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A Tougher, Greener Battery Could Power Phones in Africa
Credit: Adam Dworak (djhalo)

One of the problems facing developing countries is that people in rural communities tend to walk around with dead cell phones. That is because mobile devices are cheaper than ever, but power plants are still expensive. But as a work-around in off-the-grid communities, phone owners have learned to run charge cords off of used car batteries.

Now, Fenix International, a San Francisco-based design firm, may have a better solution for these communities: a new ruggedized battery and generator system called ReadySet. The device, its designers believe, could put more electricity in off-the-grid homes, create jobs, reduce indoor air pollution by replacing kerosene lanterns with LEDs, and eliminate car battery acid leaks. Plus, the telecom industry is hooked on it. Network carriers can make 10 to 14 percent more money from users who can keep their phones charged, and an estimated 500 million cell phone users worldwide live off the grid, according to a report from the mobile communications group GSMA.

“Building upon the existing culture was the inspiration for this solution,” said Michael Lin, founder of Fenix. “People in developing communities have a variety of needs, of course, but access to electricity is exciting in that it empowers people to improve their lives in a number of areas.”

Ready, set…

ReadySet is a plastic-encased brick optimized for charging phones and powering electronics. It has USB and cigar-lighter ports to serve the chargers most commonly found in East Africa, and it can recharge in a standard electrical outlet, a solar panel or on a mount for a stationary bicycle called a “Velo.”

The device needs no assembly. Under its cute case, ReadySet is a lead-acid battery, so it shares the same guts that a car battery has. The difference is that because it is programmed to shut off before it is fully drained,  this device retains its ability to charge for longer than a car battery does. It is also acid leak-resistant, unlike a car battery. Fenix's lab testers dropped the battery onto concrete from three feet above, sprayed it with salt water, blasted it UV rays, ran it through thousands of cycles — and it still stayed intact and leak free.

Will it sell?

Fenix is pilot-testing ReadySet in ten African markets. Retail sales should begin by June, and it may make its way to the developed world by the end of the year. The price for the kit should start at US $150, and the cost could fall if orders pick up.

That price, however, could be a sticking point for poor rural consumers, many of whom earn $2 to $4 per day. But in Lin's view, ReadySet could pay for itself by enabling business. In pilot tests, small business owners supplement their income by selling charges for $0.25 each. That is nothing new—people have paid for phone charges from car batteries for several years.

“We are working to distribute ReadySet with several large mobile phone network operators that have in excess of 100 million subscribers,” Lin said.