The Lytefire solar thermal technology is meant to empower entrepreneurs, create sustainable jobs, support local stability and create a more circular and functional service economy while contributing to minimizing the damage of climate change. This is the story of the humans behind it.
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. At that time, the individual solar cookers movement was starting to spread around the world, one cooker at the timewith 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 later on 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 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, and he decided to initiate ChocoSol Traders, in Toronto. Eerik was a young philosopher, passionate about math 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 finally be able to access a powerful source of clean energy. For Lorin and Eerik, this adventurous trip in Mexico became the first of many to come to support ecology and social justice.
A life project?
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 writing fictions about ecology. At that time, when the three friends were sipping a mojito in Havana, nobody could have imagined what would happen! Born in Morocco and doing lots of volunteering, Eva was well aware of the daily difficulties faced by the majority of people on this planet. So when she heard about the solar fire, it was obvious to her that this was one piece of the puzzle to end poverty and empower women.
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 and together, they created a small non-profit and a very first guide to the Lytefire 4 (former SOL4). But the stress of global warming on the population in the Global South became more real each year and waiting for subsidies wasn’t their cup of tea. So Eva and Eerik started to realize progressively that if not them, then who else would bring this great innovation to those who need it most? This is when the adventure started to become a life project for the backpackers.
Six friends and one passion
Around 2011, 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 about simply putting the plans open source and free on-line. The idea was great but they knew that only a tiny percentage of the population would actually build the solar concentrators by themselves when potentially millions need it. In order to slow down global warming and deforestation quickly, people 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 could make a real difference.
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, and 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, while he was developing a project with a local entrepreneur. Later on, after successful tests in India, Urs welcomed Eerik, Will, Eva and other enthusiastic people to build one Helios on his parent’s farm.
In 2010, Arnaud Crétot, a French thermal-optical engineer was traveling the world with a friend after their graduation. He also joined the group progressively after seeing the solar fire system producing steam in Gujarat. Eerik and Eva have been working in that region, thinking that India would be great to develop the tech. Eerik and Arnaud connected well and together they brought key refinement to this tech, elaborating a software for optical and thermal calculations and working on different applications. Later on, like Will, Arnaud would leave his job to join the team and develop the R&D. At the time, very few people were seeing what Eerik described in his inspirational model of direct solar economy. Urs was taking care of all IT, and Lorin and Will were traveling the world to implement it and bring additional features. Eva was in charge of communications and administration.
Eerik and Eva founded a family and then a company to structure things. They moved from France to Finland to found Solar Fire Concentration Oy as a social impact company in 2012, quickly joined by Urs, Will, Lorin and Arnaud. Reunited by their trust in the tech and their desire to work for something meaningful for the people and the planet, the six friends started to work hard, sometimes reunited in Tampere but most of the time at a distance.
A slow development
The key challenge was to bring this simple and powerful solar solution requiring no high-tech to the world while keeping a humanitarian approach. And they were planning to achieve that with no capital, no network and no experience in entrepreneurship. We told you, they were all adventurer’s! And 2015 was their first turning point.
Their ideas were already resonating with builders that were encouraging them. Now, it was time to position 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 intention was to start a solar bakery in Haïti and show the world that it was possible to make money with the solar fire but 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 first guide for free which they did for a while after the success of their first crowdfunding campaign.
Two pre-seed investors joined, Finnpartnership and Finnvera supported. The group started a fruitful cooperation in Kenya with World Vision Finland. This first project to equip local Community Based Organizations with solar ovens went very well with results in terms of bread production at a village level, especially with the first professional solar baker involved, David Chepkwone. This led to numerous cooperation under the GoSol banner. Another key partner in the development has been Plan International Finland, for whom the team created solar baker’s training curriculum in 2018. Prestigious sponsors and foundations also started to support the effort.
During the following years, many humanitarian or entrepreneur’s projects happened 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, and in 2019 they started to slowly think of simplifying all their activities under one unique name, Lytefire.
The early years were tough for the group. Very tough. Long projects with NGO’s can not be a long term business model to spread a tech widely, as far and as fast as possible. The financial stress was huge, nobody was counting hours, the dedication was absolute. All this was for sure not sustainable long term. Some started to experience burnout. Arnaud and then Will decided to make a living on their own in France and in 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. The group had to transition from a cool promising humanitarian exploratory project to a real enterprise, steady and truly able to spread the innovation as far and as fast as possible.
Becoming social entrepreneurs
In 2022, there were finally good financial results coming from sales. This encouraged Eva and Urs in their intuition of focusing more and more on the user’s experience, supporting more directly pioneer solar entrepreneurs and reinforcing local productions with creative licenses. They structured the operations, streamlined some processes and started new working habits, as well as develop more steady educational and construction material with Samuel Rodrigues. Thanks to Susanne Müller joining the board, and Elise Hauters becoming an advisor, gender equality was finally reached in the governance.
During the years 2022-2023, it is important here to mention how greatly the Finnish company benefited from Arnaud’s journey in France. In 2019, he wanted to better understand the performance of the Lytefire in a non-African context. Eerik suggested giving him a Lytefire 5 built in Switzerland by Lorin, Will and Urs. Arnaud started to use Lytefire for his baking activity, and he was quickly amazed by its performances, even in Normandy. Later on, Arnaud met with CPM Industries who has since then been able to produce and refine a Lytefire Deluxe model well adapted to entrepreneurs with EU standards. Arnaud’s became the first solar baker in Europe, making a living with NeoLoco and inspiring lots of pioneers to follow his example. His growing success and visibility in the media has been a constant encouragement to the Solar Fire team to support entrepreneurs from the Global South and beyond. In 2021, Joan Arwa created her first solar bakery in Kenya and in 2022 we organized a second crowdfunding campaign to directly supported her effort, as well as two other local bakers.
Behind sales, R&D, performances, great articles and 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 a Deluxe version as well as entrepreneurs from the Global Source using an artisan model, can now share tricks and tips about these fabulous solar concentrators and everything it allows them to create.
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 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, and to all the friends, the family members, the shareholders, investors, licensees, helpers, partners, builders and associations who believed in it and who are making this possible with us every day.
We are still on our mission to solve energy poverty in the Global South with Lytefire solar tech and empower people with training to create more sustainable jobs.
Watch this short video! It’s all about spreading direct solar economy and our key steps from our creation to 2018