Emily and her family in the Philippines without lightWatts of Love, with permission
Nancy Economou and Watts of Love
A few months ago, young filmmaker Sean Economou and a global nonprofit called Watts of Love submitted a film to MY HERO’s 18th International Film Festival. The Film is called Ukwati (The Wedding), which has since been awarded the Film Fest’s Relationships First and Women’s Rights awards.
The beautifully made, short documentary film describes the partnership between Watts of Love and a female leader who had managed to officially outlaw child marriage in the country of Malawi. Thanks for the solar lights and literacy training provided by Watts of Love, these girls can now afford to go to school—which, as Nancy says, is everyone’s dream in Malawi.
During an interview with MY HERO, Sean talked about how much his mother’s founding of the organization has inspired him as a filmmaker: “To see my mother doing what she was created to do has really inspired me. A mother of five boys, she had this dream and went for it: such an impact from a Chicago suburb mom!”
Watts of Love provides solar lighting to the poorest of the poor, which eliminates the need for a costly fuel source and offers immediate savings to families living in poverty. It’s goal? Nothing less than ending the cycle of extreme poverty. Solar lighting means people can continue daily activities after dark, which directly impacts household income, safety, and overall health. Watts of Love's solar lights start people on the pathway to prosperity.
To quote their website: “A lack of electricity is creating an endless cycle of poverty, financial literacy makes it last.” As of 2022, Watts of Love has distributed over 77,000 solar lights—one per family, impacting over 542,000 lives in 52 countries.
Nancy Economou teaching in the PhilippinesWatts of Love, with permission
Founding Watts of Love
Nancy Economou founded Watts of Love after a trip to the Philippines. Prior to that time, she was an at-home mother of five sons, with no business background.
Starting a global nonprofit at 47, she said, she was reinventing herself and, in fact, had found herself.
Accompanying her then-husband on a business trip to Batangas, Philippines in 2008, Nancy had some time on her hands to explore the area around Manila. The hotel porter, Leod, asked her what she wanted to do and see in the few days she was there. Nancy responded, “I have heard there is a lot of poverty here and I would like to see that,” she told MY HERO.
The first place they went was to a feeding program at a school, where Nancy volunteered to work with 25 children ages three to five. “This was the first time I became aware that people don’t have electricity,” she said. She also saw a young girl whose face had been burned by a kerosene lamp—the porter, Leod, said that this happens a lot, as these families heat their homes with kerosene. She also witnessed children left unattended in complete darkness while their parents worked at night. In that moment, she said, she became inspired to take action.
In the Philippines, Nancy said, she witnessed the harsh conditions of extreme poverty, and yet there was boundless hospitality. For example, she met a woman whose nephew’s funeral was going to take place that night. The woman heard there was a visitor in the village and invited her into her small cardboard house, where she served Nancy a little platter with three tiny sandwiches, and then another small plate with a tiny juice box. Leod advised her to take it. “They invited me in without knowing anything about me, offered the best to me that they had. She had a houseful of babies. The woman,” she said, “made less than $2 a day.”
As a mother, Nancy was moved with compassion to do something to address people’s basic access to electricity. “I’m a visionary,” she said, “and big on empathy. These experiences compelled me to start Watts of Love. A lot of things that happened in the Philippines made me aware of extreme poverty and taught me about who I wanted to be.”
Nancy and friend at leper colonyWatts of Love, with permission
After returning to Chicago, Nancy designed and patented the solar light herself. Later, visiting a leper colony, she saw a man who didn’t have fingers or hands. So she created a large surface on the solar bulb for people with disabilities, creating a simple bulb that could be used by anyone.
With the help of many others, she said, the first light distribution brought 1,000 lights to the Philippines. Despite logistical challenges, with the help of local partners Nancy targeted a small, primitive island, where people, she said, were literally starving to death.
The first light was given to an old woman named Nini, who told her, “I’m too poor to be loved. I have been cursed by God, abandoned by my family, and my government doesn’t even know we exist.” By the end of their time together, she was singing, "I may be poor, but I am loved.’”
Emily displays the bamboo sticks she made using Watts of Love solar lightWatts of Love, with permission
The second person the organization gave a light to was Emily, a mother of seven, whose family lived in darkness. “After we gave her a solar light,” Nancy told MY HERO, she stayed up all night and made 10,000 barbecue sticks, instantly becoming a businesswoman. “The light gave Emily a gift that money cannot buy--opportunity!”
Nancy told us, “All these people are uneducated. I have always felt that every single person should be given the opportunity to become educated. Emily told me that she hid the money she saved on kerosene from her husband: we are the exact same. From her I learned about the importance of also teaching literacy to create a sustainable solution to extreme poverty.” Watts of Love continues to learn from the people it serves.
Emily's family and houseWatts of Love, with permission
Watts of Love is a stepping-stone, a launch pad or bridge that allows people to make their way out of poverty. According to Nancy, “The light is secondary: the most important is the financial literacy training”, she said. “The solar light allows a family to save 30% of their earnings and invest in themselves, their children’s education, and their home. The lights and literacy classes provided by the organization create freedom, choices, and options, and help to bring people out of extreme poverty.”
A Family Affair
A mother of five boys, two of whom are very active in the organization, Nancy talked about her family. Her boys, she said, are currently ages 15, 17, 22, 25, and 27. We asked her about her son Sean, the budding filmmaker.
“Sean is a storyteller,” she said: “He’s always been incredibly talented. He sees where he wants to go: that is his gift. He had a passion for football, then blew out his knee—developed ACL and a flipped meniscus during his junior year in college. This was his turning point, I think, when he decided to get into film.”
Later, during film school, Sean took a semester off and went with Nancy to Haiti. A few weeks later he went with Nancy to the Philippines, where he stayed for two months filming the tribes that Watts of Love provided lights to. And the rest is history.
“I always believed in giving my sons an experiential education,” Nancy told MY HERO. “We often traveled to do volunteer work as the children were growing up.”
Elder with Watts of Love solar lightWatts of Love, with permission
Nancy’s son, Connor, recently joined the team as their Global Travel Team Manager. Connor told MY HERO:
After completing my master’s degree in Humanitarian Aid at Wheaton College, I wanted to work for an organization that was making a real difference in people’s lives. As I applied and interviewed with other NGOs, none felt right. I was then approached by Watts of Love to an open position, overseeing the Global Travel Teams. I have traveled many times with my mom as a volunteer, and I have seen the impact our program makes on families and communities. I now recruit, plan, and execute all the trips Watts of Love takes. I love the work that I am doing, I get to take people out of their comfort zone, and they get to see our program in real time.
What’s next for Watts of Love?
Watts of Love has developed a proven approach to empower people to raise themselves out of poverty. But that’s just the beginning.
The organization also partners with in-country organizations and develops local leaders to train, equip, and empower entire regions to ensure lasting change around the world through solar lights and literacy training.
According to their website, their “Lighthouse Model” is a three-year scaling initiative to distribute lights within a specific region. “It’s a long-term investment into a community, focusing on large-scale distribution. We target communities based on their access to electricity, geography, and population.”
At the conclusion of our interview, MY HERO asked Nancy about her heroes. “The heroes are the people in Watts of Love. I can’t take credit. I took the story I saw and took action.”
Watts of LoveNancy EconomouFollow Watts of Love on social media:
Watch the film, Ukwati
Read MY HERO's story about Ukwati and the filmmaker, Sean Economou