With its cheery green coloring and Tonka-tough shell, the laptop certainly looks cool. It boasts a 7-inch screen that swivels like a tablet PC, and an electricity-generating crank that provides 40 minutes of power from a minute of grinding. Built-in Wi-Fi with mesh networking support, combined with a microphone, speaker and headset jack, even means the box can serve as a node in an ersatz VOIP phone system.
Under the hood, it’s powered by a modest 500-MHz AMD processor, and uses a gig of flash memory for storage. But the key to building it cheaply enough to educate the world’s children is an innovative, low-power LCD screen technology invented by Negroponte’s CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen. “The manufacturers are the toughest audience, and they stopped laughing in September,” says Jepsen. The machine is expected to start mass production late next year, and the governments of Thailand and Brazil have already said they’re serious about placing $1 million orders for their school kids. Others are close to lining up.
In places without electricity, the radio is still a vital source of information, education, and entertainment. But, they are considered a status symbol because they are expensive to own and operate – batteries are not free. As a result, typically they are only owned, if at all, by men. That is why a radio that demands no money to run because it operates on hand-generated power is opening the airwaves to a new generation in Africa.
The technology is the work of Freeplay, a company with headquarters in London and Cape Town. And while the company aims to make money from the radios, it has established a non-profit foundation to bring them to the people who can benefit from them most in rural Africa. In 1994, just as South Africa was emerging from the years of apartheid and forming its first democratically elected government, a colleague of Rory Stear saw a TV special featuring a wind–up radio.
In the spirit of the great hope and optimism at that time, Stear, a South African entrepreneur, and his colleague, Chris Staines, immediately saw the potential of a manually operated radio to spread information and education in sub-Saharan Africa and bought the rights to develop the technology. The basic premise of Freeplay products is to use self-sufficient energy — such as a manual hand crank or solar power — to harness energy and store it as electricity. The technology has expanded to include flashlights, cell phones chargers, while the development of manually powered medical tools is even in the works.
With that in mind, the company established the Freeplay Foundation, a non-profit which aims to distribute the radios in the developing world, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the cost savings of not having to buy batteries, to buy a radio outright would be a considerable expense for most of the people who could benefit from it most. “Orphans, women, refugees — the poorest of the poor — the least likely to have access to information,” are the main target for the radios, according to Kristine Pearson, the executive director of the Freeplay Foundation. Pearson is married to Stear, the Freeplay founder. With the new generation of child head of households in mind, the “Lifeline radio” was developed specifically to be distributed by the Freeplay Foundation. The radio was designed to be used in the harshest of climates and conditions. Built to withstand a drop from a two-story building, the radios are nearly indestructible.
The Lifeline radio is not sold commercially. The Freeplay Foundation raises funds to purchase radios (at a discount) from the Freeplay company and teams up with local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local government ministries, and various United Nations agencies to distribute the equipment and coordinate education efforts.For Pearson, the children of sub-Saharan Africa who are growing up as orphans and are required to shoulder the burdens of adulthood at a young age because of the scourge of AIDS or warfare, are like no generation that has ever come before. They need to get an education and information somewhere, if not from a traditional school setting, then radio seems to be the logical answer. “Kids living on their own want practical information that will help them live better. It could be the time, weather, information about AIDS, malaria, how not to let stagnant water stand and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes,” explained Pearson. “They want to know what’s going on politically. In places like Rwanda, they want to know that their borders are safe and that men aren’t going to come and hurt them in the middle of the night.”
To solve the problem, he’s invented two devices, each about the size of a washing machine that can provide much-needed power and clean water in rural villages. “Eighty percent of all the diseases you could name would be wiped out if you just gave people clean water,” says Dean Kamen. “The water purifier makes 1,000 liters of clean water a day, and we don’t care what goes into it. And the power generator makes a kilowatt off of anything that burns.” Kamen is not alone in his quest. He’s been joined by Iqbal Quadir, the founder of Grameen Phone, the largest cell phone company in Bangladesh. Last year, Quadir took prototypes of Kamen’s power machines to two villages in his home country for a six-month field trial. That trial, which ended last September, sold Quadir on the technology.
