It all started with the idea of illuminating the darkest communities in the Philippines using a staple commodity.
In 2011, during an immersion trip with a local tribe in the northern province of Kalinga, Aisa Mijeno came up with the idea for the Sustainable Alternative Lighting – or SALt – lamp.
“I learned that people don’t have access to electricity and use kerosene lanterns as their main source of lighting,” she says, adding that the local people have to go down the mountains every other day to buy fuel for their lamps.
“This inspired me to come up with the SALt lamp, since salt is pretty much abundant and a staple item in every household in the Philippines,” says Mijeno.
Just four years later, during the November 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila, Mijeno was sharing the stage with U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese business magnate Jack Ma to discuss her project.
“I was really nervous,” she recalls. “I knew that I was there to represent the local startup community and later realized that it was not just the local startup community but the Philippines as a whole – so I thought I should be really careful with all my answers.”
She says the invitation to join Obama and Ma – the founder/CEO of Alibaba – came as a surprise. Mijeno, her brother (and SALt cofounder) Raphael and the rest of their team were supposed to be joining the APEC summit for small- and medium-sized enterprises.
But on the way there she received a call from someone from the White House, inviting her to be part of a panel discussion that would be moderated by Obama.
“The first emotion I felt during the whole conversation, to be quite honest, was fear – because I wasn’t sure if we were ready for the kind of exposure this would bring us. It would surely put a heavy pressure on our shoulders, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, so my brother pushed me to accept the proposal,” recounts Mijeno.
During the panel discussion, she explained the concept of SALt – which uses saline solution (saltwater) to power LED lamps and a USB port that can charge smartphones.
She told the audience about “the huge impact we’ll be able to contribute when we dive into developing large-scale for the technology,” adding, “Just imagine if we are able to power a whole island using ocean water.”
Obama was impressed with the presentation by this young engineer, entrepreneur and part-time faculty member at the De La Salle University in Lipa, Batangas.
“I think Aisa is a perfect example of what we’re seeing in a lot of countries – young entrepreneurs coming up with leapfrog technology,” the U.S. president said.
Mijeno says SALt’s main objective is to illuminate rural communities in the country and help them move away from the use of kerosene.
“Kerosene lanterns had been so pervasive because this lighting system had been passed down from generation to generation.” But with the SALt lamp, she notes, “instead of pouring kerosene, you’re pouring saltwater. Instead of lighting up a match, you push an on and off button.”
Further development of the prototype took place in 2014 after SALt joined IdeaSpace, a local incubator that funds and develops startups.
The SALt lamp uses the science behind the “galvanic cell,” which is the basis for battery making. But instead of electrolytes, it uses a nontoxic saline solution to make the entire process safe and harmless.
“There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines and most of these islands do not have access to electricity. We want to eliminate the cost in areas that rely on kerosene/battery-powered lamps and candles as their main source of lighting,” the startup’s official website reads.
Mijeno says they’re continuously developing the design and system to make it even more efficient.
“We’re working on new units to be deployed still for field testing,” she says. “We wanted to extract all needed inputs for design, system and functionality, so we can improve the product even more before really going into mass production.
“But we’re also working toward the production of a first batch for distribution. Currently, we are in partnership with a local manufacturing company and working together with their engineers,” she adds.
The startup has also begun various social activities with the aim of providing lamps for communities with no access to electricity. Among those identified as beneficiaries are the residents of Buscalan in Kalinga, where everything started.
Mijeno says they plan to “focus on research and development, and further create more efficient innovations that would help uplift people at the bottom of the pyramid.”
For Mijeno, like with other startups, everything started with an idea – an idea whose primary objective was to provide help to those who needed it most.
This article first appeared in Filipino daily newspaper The Philippine Star.