Stories for Tomorrow – Lived Today, Everywhere

Light in all the Colours of the Rainbow

Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waka Waka

Light in all the Colours of the Rainbow

Since he was small, Dutchman Maurits Groen has had a sort of ‘antenna for sustainability’. Today, he illuminates conflict areas and regions that are disconnected from the power grid all around the globe. The more urgently you need his WakaWaka lamp, the less it will cost you.

Maurits Groen learned one of his most satisfying success stories from a volunteer of the International Rescue Committee who was helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. He met a young Syrian refugee who gestured towards his IRC shirt and laughed: “I know you guys. Thanks to you, I had light on my journey here and was able to charge my phone at all times!” With these words, the young man happily pulled out a bright yellow device he had received from an IRC volunteer two years prior in a Syrian refugee camp. During the trek, he cherished it like a treasure: It was a solar-powered WakaWaka lamp, weighing just 200 grams. One sunny day is enough to charge it for 80 hours of operation; in addition, it doubles as a cell phone charger.

“There is no better way to validate what I do,” says Maurits Groen, who invented the lamp. For over three decades, the 62-year-old has been working as what he calls a “sustainable entrepreneur”. In 2010, he was honoured with a sustainability award by the ministry of the environment, in 2015 he topped the annual list of the ‘100 most sustainable Dutchmen’ of TROUW, a renowned daily newspaper.

Light for homework and therapy

The WakaWakas – which is Swahili for ‘bright light’ – brought international success for the devoted, wiry environmentalist. Since 2012, he has been able to distribute more than 650,000 lamps around the globe. To people in developing areas who don’t have access to the power grid. To students in Kenya, who are now able to do their homework after dark. To survivors of natural disasters such as the Nepal earthquake of early 2015 or the devastating typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in late 2013. To the victims of violent conflict in war zones and refugee camps, in Congo and Sudan, in the Gaza Strip and in Syria. In Sierra Leone, doctors and nurses in Ebola-ridden areas received 20,000 WakaWakas: “It allows them to continue treating patients at night,” says Groen.

Born to champion sustainability

In his country, the man with the silver-grey hair is considered a tireless do-gooder, who, according to TROUW, was born with an “antenna for sustainability”. Even when he was a child, he would collect used paper, fascinated by the idea of recycling it into fresh newspapers; he marvelled at the fact that banknotes contain textile fibres. He never considered old things worthless or useless. Yet back then, ca. 1960, not many people understood that – whatever had outlived its purpose ended up in the trashcan.

While he pursued his major in political studies, Groen began to take an interest in ecology, joined the renowned Dutch environmental organization Milieudefensie, and became editor-in-chief of the magazine by the same name. In 2006, he was able to get former Vice President of the United States and environmentalist Al Gore to come to the Netherlands and helped get the latter’s book about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, translated into Dutch.

  • Maurits Groen Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waka Waka

  • Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waka Waka

  • Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waka Waka

  • Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waka Waka

  • Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waka Waka

Light for the Poor

In 2010, Groen and his business partner, Dutch entrepreneur Camille van Gestel, rose to international fame when the duo set out to make the soccer World Cup in South Africa climate-neutral. Yet their plan to replace millions of light bulbs with LED lights failed due to financing problems. Besides, Groen sighs, “the poor, and thus the majority of the population would not have benefited from it, anyway, since they don’t have access to the power grid.” Just like 1.2 billion others in the world, they have to resort to kerosene lamps, which are not only unhealthy and harmful, but also pose a potentially catastrophic fire hazard in the huts and shacks of the poor.

“Back then, we asked ourselves if there is another way to provide these people with light,” Groen remembers. This was the birth hour of the WakaWaka lamp.

Red, oranje, funded by solidarity

Today you can get the lamp in all the colours of the rainbow. Bishop Desmond Tutu is a big fan of the small lamp, as is Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations. The Red Cross just ordered a shipment, in red, of course. And the Dutch government bought 1,000 lamps in oranje – to mark the beginning of the Dutch Presidency of the European Council on January 1st, 2016. The Hague wanted to give them away as welcome gifts in lieu of flowers.

One lamp costs 69 Euro. Well, that is the price in the wealthy Western world. Each purchase a richer person makes, finances a second lamp according to the “Buy one, give one” principle. The other lamp is shipped to a trouble spot for free. In addition, western purchases also subsidize lower prices in other, less affluent countries. “In Rwanda, for instance, the lamp costs only about seven dollars,” Groen says. This is why the first question to someone placing an order is: “Where do you live?”


    February 2016
    Netherlands, Haarlem

    Waka Waka
    Most sustainable Dutchman Maurits Groen


    Kerstin Schweighöfer
    is a freelance foreign correspondent for German media in the Netherlands, reporting on the Benelux countries for the ARD public radio stations, for Deutschlandfunk, FOCUS and art magazine, among others.

    Translated by

    Kerstin Trimble


    Creative Commons License

    This text and the images are licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Germany License.


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