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This is the journey of the people behind Lytefire. Since our creation in 2012, our mission is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all everywhere the sun shines (SDG7) and to participate to the creation of truly sustainable jobs.
A caring engineer
Long time ago, a Canadian engineer named Fraser Symington (1920-2014) decided to work on an energy solution adapted to vulnerable populations who were using wood, charcoal, tires or trash to get heat. At that time, the individual solar cookers movement was starting to spread around the world, one cooker at the time with many nice projects but also many limitations. Fraser gave himself 3 major constraints for this solar thermal innovation. It would have to be: 1) as powerful as an open fire (it would later be called a “solar fire”), 2) built with materials available locally and easy to maintain, 3) easy to use and maintain by the users. He created many prototypes to prove his concept: Phaeton, Vesta, Apollo, Helios, that many years later led to SOL and Lytefire models, all of them being much more powerful than any individual solar cooker and easier to maintain than any existing community cooking systems.
An adventure of our time
His grand-son Lorin Symington grew up in the middle of all this solar creativity in Ottawa. In the mid-2000’s, following an idea of Mike Sacco, he decided to build one solar concentrator for cacao farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, along with his long-time friend Eerik Wissenz. The idea was to roast the cacao beans with solar thermal energy and check if the result could work for commercialization. At that time, Mike was a young journalist inspired by the solar performances and willing to support local communities. Soon after this experience, he decided to initiate ChocoSol Traders, back in Canada. Eerik was a young philosopher, passionate about maths and social justice. Eerik started to see in the solar concentrator a real solution that was worth spreading further in order for the most vulnerable to be able to access a more powerful source of clean energy. For Lorin and Eerik, this adventurous trip in Mexico became the first of many to support ecology and social justice (watch 7.30min video).
Willing to help
In 2007, they met with Eva Cantavenera in Cuba. She had a corporate background in tourism, publishing and art in Paris. Concerned with more and more issues related to climate change, she decided to align her life with her values and she embraced a more frugal lifestyle in the countryside while dedicating her time to her passion for gardening and writing fictions about ecology. French-Italian born in Morocco, traveling a lot and volunteering, Eva was well aware of the daily difficulties faced by the majority of people on this planet. She was willing to help and support actions with positive impact. So when she heard about the solar fire, it was obvious to her that this was one piece of the puzzle to end poverty, empower women and reduce side effects of global warming caused by fossil fuels. Happily, she progressively joined Eerik and Lorin to do anything they could to spread the solar fire. For sure, when the three friends were sipping a mojito in Havana, nobody could have imagined that their discussions were the first seeds of what you can see today.
A life project?
At that time, Lorin and Eerik’s mindset was to go with the wind, join alternative projects in Corsica and Mali, or train French NGO’s to integrate the solar fire to some livelihood programs. Eerik visited the giant solar oven in Font-Romeu, France, with the hope that the scientists would develop the tech further with him. While Lorin was living between Canada and Africa, installing solar cookers, Eva and Eerik were based in France. They started to train people to build a smaller, yet powerful, solar system called Batan using 1m² of mirrors only. Together, they created a small non-profit association as well as the very first DIY guide to the system. But all these actions were too slow and the stress of global warming on the population in the Global South became more real each year to them. Waiting for subsidies wasn’t their cup of tea, so they started to realize progressively that maybe they would have to create something different because if not them, then who else would bring this great innovation to those who need it most?
Six friends and one passion
Around 2010, Eerik and Eva met with Will Cleaver in France. Will is from the UK, passionate climber and salsa dancer, he was at that time working on oil platforms and contributing to Open Source Ecology. Lots of discussions were on-going in the group about simply putting the plans open source and free on-line (we talk about it more in this post). Based on their experiences of the open source movement, they decided that many ideas were good but limited as only a tiny percentage of the population concerned by open source would actually build solar concentrators when potentially millions need to replace charcoal and wood with a cleaner solution.
