Small generator aims to empower Africans

Monday, July 3, 2006

Excerpt: Originally created to give an emergency kick-start to stalled boat engines, the sleek little South African-designed machine, pumped with one foot, can charge a cell phone battery in five minutes or a car battery in 30. The device’s creators, who plan to distribute it across swaths of Africa far from the power grid, hope it will energize economic development efforts as effectively as it does dead cell phones.

Residents of Musheri Center, fit but fatigued from bicycling long hours for power, saw the machine’s advantages right away as it charged not only a batch of cell phones but also the car battery that runs the village hair salon’s blaring stereo and pair of electric hair clippers.

“When people see the Weza in action, they begin to brainstorm about what they could do,” said Midi Berry, a senior development consultant for the Freeplay Foundation, the humanitarian arm of the Weza’s manufacturer. The non-profit group started out distributing wind-up radios across Africa and now hopes to use the Weza to spur economic development.

Musheri Center, a women’s cooperative that owns a cell phone and sells calls to villagers, plans to acquire a Weza, using a microcredit loan provided through CARE, and charge community members a small fee to recharge their cell phones and car batteries.

“Many, many people are enthusiastic about this,” said Innocent Rutikanga, a Rwandan CARE official. More than 1,200 small cooperatives in Rwanda are interested in the machine, he said, and when the first commercial lot of the devices is shipped to Africa, starting in September, “we will request many Weza,” he said.

The portable device, which sells in the United States for about $270, is the result of brainstorming on ways to create larger amounts of power than the hand-crank flashlights, radios and mobile phone chargers the Freeplay company now sells.