So much so in fact that Quadir’s startup, Cambridge, Mass.-based Emergence Energy, is negotiating with Kamen’s Deka Research and Development to license the technology. Quadir then hopes to raise $30 million in venture capital to start producing the power machines. (With the exception of the Segway, which Kamen’s own company sold, Kamen has typically licensed his inventions to others.) The electric generator is powered by an easily-obtained local fuel: cow dung. Each machine continuously outputs a kilowatt of electricity. That may not sound like much, but it is enough to light 70 energy-efficient bulbs. As Kamen puts it, “If you judiciously use a kilowatt, each villager can have a nighttime.”
A satellite picture of the earth at night shows swaths of darkness across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. For the people living there, a simple light bulb would mean an extension of both their productivity and their leisure times. The real invention here, though, may be the economic model that Kamen and Quadir hope to use to distribute the machines. It is fashioned after Grameen Phone’s business, where village entrepreneurs (mostly women) are given micro-loans to purchase a cell phone and service. The women, in turn, charge other villagers to make calls. “We have 200,000 rural entrepreneurs who are selling telephone services in their communities,” notes Quadir. “The vision is to replicate that with electricity.”
During the test in Bangladesh, Kamen’s Stirling machines created three entrepreneurs in each village: one to run the machine and sell the electricity, one to collect dung from local farmers and sell it to the first entrepreneur, and a third to lease out light bulbs (and presumably, in the future, other appliances) to the villagers. Kamen thinks the same approach can work with his water-cleaning machine, which he calls the Slingshot. While the Slingshot wasn’t part of Quadir’s trial in Bangladesh, Kamen thinks it can be distributed the same way. “In the 21st century, water will be delivered by an entrepreneur,” he predicts.
The Slingshot works by taking in contaminated water – even raw sewage — and separating out the clean water by vaporizing it. It then shoots the remaining sludge back out a plastic tube. Kamen thinks it could be paired with the power machine and run off the other machine’s waste heat. Compared to building big power and water plants, Kamen’s approach has the virtue of simplicity. He even created an instruction sheet to go with each Slingshot. It contains one step: Just add water, any water. Step two might be: add an entrepreneur. “Not required are engineers, pipelines, epidemiologists, or microbiologists,” says Kamen. “You don’t need any -ologists. You don’t need any building permits, bribery, or bureaucracies.”
Kamen’s goal is to produce machines that cost $1,000 to $2,000 each. That’s a far cry from the $100,000 that each hand-machined prototype cost to build. Quadir is going to try and see if the machines can be produced economically by a factory in Bangladesh. If the numbers work out, not only does he think that distributing them in a decentralized fashion will be good business — he also thinks it will be good public policy. Instead of putting up a 500-megawatt power plant in a developing country, he argues, it would be much betterhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif to place 500,000 one-kilowatt power plants in villages all over the place, because then you would create 500,000 entrepreneurs.
4npo: Why is this an efficient way to bring electricity to a village?
Robert Freling: Because most of these places are located in remote areas. The population density is low, the villages are dispersed and it’s very expensive to string high-voltage lines to these remote areas. It can cost $20,000 or more a kilometer and therefore it’s just not practical. So many of these villages are left in the dark. They typically rely on such things such as candles and kerosene as sources of lighting during the evening hours.
4npo: Can you tell me some of the effects that the electricity you bring to the village has on the people?
Robert: In terms of household electrification what it does immediately is relieve them of the need to breathe in kerosene fumes. Typically what they are using for lighting purposes are kerosene lamps. It is said that the average family smokes the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day. Not to mention the problems with eyesight and other upper respiratory illnesses that are caused by smoke inhalation. It also very much restricts their ability to do anything at night. And the children really have no opportunity to read and study after the sun goes down. So it’s very restrictive.