At that time, they were contacted by a Swiss organic farmer and ecologist, Urs Riggenbach. At a very young age, Urs went to live and study in India and Maine, US. He heard about what was starting to grow as “Solar Fire” during a visit to Open Source Ecology. Also convinced by the necessity of spreading this powerful tech, Urs was willing to start a project in Nepal for a school. He met Eerik in Gujarat, India, when Eerik was working on bigger systems. Later on, after successful tests in India, Urs welcomed Eerik, Will, Eva and other enthusiastic people to build one solar concentrator Helios on his parent’s farm in Switzerland and test steam production with success.
French thermal-optical engineer Arnaud Crétot was traveling the world with a friend after their graduation from PolyTech Nantes. Together they created "Les Vagabonds de l’Energie". They met the solar fire system producing steam in Gujarat (here), where Erik and Eva were working a Gandhian entrepreneur. Eerik and Arnaud connected well and later on, like Will, Arnaud would leave his job to join the team as CTO.
A new approach
Lots of discussions led to a new approach. In order to slow down global warming and deforestation quickly, it was clear to the friends that people urgently need a decentralized source of clean energy. If concentrating the solar rays wasn’t a new idea at all of course, all the innovations on the applications they were developing, like an adapted oven, could make a real difference if people could make a living with it. It is also important to note that Lytefire and its applications are more powerful than any individual solar cooker and easier to maintain by the users than any existing community cooking system. It can be a real tool for change but at that time, very few people were seeing what Eerik described in his inspirational model of direct solar economy.
Eerik and Eva founded a family. Becoming entrepreneurs seemed to fit with their adventurous mindset and, Eerik being half Finn, they moved from France to Finland to create Solar Fire Concentration Oy as a social impact company in 2012, quickly joined by Urs, Will, Lorin and Arnaud and the team was ready in 2014. Reunited by their trust in the tech and their desire to work for something meaningful for the people and the planet, the 6 friends started to work hard, sometimes reunited in Tampere but most of the time at a distance. Eerik was in charge of strategy, patent and partnerships. Arnaud and Eerik together brought key refinement to the tech, elaborating a software for optical and thermal calculations, and worked on different applications and scale up scenarios. Eva was in charge of communications, partnerships and administration. Urs was taking care of all IT and finance, while Lorin and Will were traveling the world to implement the tech with NGO’s and bring additional features, bringing lots of validation and credibility to the project. Meanwhile, some people were starting to build the Lytefire 4 based on the first guide and the group’s ideas were resonating with these builders that were encouraging them to pursue.
2015: turning point
The key challenge was to bring this simple and powerful solar solution requiring no high-tech while keeping the humanitarian approach. In a world obsessed by profitability, speed, high-tech and growth, this approach was a real challenge. And they were genuinly planning to achieve that with no capital, no network and no experience in entrepreneurship. As mentioned, they were all real adventurer’s! And 2015 was their first turning point when they positioned the company clearly with a powerful solar device for people to make money, create jobs, scale up and provide a sustainable source of energy for entrepreneurs in the Global South. The first project was to start a solar bakery in Haïti and show the world that it was possible to make money with the solar fire. Unfortunately, the entrepreneur chosen couldn’t make it happen as Haïti is for sure a very tough place to start. The six friends also wanted to release their very first collective guide for free which they did for a while after the success of the first crowdfunding campaign.
Important field validation
Around that time, two pre-seed investors also joined, Finnpartnership and Finnvera supported the small company and the group started a fruitful cooperation in Kenya with World Vision Finland. The first projects to equip local Community Based Organizations with solar ovens went very well with good results in terms of bread production at a village level, especially with the first professional baker involved, David Chepkwone. This led to numerous cooperation under the GoSol banner. Prestigious sponsors and foundations also started to support the effort.
During the following years, the team made many humanitarian and entrepreneur’s projects happen in Kenya, Tanzania, Burkina-Faso, Haïti, Vietnam, Philippines, Uganda, Brazil, South Africa… Lorin implemented in the field various iterations of the solar fire with local helpers. Will also led a few projects while the rest of the team was focused on finding contracts, technical developments, next construction manual creation, project’s coordination, IT, content production, promotion, administration (which is heavy in Finland!) and communications. The six friends were all very skilled and creative, sometimes too much. In 2019, they slowly started to regroup all their activities under one unique name, Lytefire.
