lighting up the world

photonic engineer Dr. David Irvine-Halliday gives a lesson in diodes & brings light to people & places off the power grid

photo by jace lasek

For me, light and seeking light have always been metaphors for spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of the process of living. The idea of bringing light back to its concrete, practical function humbles me as I sit in my brightly lit kitchen, in the brightly lit city of Montréal. Except for the briefest blackouts, I have never been without light when I needed it.

I am preoccupied with thoughts of people who live off the power grid as I prepare to call Dr. Irvine-Halliday – the founder of Light Up The World. Light Up The World is a charity organization that has helped bring light to 8,500 homes, schools and community centres in 25 different countries.


In early 1997, while on sabbatical from a teaching position at the University of Calgary, photonics engineer Dr. Dave Irvine-Halliday accepted an invitation to help Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu set up a degree program in electrical engineering. In his eagerness to help, he stayed longer than expected to teach a course in fibre optics, and as a result, had to wait a full month to get a flight home.

Being a long-time mountaineer now stranded in Nepal, he decided to hike the Annapurna Circuit in the meantime – a picturesque 300-kilometre trail through the Himalayas. Near the end of his trek, he found himself in a small mountain community called Thulo Pokhara. Drawn to the sound of children singing, he peered into a schoolhouse and had a simple thought that would change his life.

“I thought to myself, gosh, it’s dark in here…how can the children read?” says Irvine-Halliday. “My second thought was – is there anything I can do to help them?”

As he continued his hike in the days that followed, the nagging thought stayed with him, and it hasn’t faded in the years since.

“It was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone else,” he says. “Up until that moment…I can honestly tell you that I had never had a single thought in my whole life about helping to bring light to the developing world. In the ten or twelve days preceding, I’d been in a number of homes and none of them had any lighting – we’d just sit by the fire. I couldn’t even see the faces of some of the old people who were giving me a cup of tea.”

Spending time in a number of homes during his Annapurna trek helped Irvine-Halliday register the sheer difference in quality of life that lighting provides. In Nepal, elderly people are often injured trying to navigate their homes in the dark, children can’t study after nightfall and evening meals are eaten in the pitch black. Most homes are lit with lamps fueled by kerosene, which is expensive, produces choking black smoke and very little light. These kerosene lamps are a fire hazard, environmentally unfriendly and a financial burden to families, who often need to travel up to three days to find fuel.

“I think I’ll have to hit the religion button here and say that it was just meant to be. Now, you could be a lot more logical and say, you know, Dave, you’d been a fibre optics expert for twenty-five years before that, you were always dealing in diodes…”

And light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, were the answer to how to light homes and schools that are off the power grid – in remote communities difficult to service by power stations, that cannot affordably be lit with disposable, short-life products such as 60-watt light bulbs or fluorescent tubes. Anything that would break easily, be a heavy draw on batteries or need to be regularly replaced would not be helpful.

After he was back in Canada, Irvine-Halliday said to his wife Jenny, “I’m going to see if I can help these folk.” He set to work, tackling the problem in his lab each weekend for about a year and a half. Answers didn’t come quickly because, while Irvine-Halliday knew a lot about light theory, he knew little about illumination. Time and again, he was stumped by a series of problems he wasn’t equipped to solve. But luckily, less than two years into his research, a company in Japan created a white LED bulb that was a perfect fit.

“When we lit that very first one, that was the Eureka moment,” he says. “That was it…the writing was on the wall. You could read an 8½ x 11 piece of paper perfectly well. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize, hey, if I put half a dozen of these together, I’ve got a lamp that could light up a wee room, or a desk.”

Using the LED bulbs, Irvine-Halliday developed a half-dozen or so models of various shapes and sizes – long wands and square boxes and cylinders, to name a few – and returned to Thulo Pokhara with the full knowledge that all his work may come to nothing – after all, he hadn’t told anyone there what he had been working on. The people of the village might dismiss the lamps. But he was okay with that. He had come in service and wanted to help if he could.

The villagers were deeply touched that a foreigner cared enough to bring a life-changing invention all the way from Canada, and were eager to try out the models he brought. Many said it was the best thing they had ever seen. After collecting feedback, he traveled to Kathmandu to further develop the lamp. Dave and Jenny both returned the following year and lit up the village with their own savings.

“That very first night, I was walking around the village in the dark with this huge smile on my face,” says Irvine-Halliday. “I was looking in people’s homes just to see what they were doing. I remember watching one woman sweep the floor and put away pots and pans. I was almost in tears, thinking, how would I have described having light for the first time?”

A few days later, a visitor from a neighbouring village who had heard about the new lights dropped by to see what all the fuss was about. He stood near a lamp, switching it on and off, click-click, click-click, and turned toward Dave.

“A foreigner has come and made Thulo Pokhara heaven!” he pronounced.

“I think once we saw the joy and the obvious value…I mean, our lives were changed forever,” says Irvine-Halliday.

Since then, the work of the Light Up The World Foundation has garnered a great deal of attention. Even the Dalai Lama has a Light Up The World lamp – brought to him by a friend of the Foundation who was on a humanitarian mission to India in 2003. He uses the light to read at night, and is apparently delighted by the project.