When you bring electricity to their home the first thing you do is you give them clean electric light that the children can read and study by at night. It extends the productive workday into the evening hours so they can start to engage in various activities at home that they would not have been able to do otherwise. And it gives them hope for the future. That’s at the household level.
The mission has evolved. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself Mike. In the first decade under Neville’s leadership our primary focus was on bringing this technology to people’s homes and using micro-credits as a way of making it affordable to the families. When I took over, my focus was broader and in the last several years I have been expanding the mission of what we do to go beyond the household level to address a broader spectrum of needs at the village level. Everything from water pumping and purification, electrification of health clinics, including provision of vaccine refrigerators, schools, micro-enterprises that help generate income for the families, and communications. You can now come with solar energy and wireless technology and bring voice and data connectivity to these remote villages around the world and we’ve started to do that.
Addressing the earth’s energy and environmental problems, while working to improve the quality of life of rural people who have yet to be connected to a fossil-fuel powered national utility grid, SELF seeks to assist developing world communities and governments in the acquisition, financing and installation of decentralized household solar electric systems that convert sunlight directly into electricity. Using the latest photovoltaic (PV) technology, SELF helps rural families make the leap from the 19th to the 21st Century.
Acting as a catalyst, SELF brokers the purchase and delivery of solar home lighting systems (SHS) working with rural solar electric associations, local PV-system suppliers, solar entrepreneurs, farmers cooperatives, donor agencies, corporations, non-governmental organizations, multilateral development banks, and governments. SELF also helps start up rural solar enterprises.
SELF seeks to accelerate commercial market acceptance of solar-generated electricity in developing countries through “solar seed” projects. SELF provides technical assistance and training programs, and develops grass-roots financing mechanisms. Through media communications, educational programs, and awareness campaigns, SELF promotes decentralized green power throughout the developing world.
SELF has developed pilot PV projects in China, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, the Solomon Islands, Navajo Nation, Bhutan, and Nigeria, where SELF has demonstrated that household electricity provided by solar PV is the most reliable, affordable, and economic source of power for rural households.
At first glance, Inveneo’s office eight floors above Market Street resembles any high-tech startup — computer parts scattered on desks, Wi-Fi antennas mounted on the wall. But adjacent to the front door hangs a large colorful map of Africa, and a few steps away a stationary bicycle is hooked up to a backpack-size power generator. From this base, a small group of determined geeks is using solar- and pedal-powered voice-over-internet-protocol phones and Wi-Fi to bring local, national and international dialing to remote areas of the world, beginning with a few villages in western Uganda where nothing resembling a telephone system has ever existed. “What we’re bringing to them … is two-way communication, which they’ve never had before,” said Kristin Peterson, chair and co-founder of the year-old nonprofit effort.
The organization has already installed its Linux-based VOIP stations at four isolated villages in Bukuuku subcounty, serving a total of nearly 3,200 villagers. Each village in the Bukuuku program has a custom-built computer with a 2-GB microdrive, to eliminate moving parts, along with 256 MB of RAM and a 533-MHz processor. The computer is wired to a regular analog telephone set and a directional Wi-Fi antenna, which transmits the internet signal to a central hub at one of the villages. Complete with 70-watt solar panels and a bicycle generator — which can provide power in the event of no sunlight — each installation costs only $1,800, including the outdoor Wi-Fi 802.11b antenna.
Calls between the villages are routed by the hub, and cost nothing — like dialing another room from a hotel PBX, said Robert Marsh, Inveneo’s CFO and co-founder. Calls destined for outside the village network go over a satellite link between the hub and the main Ugandan telephone exchange. Mark Summer, Inveneo’s CEO and co-founder, said that while most people in the United States have access to a telephone and can communicate with anyone in seconds, it is not so in these remote areas.