The work gets underway
By 1999, the Freeplay Foundation was on its way. We began intensive work in the field, getting radios into the hands of people who needed them most. Quickly establishing a reputation for speed, flexibility, efficiency and results, we built partnerships and coalitions throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As local charities expressed a tremendous need for wind-up and solar-powered Freeplay radios, we also began to raise visibility of our work among global multilateral and bilateral agencies, governments and established development organisations in Europe and the US.
But as Kristine criss-crossed Africa over the next two years, she believed there was market demand for a new Freeplay radio. Although the models we were using in the field – the Freeplay Global Shortwave and the Freeplay Plus – did provide 24/7 access to information and education for thousands, the radios could not withstand rural Africa’s harsh environment.
In addition, these radios used a spring-based technology. If they were wound anti-clockwise, they could break. By that time, our largest programme was Project Muraho, in Rwanda which placed Freeplay radios into child-headed households. Children, some as young as nine, had lost their parents to the genocide or to AIDS and were trying to eke out an existence while raising their younger brothers and sisters. Kristine saw what a positive difference having a radio made in their lives. However, these children, who understandably would have little or no exposure to technology, would wind the radios anti-clockwise and they would break, leaving the children without radio access again. Kristine witnessed the need and believed that the market demanded an entirely new self-powering radio that was easytouse and created to withstand unskilled users and Africa’s harsh conditions.
She came up with the idea for the Lifeline radio, so named because many orphaned children told Kristine that their Freeplay radios made them feel safe at night – giving them a ‘lifeline’ to the outside world. Children said that the voices they trusted most were the voices on the radio.
In Kristine''''s vision, the Lifeline would be robustly engineered, able to withstand extreme temperatures, dust and users with no exposure to technology. Working through local partners, she convened focus groups of orphaned children in Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya, where she learned what was important to and needed by children in a radio. Girls said they wanted a radio shaped like a handbag so they could carry it into the fields as many children are farmers. Colour was important. If it was too light, it would look dirty. Black became too hot to carry. Bright blue seemed to agree with everyone. Knobs had to be large enough for use by tiny hands and the antennae practical and easy to replace with any piece of wire. Participants asked for radios with four bands – AM, FM and two short-wave bandwidths– to hear local and international programmes. Sound quality was important as well so groups could hear clearly. Perhaps most importantly, it needed to wind in either direction and also have a solar panel.
Based on focus group input, in April 2001 the concept paper for Lifeline radio was written.
The Lifeline radio is born
In November 2001, the Freeplay Foundation’s Lifeline radio concept won the first Tech Museum of Innovation Award, Technology Benefiting Humanity, in the education category. Using the $50,000 grant underwritten by NASDAQ, we financed the research and development of the Lifeline. Freeplay Energy engineers produced several designs and each one was rigorously tested by children with low levels of exposure to technology in South Africa. Kristine returned to Rwanda with a working prototype for further focus group testing with adolescent girls and boys. The radio received high praise from the children and young adults. They loved the final design which could be wound in both directions and had a detachable solar panel.
In April 2003, exactly two years after Kristine wrote the concept paper for the Lifeline idea, 18-year-old Devotte Hafashimana became the world’s first Lifeline radio recipient. A shy Burundian living in the Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania, Devotte was one of 500 young listening group leaders who received Lifelines as part of a Voice of America (VOA) youth communications project.
The response was overwhelming. VOA was so pleased with the Lifeline’s performance and impact that they funded 2,000 additional radios the following year. Partners throughout Africa, Europe and the United States started including Lifeline radios in their humanitarian projects.
The Freeplay Foundation Today
Five years later, more than 160,000 Lifeline radios have been distributed, conservatively benefiting over six million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Lifeline radios have been integrated into dozens of radio communications projects across the continent. After the tragic tsunami in 2004, we provided Lifelines to Banda Aceh, Indonesia. We have distributed over 11,000 radios to child-headed households in Rwanda, and Rwandan coffee farmers listen to agricultural programming in our Coffee Lifeline project. More than 11,000 Lifelines are in place to enable multiple classrooms of children in Zambia to learn formal school curricula through the Learning at Taonga Market initiative, which is led by the innovative Education Development Center in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.
We continue to grow and explore other energy solutions. The Weza, a foot-powered generator developed by Freeplay Energy, charges a range of low energy devices. In 2007, we piloted income generation projects in Rwanda and Zambia. Leading an innovative private-public alliance that included eight international and local partners, we selected and trained Weza ‘Pioneers’ to establish self-financing Weza micro-enterprises. These entrepreneurs provided fee-based energy services, including phone and LED light charging and rental. We will use this successful experience as a launching platform for our lighting efforts in Africa.
Renewable Lighting - Lighting for Life
With the exception of North African countries, South Africa and major cities, the majority – the poor – live in darkness. More than 85% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa lives without modern energy.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, hazardous fuel-based lighting (kerosene, candles and firewood) uses more than 15% of already meagre household incomes. Fuel-based lighting is polluting, creates debilitating respiratory problems and causes widespread fires, resulting in the loss of life, severe burns and loss of property.
Millions of children across sub-Saharan Africa are trying to study to the weak flames of candles. In South Africa alone, as many as 4,000 children die each year from drinking kerosene (paraffin).Burns from fires are the second leading cause of accidental death of children under five. It is estimated that as many as 45,000 shacks each year in South Africa alone catch fire – destroying lives, homes, and precious possessions.
To address the need and demand for off-grid, portable, safe, clean energy sources, the Freeplay Foundation has expanded into the renewable lighting sector. We undertook a series of lighting-needs assessments of vulnerable households which included child and granny headed and those where someone was ill. Conducted in rural and peri-urban areas of South Africa, we wanted to understand what types of fuel-based lighting they used, what they were being used for and how much they spent. With the assessment results, we are again working with Freeplay Energy’s engineers to create a range of fit-for-purpose clean energy lights and lanterns, called Lifelights. Like the Lifeline radio, they will be charged by either solar energy or by Freeplay’s patented wind-up technology, which is more than twice as efficient as other wind-up mechanisms.
Lifelights use light emitting diodes, more commonly known as LEDs, which are small, bright, highly fuel efficient, last for thousands of hours and are relatively non-toxic compared to fluorescent lighting. We recently completed field trials ofLifelights prototypes in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa near the Swaziland frontier.
The lights can be safely used for studying, grading papers, home-based micro-enterprises, night time sales, night births, other medical emergencies and increased security. To ensure Lifelights are sustainable and contribute to economic empowerment, we will seek market-based channels to distribute Lifelights with an emphasis on the participation of women, women’s groups and people who have been burned in fires.