Sakina Dugawalla-Moeller

22nd August 2019

Building a lighting community in the Middle East and Africa, Sakina Dugawalla-Moeller is a beacon of light in the desert.

Founder and Principal of Light.Func, Dugawalla-Moeller is also the Middle East ambassador for Women in Lighting (WiL).

Declaring herself the ‘Funny One’ in her company bio on her website, it is fair to say after our brief encounter with her on paper, it is clear she has a vibrant personality that has allowed her to shine brightly in the lighting industry. 

“My fascination with light started before I even knew it had. My father had a very old camera that came in a leather case, which he used at every family function,” reflected Dugawalla-Moeller. 

“Weekends were spent pouring over old photographs of picnics in Tanzania, where the family always sat in the shade of huge mango trees. I remember when I was about eight, talking to him about how the white light behind my mother really made her look a lot slimmer. I bought myself a camera as soon as I could afford it, a DSLR, and still spend a lot of time trying to capture light in different ways. 

“It never ceases to amaze me that with a slight variation of settings, anything you photograph can appear a multitude of different ways. This is what lighting design is for me as well.”  

Right from the start, Dugawalla-Moeller was fortunate to have a strong family behind her to support her through the educational system in Tanzania. 

“Tanzania was still undergoing changes from a socialist to democratic state, and quality education was hard to come by,” she explained.

“My parents sent me away to boarding school in northern Tanzania where I studied the IGCSE system and then eventually onto another in Nairobi, Greenacres School, eventually finishing my 4th form at Dar es Salaam Independent School.”

With certain expectations from her father to become a doctor clashing with her loathe for the sight of needles, they both settled on her pursuing a career in architecture. She secured a scholarship to undertake her A-Levels at Kensington Sixth Form College in the UK when she was seventeen. Dugawalla-Moeller then went on to start a degree in Architecture at the University of Nottingham. 

“A journey of self-discovery made me realise that what I really aspired to do was design for people, to enhance their lives in some way, and therefore architecture did not satisfy that need. I was convinced it had to be Interior Design, but my A-Levels did not allow for enrolment in a BA programme, and I didn’t want to spend another year learning just Art, which was the only avenue open to me,” she explained.

“As a result, my father played a role when he advised me, due to my political involvement in the state of Tanzania, I should consider studying Law. After sitting an exam, I was accepted at Holborn in London. On my way there in 2005 I stopped to stay with my uncle in Dubai and was fascinated by the East meets West skyline and society. With my uncle’s assistance, I enrolled at the Manipal University with a partial scholarship and graduated with a BA in Interior Design. During this time, I studied a lighting design module in my second year. My professor convinced me to intern at Erco, because she felt I had an unconscious eye and feel for light. I followed in many other great lighting designers’ footsteps and took a chance, which paid off. My first day at Erco was the start of a journey that when I look back, I think was always inevitable; it was here that I learned the key fundamentals of qualitative lighting design,” she elaborated. 

Just two weeks after graduating, Dugawalla-Moeller was called in for a support role at iGuzzini, thanks to the impressions she had made during her internship.

“At iGuzzini, I learnt everything about business and lighting as a framework, working on mostly retail and residential projects. I stayed for four years, at which point I realised I wanted to grow more creatively.”

Dugawalla-Moeller went on to enrol in a Master’s degree in Scenography but was recruited by Linea Light Group before pursuing her Masters. She quickly got promoted to Global Lighting Design Leader, where she held multiple conferences with fellow lighting designers from around the world. 

“This time allowed me to really teach design and create an open platform to exchange information, discuss challenges as well as learn new things.

“During this time, I worked on my first independently designed lighting project, the Eden Beach Club, with a client who I have retained when I moved on with my career,” she explained. 

After completing three years with the firm, it was time for Dugawalla-Moeller to take the leap to open her own design firm, Light.Func. 

“A few mentors inspired me to take the chance, and my manager was very kind and incredibly supportive in convincing me that it was the right choice in moving forward,” she reflected. 

“On the 4th April 2016, Light.Func was born in Dubai. Light.Func had already been registered in Tanzania in February that year, because I wanted to have the name reserved just in case I finally took the leap.”

The beginning of Light.Func allowed Dugawalla-Moeller the chance to work towards her personal ambitions of sharing lighting design across the UAE. 

“The UAE is known for great buildings, great design and great concepts – which are very accessible because we live here and are privy to luxuries many around the world cannot fathom. 

