this day and age there are still some 2 billion living without access to light — a basic need.

Over the years I made a few different prototypes. Each time the goal remained the same — it had to be small, lightweight, durable, bright and long lasting, and of course low cost to produce on a mass scale. The key was to find a way to get the big corporates excited , as the truth is they are the ones that control/own the distribution channels. However they are only interested in selling/distributing what they produce — ie Coca Cola selling Coke. One day, while on my way to gym I realized I had left my water bottle at home and decided rather to stop off at myb local sports store and buy a new bottle.

That’s when I discovered Bobble water bottles. The moment I saw these bottles I envisioned the concept of The LightieTM in this form to fit into empty soda bottles instead. All the technology (battery, LED and advances in solar technology) I had researched over the years had prepared me for that very moment as I realised that I could get all the components I needed into this narrow cylindrical test-tube shaped unit making it fit into PET soda bottles. The advantages are clear. The LightieTM is very low cost to manufacture which means that the end user saves money. Why?

Because I don’t need to manufacture a structure. Conventional solar powered lanterns cost more to manufacture and are bigger because they are manufactured with structures.

So essentially I created just the essential, being a solar powered test-tube-shaped light bulb and the PET soda bottle acts as the fixture (structure). This is the same concept of our lamps at home. When our light bulbs die we simply go to the shop and replace them (putting them back into the lamps/fixtures at home). The light bulbs are cheaper than the fixtures. Other advantages of the LightieTM are that its small and lightweight, therefore ideal for mass distribution. It is also an easy product to mass produce, which is very important. Lastly, it puts out up to 12 times more light than a conventional solar powered light and the LightieTM will last for up to 5 years! It will even charge under cloudy conditions thanks to the patented chip technology that comes from Holland, which increases the efficiency by as much as 200%.

Tell us about some of the accolades and awards you have won thus far:

I decided that in order to get the LightieTM out there, and to see what people really thought of its potential, I would enter as many social responsible innovation contests as I could. I quickly patented the concept and because the year was nearly over there were only 7 contests left that I could still make before the deadlines passed. I have so far won five, and the other two are still pending. More information can be found under the accolades section on my website. I was recently informed that I had made the finals of the Lexus Design Awards — This is the Lightie’s first international contest.

Some awards include:

• Grand Prize winner — Design Indaba Citizenship Competition (ABSA social entrepreneur of the year award) — R100 000 — Hand over was with Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille and The City of Cape Town has expressed interest piloting the LightieTM in the townships around the Western Cape.

• Grand prize winner — CLIPDC 2013 — R50 000 — Here I pitched to a 250-strong panel of world leaders in IP innovation and pioneering technologies.

• Grand prize winner — National Sasol/TIA Step-Up contest (Green Energy Sector) — +- R1 000 000 worth of prize value • Grand Prize winner —FNB — Ideas Can Help — R500 000 seed capital

• Grand Prize winner — GAP GREEN — Innovation Hub/Mark Shuttleworth Foundation — R300 000 (R90 000 cash R210 000 seed capital)

• Finalist (disqualified for having won other contests) — 2014 International Lexus Design Awards

• Finalist Pending — 2014 International Zumtobel Awards — Innovations for Sustainability and Humanity in the Built Environment

What is your vision for the LightieTM?

For it to be on the shelves next to Coca-Cola, next to paraffin, available, accessable and affordable to the world’s poorest people by 2020. I see the LightieTM as being the worldwide answer to lack of light in Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) markets. I will also be catering to Western markets (outdoor/camping) and I will be developing new game-changing products as the LightieTM takes off. I will be creating a ‘mother brand’ under which the LightieTM will be just one product of our offerings.

What have been some of your biggest challenges in the process of creating the Lightie, and how have you overcome them?

When it came to the business side of things, my business acumen was not up to scratch. I think this can lead to fatal mistakes. The lessons I learnt from these failures (‘school fees’ as some call them) is the perseverance to continue, which helped me to overcome whatever challenges have arisen from this project with the LightieTM.

I have also reached out for help, making use of the fantastic ORT JET programme to find suitable mentors from the Jewish community like Stan Dave, Dean Sandler and Marc Lubner, who are currently giving me their time, advice and support while pointing me in the right direction each time I feel ‘stuck’. You can’t put a value on this.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs and inventors who are hoping to succeed?

Don’t start something unless it is an obsession or something you love; only hire people who resonate with what you do and are passionate about the same thing; know what you good at and focus on being GREAT at it, then delegate — get the best team around you; get a mentor or invest in a business coach; have a side job that’s your ‘bread and butter’ and start your business on the side — never put all your eggs in one basket. Grit and perseverance is KEY — you create your own luck; failure is good if you learn from it.

In what ways do you think the Cape Town Jewish community has helped you get to where you are today?

I reached out for help and the Jewish community has been there to receive, support and help me where help was needed. Whether it was family, friends or people I had met through networking like the YAD events, the help was there in the form of moral support and practical advice. I must say one thing — that you have to be persistent, because no matter what you do, no one is going to spoon feed you. You have to really want it, otherwise you can forget about it. I would also say that I was privileged enough to have been given a great education at Herzlia and to have had a mother who ‘bent over backwards’ for me. It has all made me who I am today.

Where to from here?

I plan to develop and grow a great ‘mother brand and company around the LightieTM; to form a great team that are passionate about social responsible innovation and changing the world. I want to start researching and developing new innovative problem-solving technologies and products for the BOP market as well as for the First World markets. I hope to one day be the Steve Jobs of the developing world by desiging products and services for three billion new customers.

Visit or follow Michael on Twitter: @TheLightie / @Msuttner