Charging cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa with foot power
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Foot pedal. Photo Credit: Nuk2013 / Shutterstock

If you have minimal access to electricity, a foot pedal could be the next best way to power your phone – at least, that’s what two students are testing out in Lesotho.

Two U.S. engineering students are testing their foot-powered cell phone charger in rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa that have minimal access to electricity, Science Daily reported this month.

The sophomores from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, have built several prototypes allowing residents of Lesotho, a small, poor, sovereign kingdom located in an enclave within South Africa, to pedal their way toward powering their cell phones.

“A lot of people have cell phones but no way to charge them,” said Case Western student Samuel Crisanti, a 19-year-old from Connecticut who built the prototypes with classmate Ian Ferre, a 20-year-old from Kentucky.

Pressing a pedal, which can be done sitting or standing, can generate enough energy to recharge a phone and power a small lamp, the report said. Pushing on the pedal – more like a drum set pedal rather than a bike pedal – sets the gear into a circular, one-way motion that powers a generator, using principles of ratchet mechanics.

“In the country, 40 to 50 percent or even 60 percent have cell phones but only a quarter have access to electricity,” said Crisanti. “It takes some a day-long ride by cart to a city where they have to pay to charge their phone.”

A look at Lesotho

Crisanti may actually be overestimating the proportion of Lesotho residents with electricity access, which the World Bank said was just 17% as of 2010. Four years before that, the United Nations Development Program estimated that access was far more limited for the 85 percent of Lesotho residents who live in rural areas, saying just 1% of rural households had reliable electricity access in 2006.

As in many developing countries, landlines aren’t much help either. Lesotho, where 57% of the population lives below the national poverty line, has just three fixed telephone lines for every 100 residents.

Their journey from the classroom to sub-Saharan Africa

Crisanti and Ferre came up with the idea of foot-powered phone chargers for a class called “Engineering for the World’s Poorest,” taught by chemical engineering professor Daniel Lacks. He encouraged them to apply for a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which awarded them $15,000.

They used the money to buy supplies, build prototypes, and pay for the trip to Lesotho this month to gauge residents’ interest in the charger.

Their next step is applying for a $75,000 EPA grant in April. If they win, Ferre and Crisanti plan to purchase injection molds for the plastic parts of the chargers. This will help them mass-produce more durable versions than their lightweight 3D-printed prototypes.

By doing so, the mass production tools would also help them decrease the time entailed to create the chargers, which would help them get closer to selling each charger for $5 each. With their current means of production, the prototypes cost them $12 each to make.

Their competition

The product’s main competition are chargers powered by kinetic, solar, and wind energy. However, they could have an edge if it is cost efficient.

Among kinetic devices, competing products could include wearable charger Ampy, which uses the energy created by walking, biking or running to power cellphones, though at $95, this device seems geared toward gadget-hungry first-worlders rather than electricity-poor rural dwellers. Kenyan inventor Anthony Mutua came up with an ultra-thin crystalline chip that follows the same general principle, but at $46, costs less than half that. It is placed in the sole of a person’s shoe to transform the kinetic energy created by walking or running into the power to charge mobile devices.

Cheaper options include devices like the $35 solar-powered phone launched by Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest cellphone company, in 2009, and the $49 Voltaic six-watt solar panel.

But if Crisanti and Ferre do succeed in bringing down the price of their product to $5, or even staying at the $12 their prototypes cost, the device would still be more affordable than all their competition.

Featured Image Credit: Nuk2013 / Shutterstock

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Shoshana Kordova

About Shoshana Kordova

Shoshana Kordova is a former language columnist for Haaretz and Tablet Magazine and has written for publications including Smithsonian Magazine, Religion News Service, Quartz and the New York Times blog Motherlode. She is a New Jersey native who has been living, writing, translating and editing in Israel since 2001.

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