A man in Bududa Village, Uganda sits atop a bicycle on which is mounted a mobile charging unit developed by the BuffaloGrid Project that can charge a cellphone via text message. (Source: The BuffaloGrid Project)
Thanks for comment, Rick. How is the project going? I don't think we've had the opportunity to speak yet and I would love an update. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know any news so we can connect. Thanks!
You have posted a lot of interesting comments here. Here are some breif answers to each of them.
"The problem is infrastructure, corruption in the government, desperation. There is no hope, for now."
Here's hope: Mobile phones have changed the lives of people in rural developing world countries, deispite the probems of corruption and infrastructure. BuffaloGrid's phone charging service has been designed to mimic that success, by providing power as a service, just as mobile phone companies provide networks as a service. BuffaloGrid does it cashlessly too, to reduce corruption.
"On a similar subject - I feel a lot of non-profits are secretly for profit."
BuffaloGrid is a for-profit company. Mobile phones reached into the furthest regions of the developing world using a commercial model, and we think that getting power there also needs money. Rural people are already spending that money to charge their phones, but they are spending it on inconveneint, polluting diesel generators. BuffaloGrid tries to offer a more convenient alternative.
"I wanted to make a bike-generator for 3rd world use. It was based on a generator I made for another project. However, the harsh environment of those places, the bumpy roads, often destroys such devices. Perhaps that is why they didn't go that route?"
Rugged terrain is one reason, but the main reason is that a solar panel costs about the same as a bike generator. When the world's strongest sun is beating down on you, would you rather be furiously pedalling or sitting in the shade of your solar panel? Local people let us know which they prefer pretty quickly.
The power gets from the box to the phone via USB cables, that have charge ends for most phone types.
The "Maximum Power Point Tracking" is a circuit that makes sure the solar panel is used efficiently - it can extract up to 50% more charge out of the panel. A good MPPT costs quite a lot of money, so if you buy a small panel to charge your phone, it won't have an MPPT. so it will usually operate quite inefficiently and need to be about twice as large.
Your first comment almost answers itself: if the idea of a hand-cranked charger is so obvious, why does nobody use them?
When you add up the watts generated, it turns out that a LOT of hand cranking is needed (about half an hour a day), and the products you might buy locally to perform hand-cranking would be low quality and break quickly. Why not simply buy a small solar panel instead? But of course locally available solar panels can also be low quality, so BuffaloGrid offers a different way, using good quality panels and selling power.
The SMS charging is more innovative than it looks. One problem many local charge vendors face is that they must give discounts to friends and family - and in a rural village almost everyone is a friend or relative. Vendors also face corruption and extortion. Most charge vendors we spoke to made very little money, despite selling some of the world's most expenisve electricity. Making payment via SMS means our system is cashless - no money changes hands and all charges are paid at a fair price.
It is true that cell phone reception is needed, but this is also true for the airtime top-ups that are sold at stores, and for bothering to own a phone at all. Signal coverage in most rural places is surprisngly complete, and if you need to travel to another village for signal, then charging your phone while you are there seems a reasonable thing to do.
It's always educational to see what other people understand from viewing your website. You've done a great job, considering the photo on this article is from one of our ealriest trials, when we tested using a bicycle.
BuffaloGrid has changed into a small box that sits in any local village shop (the kind you see everywhere selling airtime). Local people text the box to pay, then leave their phone to charge and go about their day.
It's still entrepreneurial and local, it's just more convenient to have one always in your village.
The people in our first trial (years ago) came to the same conclusion - "why pedal in the world's strongest sun, when a solar panel does all the work?". That's why we changed to solar power.
But you might also ask "if there is so much sun, why does < 1% of the power come from solar?"
It turns out to be a difficult problem: If a $5 panel breaks before it has paid itself back, then I give up on solar and tell everyone it's too fragile. So you might then ask "why don't you buy a $10 dollar panel that is better quality?" but there is often so much counterfeit that there is no brand you can trust.
BuffaloGrid side-steps this problem by selling power.
One SMS pays enough to charge a normal "candy bar" feature phone, which is what most rural people have. Smartphones have larger batteries, so more than one SMS is needed to fully charge those.
The power gets from the BuffaloGrid unit to the phone using a "USB to phone" adapter. These are available with a USB port on one end, and 8 different phone tips on the other end, which cover almost every phone type. You can see a picture of them in action here: http://buffalogrid.org/what/
There are a few "promotional" phones that have weird plugs, and for those we remove the battery and simply use a battery clip, that charges the battery directly.
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