This Professor Will Use Saltwater to Empower Asia’s Poor

Text by Evan Tan
Photo by Aisa Mijeno

Philippines – A bucolic charm possesses Kalinga: you could almost touch the sky and the clouds from the valleys and plateaus in this landlocked Philippine province. At 17 to 22 degrees Celsius, the weather is more pleasant than the heat and grime of the country’s capital Manila. Here, life passes very slowly, and people are still very much into doing things the old way.

You could say that this is paradise on earth, except saying that would be romanticising the lives of the Kalinga people, who face real problems which threaten their livelihood. Climate change, one of their biggest challenges, affects the province’s rice production. Landslides and unpredictable rainfall worry the farmers and villagers. The worsening weather also makes the people more prone to illnesses.

It doesn’t help that they live off the grid, with electrification still not widespread in the province. This is why a lot of these people rely on kerosene lamps to survive the dark nights. Men are forced to walk miles just to buy kerosene from their neighbouring towns.

Professor Aisa Mijeno personally witnessed the difficulties by the Butbut tribe when she visited Buscalan, a small town in Tinglayan, Kalinga. With her knowledge and experience in environmental engineering and sustainable energy, she thought that she could help develop a more practical and accessible lighting solution for these people.

This was how SALt was born – a technology startup which utilises a simple yet ecologically- and economically-sustainable idea: a saltwater-powered lamp as bright as seven candles, or 90 lumens.

What makes SALt more outstanding is its business model, which is patterned after TOM’s One for One concept. Each purchase of a SALt lamp means a family from an unelectrified community gets one too.

Igniting Inspiration

A few months after SALt, the sustainable alternative lighting solutions company she co-founded, was awarded in June 2014 as one of the top ten tech startups in the 2nd Annual Ideaspace Startup Competition, Aisa had to immediately fly to Seoul in November last year.

Chosen by the Young Entrepreneurs Society of the Philippines and Freelancer.com to represent the Philippines at the World Startup Competition in South Korea, SALt bagged the People’s Choice Award during the event and the prestige of being the only Asian company to have reached the top five of 50 competitors.

These accolades would make you think Aisa had it all figured out from the start. But the truth is, no one would have thought that this was the path she was headed – not even her.

Before that fateful trip to Kalinga, she was busy lecturing students on Embedded Systems, Data Structures, Algorithm Analysis, and CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) Exploration, as a part-time Engineering professor at De La Salle University in Lipa, Batangas, a town outside Metro Manila.

But if it was any sign that her heart had always been in the right place, Aisa had been immersed in volunteer work long before. Shortly after graduating from college and into her first job, she resigned from her work so she could spend one whole year working with various NGOs.

“I call that now a year of enlightenment, when I travelled across the Philippines and Southeast Asia and did work for free–or sometimes, on my expense,” she recollects. She became a Direct Dialogue Campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines that same year, wherein she received a measly PHP4,000 monthly allowance.

When the burden of financial constraints took hold, she was forced to quit being a campaigner.

In hindsight, losing that job may have actually been good, as it paved the way for Aisa’s next, larger mission with SALt.

Brightly Shining Through

For Goldy Yancha, Ideaspace’s Associate Director for Community Development, what made SALt a winner from the start was its promise of changing lives as a social enterprise.

“SALt is exciting because of its great potential to disrupt and provide substantial impact to grassroots communities, especially unelectrified ones,” Goldy relates.

Right now, one can purchase the lamp online, but Aisa foresees offline retail once sales pick up, depending on how and where the market receives them. Aisa envisions that they will serve underprivileged communities not just in the Philippines, but Asia’s impoverished 615 million.

This coming April, SALt will begin distributing the merchandise to the early adopters and their partner communities. “First beneficiaries are the 100 households in Bulalacao, Mindoro Oriental, the Hanunuo Mangyan. And then the 590 households, locals of Baranggay Gabi in Isla de Gigantes Sur, Carles, Iloilo,” Aisa explains.

She is grateful for the opportunity to assist these communities, and the lessons she is picking up in her journey to grow SALt as a company. “We are learning, every single day we learn something new. I think the main pickup is you have to reach to people. If you have questions about something, don’t be afraid to ask for help. And we are very thankful that there are people willing to help and guide us to the right direction.”

Asked what advice she can give her fellow entrepreneurs, she muses:

“Stick to your principles—that is who you are.”

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