While speaking to Dave on the phone, I also had a chance to talk with his wife of thirty-eight years – Jenny Irvine-Halliday, another committed member of the Light Up The World team. In a visit to a village outside of Karachi, Pakistan last year, after their team installed lights for night-time reading in the home of the local headmaster, a little boy came up to her and said with conviction, “I’m going to go to college.”

“Of course, you lose it then…it’s tremendous,” she says. “We were very lucky to be born and brought up in Scotland because we had free education. We would like to see the children, especially the female children, get that same chance at education.”

“We’re a catalyst for positive change, especially for female equality,” says Dave Irvine-Halliday. “Though we have to tread a careful line there, so we don’t cause problems by overtly championing women’s rights. We like to work with women’s groups, and that way, it’s the women who are pushing their agendas and we’re just trying to help them.”

Striving for an improved quality of life on a global scale is something that Irvine-Halliday does not take lightly – and after three close calls, he views life with a certain amount of awe.

“I’m one of those people who just enjoys being alive,” says Irvine-Halliday. “Partly because I got knocked off my motorbike by a drunk driver in Dundee when I was eighteen. I crashed with no helmet on, and I really should have died. My dad said to me, ‘Well, I think your skull’s a lot thicker than we thought, son.’ Then a couple years later, I took a foolish slip off the highest mountain in Britain doing some ice climbing and plummeted down a couple hundred feet, breaking a leg in the process. A couple years after that, I got caught in an avalanche in Camonix and got my neck broken in two places. That was sort of my third strike. Before that, I had an appreciation for life – for other life, like bugs and fish and birds, but after my third accident I thought to myself – you are leading a charmed existence, you really ought to value your life. Each day since, I’m grateful just for waking up in the morning.”

Gratitude has a funny way of bubbling over into generosity, which is probably the simplest explanation for what Irvine-Halliday has chosen to do with his unexpected moment of inspiration that afternoon in Nepal.

“I mean obviously, people feel as though you’re giving the gift of light to the developing world – and I use that term myself, ‘the gift of light,’” he says. “But I’m just a messenger in a sense – I know enough to be able to do something and I’m trying my best. I think humbling is the word I would like to use. But when somebody gets down on the ground and kisses your feet and holds onto your feet and ankles…I find it embarrassing…just telling you about it I’m choked up. You just pray that at least the smile on your face, or the way that you touch them is indicating that you’re reciprocating – you’re different, but you’re equal.”

Equality, and the equalizing of opportunity, fuels the Irvine-Hallidays’ work, and the work of the entire Foundation. As an end-goal, Light Up The World wants to partner with local manufacturers in each participating country, rather than managing the production themselves. This process started in 2000, when the Irvine-Hallidays created a production facility in Kathmandu called Pico Power Nepal, which they then gifted to a local self-taught engineer named Muni Raj Upadhyaya and his daughter Innu.

“We owned Pico Power Nepal, lock, stock and barrel for about seven seconds,” says Dave, who was introduced to Upadhyaya through a colleague who admired his work creating solar tracking systems that follow the path of the sun. “Muni Raj exudes compassion and honesty and he said he would make the lamps for us. As time went on, Jenny and I realized this would be a wonderful opportunity to fund a locally owned company to distribute our lamps.” 

The Irvine-Hallidays will continue to provide the Upadhyayas with ongoing financial and organizational support until the business is well-established.


At the age of sixty-three, Irvine-Halliday is nowhere near retiring. He hikes or climbs whenever he can, and has been running up to thirty kilometres a day for over thirty years. He describes it as an attempt to balance out all of the aspects of self.

“I’ve always regarded the human animal as a creature that has to use its physical body to balance its spiritual and psychological elements,” says Dave. “One of the things I’ve said to people on occasion is – ‘When I think of all the hours that I work, you couldn’t pay me to do this.’ I’d be a nervous wreck by now but for the balance of support I’ve received from my family and my running and mountaineering.”

While I have him on the phone, I take the opportunity to ask him if he’s run any marathons.

“About twenty-seven,” he says. “And enjoyed every one of them.”
I ask Jenny Irvine-Halliday if she feels something in the character of her relationship with Dave that has allowed them both to dive into such a demanding venture and remain content.

“I just do what I’m told.” She laughs. “I’m easy-going. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to arriving in strange countries in the middle of the night. You know, I was a nurse and I had my fortune told before I sat my final exam. The fortune-teller told me, ‘I see you surrounded by suitcases – do not bother to unpack.’”

“All I know is, life can be very serendipitous at times,” says Irvine-Halliday. “You look at how many things have to fall in line for a certain event to take place, and either it was real good luck, or it was meant to be. Maybe in my lifetime we won’t see the developing world lit, but it won’t be for want of trying, I’ll tell you that.”

If you would like to make a donation to the Light Up The World Foundation, learn more or get involved, please go to their official website at

Luna Allison is a poet and journalist living in Montréal. When she`s not writing, she`s looking out the window thinking about writing. She can be reached at

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