A key transition
The early years since 2012 have been tough for the group. Very tough. Long projects with NGOs can not be a long term business model to spread a tech widely, as far and as fast as possible. The financial stress has been huge, the stress of field projects logistics as well, nobody was counting hours, in East and West Africa as in Finland the dedication was absolute. All this was for sure not sustainable long term and some started to experience burnout. In 2017, Arnaud and then Will decided to make a living on their own in France and Italy, while staying close to Solar Fire. Ultimately, divergence in the way to achieve growth led to a long and painful restructuring of the governance and operations in 2021-2022. The group had to transition from a cool promising humanitarian exploratory project to a real impact company, steady and truly able to spread the innovation as far and as steadily as possible.
Impact and social entrepreneurs
In 2022 finally better financial results came from sales. This encouraged Eva and Urs in their intuition of focusing more and more on the user’s experience, supporting more directly pioneers and reinforcing local productions with creative licenses projects, while continuing humanitarian projects with Lytefire local team members. The new co-pilots structured the operations, streamlined some processes and started new working habits. They supported the development of more comprehensive educational and construction material with the contribution of Samuel Rodrigues. Thanks to Susanne Müller joining the board, and Elise Hauters becoming an advisor, gender equality has also been finally reached in the company’s governance, and later on in the team.
Behind the sales,the R&D, the performances, the great articles and the stories, there are people. Nothing happens without people, their experience with Lytefire, their feedback, questions, ideas, good energy... The desire to start a community for all the Lytefire users was there since the beginning but it’s only in 2022 that the Lytefire Hub came to life thanks to Urs and Muriel Fuhrer. All users of Lytefire, builders, entrepreneurs in Europe using an Artisan or a Deluxe version as well as entrepreneurs from the Global South, can now share tricks and tips about these fabulous solar concentrators and everything it allows them to create.
On top of our work with NGO’s, it is a bliss for us to see more and more succesful small baking and roasting solar businesses and you can discover some here. In 2021, Joan Arwa started her solar bakery in Kenya with a Lytefire Oven for a tiny production. The year after we organized a crowdfunding campaign to directly support her efforts to grow, as well as the efforts of other local bakers.
During the years 2022-2023, our company surprisingly benefited from Arnaud’s solar baking experiment in France. In 2019, Arnaud wanted to better understand the performance of the Lytefire in a non-African context. Eerik suggested lending him a Lytefire Oven built in Switzerland by Lorin, Will and Urs. Arnaud started to use it for his baking activity Normandy (North France), and he was quickly amazed by its performances. Later on, Arnaud met with Elise Hauters and Benoist Panchout, co-managers of CPM-Industries. Thanks to them, the Lytefire Deluxe industrial model with EU standards was born. Arnaud’s became the first solar baker in Europe, making a living with NeoLoco and welcoming many people at his place.
Where we are now
We want to spread Lytefire and we have created many entry points to Lytefire for many different users and budgets. We have opened to commercial licensees, artisans licensees, encouraging personal projects (like in Haiti or soon in Burkina-Faso) and still working with the humanitarian sector.We hope to encourage people’s freedom and empowerment everywhere to create more sustainable lifestyles.
The Lytefire Tech as you see it today is the result of years of development by passionate people on the ground and by engineers. Of course, not everything will run with Lytefire tomorrow and that is not the goal but this tech and its patented applications can fulfill many needs. The team is constantly innovating and welcoming new partners to push the boundaries further.
We’d like to express an immense gratitude to the entire amazing Lytefire team, especially to Eerik and Lorin who are shareholders but not involved anymore in operations. Government institutions, sponsors, consultants and interns have also contributed to our effort all the way. We are grateful to all the friends, the family members, the shareholders, licensees, partners, entrepreneurs, builders and associations who believe in this tech and who are making all this possible with us every day.
Watch this short video presenting spreading direct solar economy and our key steps from our creation to 2018.