The journey of Toby Cumberbatch: Changing the world one light at a time


Singapore’s 2014 iLight Marina Bay event may appear to be solely made up of beautiful artwork and interactive lights. In reality, this is only a small portion of what iLight 2014 stands for. As you dig deeper, you discover an event organized to bring awareness to environmental problems, to push for change in areas of sustainable light, and to benefit the public at large.

i Light Symposium 2014: Panel session "Light, Art in Today's Context"
i Light Symposium 2014: Panel session “Light, Art in Today’s Context”

To many of us, light is such a small thing – and often something we take for granted. We have light in every room, we expect our streets to be well lit, and we curse when a bulb burns out. But for large populations around the globe this is simply not the case. Millions live in utter darkness, powerless to continue daily activities once the sun goes down, too poor to invest in purchasing a kerosene lamp or any other form of light, and unable to encourage their children to study by night when the day’s work is done.

One of the speakers at the iLight festival is the son of a doctor who was working in Ghana at the time of his birth. Toby Cumberbatch’s childhood thus had a humble beginning. But it planted a seed which took root and grew in the following years. Today, Cumberbatch frequently returns to Ghana, the country that has left a deep mark on him and on which he is eager to leave his own in return. It was his experience in Ghana that inspired him to challenge his students to build a light in the middle of nowhere.

What emerged was a sturdy, energy-efficient lamp which can withstand the harshest of conditions whilst remaining eco-friendly. The process from the first inception all the way to completion and implementation has been neither quick nor easy. Even as the first lamps were given temporary homes in some of the remotest villages of Ghana in 2007, unforeseen issues arose. Once light had been given to people who had never accessed it before, they were unwilling to pass it on to others. These are small bumps in the road to making sure those who are poor have the ability to use something many of us take for granted.


But the emotional and social implications of the project are not to be taken lightly. It provides a practical way to help children further their studies and consequently pull themselves out of poverty over time. Giving people light provides them with the option of studying or reading by night with the aim of improving their living situation.

Professor Cumberbatch believes whole-heartedly in the power of light and he championed his cause long before larger organizations began to take note and offer support. In his own words: “I see being invited to something like this fantastic, because people from halfway across the world think you’re not crazy.”

Singapore’s iLight festival has the right intentions: it hopes to bring awareness to people through the use of sustainable, eco-friendly lights and art. Much like iLight 2014 wants to bring change in the community through light, Mr. Cumberbatch is also hoping to change the world, one light at a time. However, it will take a lot more than simply good intentions to ensure that the people of Africa have the light they need.

In addition to creating the technology, support needs to be in place for its mass production and distribution. All of this will require government support, whether from countries like Ghana themselves or from places in the west. Either way, the iLight festival itself will not solve this problem – even if it raises a little attention towards it. We must also be sure to keep the ecological theme running throughout out communication on the light issue – for if we are to provide light for the poorest of the poor, it will require the richest of the rich in countries like Singapore and elsewhere to reduce their own energy consumption to ‘make space’ in the atmosphere, so to speak, for Ghanaians and others to use energy.

We must therefore be careful that events like this one do not become simple corporate showcases, punctuated by a few feel-good stories like that of Cumberbatch. Instead, we need to use the iLight festival and events like it to kickstart the imagination of ordinary citizens and inspire them to fight for a more equal and fair world, one in which we can all see the light.


Report prepared by Katie Collom

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