When Jessica O. Matthews was 19, she attended a family wedding in Nigeria. During the ceremony, the power abruptly went out. It rattled Matthews — but not her relatives. They simply connected a backup diesel generator and continued with the wedding.
“You’ll get used to it,” a family member assured her.
But during the remainder of her time in the country, Matthews didn’t see why she — or anyone else — had to. This power outage wasn’t an anomaly. Her relatives and others in the community were regularly plagued by unreliable electricity, sometimes struggling just to juice up a cell phone.
“I knew this was a larger problem,” said Matthews.
And this problem has a name: “light poverty.” 1.3 billion people around the globe — one in every five — lack access to electric light, and it affects more than the occasional wedding. Without regular electricity, a community’s safety, health, educational and economic goals all suffer.
“Access to clean power has always been a human right — now more so than ever, as it’s become the foundation in which we operate and live our lives today,” Matthews said. “Whether it’s power to turn the lights on so you can read, powering your cell phone to call family, turning on your laptop to run your business or fueling connectivity and 5G — if you don’t have reliable power, you have nothing.”
After returning to the U.S., Matthews created the Soccket, a soccer ball that doubles as a portable generator. It was “the kick start of a movement to address the issue of reliable power on a larger scale,” she said.
But two years ago, Matthews realized she hadn’t yet solved the problem for her family in Nigeria.
“Ultimately, the problem is and always was an infrastructural issue,” said Matthews. To truly extinguish light poverty, she needed to pivot to infrastructure.
Matthews changed course, transforming her previous startup into Uncharted Power, a company that develops power infrastructure and provides power services to people around the world.
Today, Matthews and her team build, own and operate renewable power infrastructure,providing energy that’s both clean and low cost. Currently, they’re in the U.S. and the Caribbean and are planning to expand across sub-Saharan Africa.
Matthews, who counts both Beyoncé and Bill Nye as her role models, isn’t intimidated by the challenge.
“In order to solve the biggest problems, we need as many people as possible believing that they have the agency and impact to be part of the solution,” she said. “We need to make things more accessible, more tangible and collectively pull people in. I try to do that.”
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