“However, I found there was a disconnect in the accessibility to lighting design for some projects and clientele. I wanted it (lighting design) to be accessible to those that could not afford to pay large sums of money (mostly due to there already being a stringent project budget), whose projects were too small to garner interest, whose timelines were so constricted that it was impossible to get a lighting designer on board who was already so busy, as well as those who did not come from a professional background where they were privy to what lighting design was, its benefits and of course its importance.” 

Dugawalla-Moeller also felt it was very important to give back to the community that had supported her during her career journey, by creating initiatives that would nurture and breed the next generation of lighting designers in the Middle East and Africa. 

“My passion to have a lighting community was the reason why I did not seek employment at other much more established studios – because the lighting culture here is not as involved as the UK, for example. 

“When I established Light.Func, there was no platform where lighting designers could come together, create, mentor, teach, learn, envy and respect each other,” she explained. 

When asked about her approach to lighting projects, it was clear there was no one size fits all approach, and Light.Func’s open and all-inclusive approach dictates the team’s portfolio of work. 

“Light for us always starts with daylight, and there are many things that determine how daylight plays a role: the time of year, the materials used, the orientation of the building, the list is endless. 

“We do not design for the project or to build a portfolio or to achieve fame. I just believe that no project is too small, no client too demanding and no contractor too shifty – you still have to give it your absolute best. I think one of the reasons we stand out is because of our never give up attitude.

“We give back to the industry as much as it gives us. We actively promote the role a lighting designer plays in each project, by working hard to get this message out to society, both in industry and education,” she explained. 

The first project the team completed as Light.Func was Molecule in D3, Dubai. The restaurant, bar and gallery with a take on bistronomy, embodied the client’s creativity in numerous aspects, from an undulating 3D-effect ceiling to partitions and walls that become a projection of protrusions. 

“The lighting concept we worked on balanced the different areas and still created not only ambience and focused light but required a very technical solution for precise lighting on tables. The project also has a catwalk leading to the toilets upstairs, and to enhance brand image, light in a molecule pattern leads the way through this contrasting space to the bathrooms. 

“Most importantly, it is the first project that I completed at Light.Func and was also shortlisted at the Light Middle East 2017 awards in the Restaurant and Bar category .”

Following on from her beginner’s success, Dugawalla-Moeller set out to fulfil a personal project just over three years ago. Light.ication was a pro bono project with the aim to create a platform of dialogue where independent lighting design studios mentor university students that are pursuing architecture/engineering/interior design and create lighting installations. 

“In the UAE, the majority of graduates lack in this process because in this region the educational workload (having experienced it myself) is quite demanding and the opportunity for work experience is limited. Naturally, project timelines would not allow for graduates to really understand how an idea can go from sketch to realisation. 

“The basis of Light.ication is to teach and experience the process of conceptualisation to reality by the next generation of designers. It also gives the studios a chance to teach and give back to the community.” 

When working on new projects, Light.Func’s rule of thumb is to harness as much daylight as possible. The majority of spaces they provide lighting for tend to be occupied from sunrise to beyond sunset, so it’s important for the design to factor these working hours in for comfort and practicality needs as well as bearing in mind reducing energy consumption at different times of the day. Keeping an open channel of communication is also vital with everyone that’s involved in the project. 

“We also map out a scope where we imagine the function of that space and how we can enhance it, firstly through vertical lighting and then subsequently filling it in with horizontal lighting,” explained Dugawalla-Moeller. 

“This allows us to ensure that the intent we put forth looks beyond the project typology, its spatial characteristics and unique design elements. It looks at how we can enhance the experience of anyone in that space, temporary or permanent. 

“We then consider the cultural language, environmental aspects, our dos and don’ts, carbon footprint and ultimately the budget. 

“Working on A cappella, for example, the client didn’t want to spend too much as it was a risk they were taking to open an F&B tapas bar in a market that was economically uncertain at the time. The client, a restaurateur, didn’t like coloured light. We were able to convince him that the project typology meant that the use of some colour would benefit the space to bring in patrons, as well as add to the brand’s identification. 

“The result was a budget he was almost shocked by and a beautiful space that he is very proud of. So, going back to what I was previously describing, it’s a right old challenge to change the way people think about lighting design, its accessibility and that through constant technical detailing, aesthetical intent can be achieved.” 

As the Middle East ambassador for Women in Lighting, Dugawalla-Moeller has set out to spread the word of lighting and encourage the confidence of young female designers to stand up for recognition. 

Establishing herself as a designer in the Middle East, we asked whether it differed to other experiences women may have had in other nations. 

“You get two opposite reactions in the Middle East as a female designer – one is that people feel it’s the norm to have a woman working as a lighting designer. The second is immense respect, but only after initial shock – I get this mostly when I venture to site meetings. Engineers are often impressed that female lighting designers would have so much technical knowledge. In fact, they resorted to calling me Engineer Sakina, which is quite amusing.” 

After establishing herself as an avid promoter of lighting design in the Middle East at Messe Frankfurt’s Light + Building, Dugawalla-Moeller was responsible for assisting in four different events at the show. It was here, in 2018, that she ran into Sharon Stammers and Martin Lupton of Light Collective and Women in Lighting, at the Light Middle East Awards. 

“When the initiative was launched, I was not only honoured to be asked to be the WiL ambassador, but extremely excited because all the work I had been doing had paid off; now we have another platform that allows our community to communicate with the rest of the world,” she remarked. 

“I am hoping that more women come out of hiding and take charge of their careers. It is not that lighting design has gender inequality, it is that women do not put their hands up, as I have, to actively go out and promote lighting as profession. 

“More and more men, or as some of us like to call them WiLS – Women in Lighting Supporters – are also consciously helping their colleagues, family members and industry in support of the cause.” 

Using her role to promote gender balance in her own practice is something Dugawalla-Moeller is working hard towards. 

“We are trying to take Light.ication global, so that it shows the variety of creativity and technical acumen that each team can bring, and the teams can be gender balanced, with one of the leads as a woman. This means that in studios where there is no woman in a decision-making role, it creates the perfect opportunity to step up. 

“I would like it to really change the way people see WiL, that we are not delicate flowers that sit and sketch beautiful lighting intent, we are as competent as any male lighting designer.” 

As an ambassador, Dugawalla-Moeller is working to lead by example and promote the movement through being open about her own experiences, both successes and failures.

She has recognised that nearly every person she has come in contact with throughout her career has left an impact on her and informed her career, whether intentionally or not. “When I was sixteen, I went to build low cost housing in a village in Tanzania, and we built them side by side with the villagers. At night, there was not much electricity, so the sky was our light. It sounds a little romantic, but what it made me realise is that people should always inform who we become, and the spaces we inhabit inform our actions, functions and emotions. I embarked on a journey that started in the wilderness of Africa, but took me through the disciplines of architecture, interior design and ultimately to lighting design, because it was lighting that informed me mostly about how people function and feel. Hence, why at Light.Func we say, ‘Everyone has a journey, ours is light’.”

Taking a lesson from each encounter has let her develop a full understanding of who she is and who she wants to be as a leader to those she teaches. Coming from a humble background has led her to dedicate her conscientiousness and achievements solely to honour her family’s legacy for their hard work, and to her team at Light.Func that work with her through all hours of the day. “To achieve excellence through design is to set the bar higher for myself and the work we produce every day. To inspire my children and the next generation of designers to always excel to their own ability is important.

“I constantly talk to fellow WiL members, getting their feedback, supporting those that change roles and taking on ideas for future events. I have also created a Facebook page for WiL-MEA, especially because there are a lot of ambassadors that are isolated because their community is very small, as opposed to the UAE community. By including them, they are then able to grow their own communities for the future. 

“We are also now planning to host WiL evening events every month, inviting a presenter or speaker who is female, whose role in life somewhat touches the subject of lighting, construction, architecture, design or entrepreneurship.

“The UAE has a huge group of women who are successful in their own right; Emirati and expat women who have made massive and milestone contributions to a sector of the community. My aim is to bring them together to inspire our community.” 

Looking forward, Dugawalla-Moeller is firstly wanting to look at Africa. Raising more awareness for lighting and its benefits is key and time-sensitive: “The time is now for Tanzania and East Africa. I actively promote the dark sky, and though we love to beautify hospitality and commercial projects, constantly carrying out light pollution and energy conservation studies when auditing our own design is important.” 

Teaching is also a high priority: “I learn every day and expect that I will keep learning every day until I retire. What I would also like to do is teach lighting design, beyond the approach of qualitative and quantitative lighting design, that the process is unique to each project. I have had the good fortune, through Light.ication, to have met many educators who invite me to do guest lectures at universities, but I cannot teach full-time or part-time because of the demands of Light.Func and outing off an MA of MSc.

“The next thing is to take my energy to Africa, really promote the value of good lighting design and then slowly start to find a balance between being a lighting designer and a lighting educator.”