There are a number of inventive ways clever people are devising to bring energy and electricity to places where it's limited, and this is yet another one. It's refreshing to see great minds harnessing technology in this way. Does anyone know of any others that bear mentioning or coverage?
Hi Rick, I can assure you that BuffaloGrid is not a hoax. We are a registered UK company, and we recently were awarded second place in Virgin Media's "3 new things" competition (http://www.vmb3newthings.co.uk/) and selected as one of Britain's 10 most innovative businesses (http://www.smarta.com/smarta100)
The photo used on this article is very old - from our very first trial, before we changed from bicycle power to solar power. I think it was taken in a township 50km from Mbale in Uganda. If you would like to see more recent photos, please head to www.buffalogrid.org and take a look at the photos in the "what" section
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 email@example.com and let me know any news so we can connect. Thanks!
Thats really great with all these technologies we can see that how creative and intelligent people we have . And the most interesting thing that i found was the business that the people have started with this technology . Secondly i want to know if this technology is used to charge mobile phones only or it can charge any other chargable device as well.
Thanks Elizebeth and yes if this technology expands in future for other devices it will definitely make a difference and will make things very easy and accessable to people who are deprived of electricity and living in small villages and towns .
I couldn't agree with you more Debera. I think I will follow up on how this project is doing to see if what its founders hoped to achieve is panning out. If I find out anything I will post it here. Thanks again for your comments.
Hi Elizabeth, we would love to update you with our progress. BuffaloGrid has grown up a lot since those early trials, and supplies power in a way that is quite different from anyone else: power as a service. Rather than sell a power generating product, BuffaloGrid sells power.
Selling power overcomes the problem that people who make solar panels face: that solar panels can always be made cheaper, by reducing quality. Low-quality panels break quickly, and solar gets a bad reputation, so few people risk buying solar panels.
We would love the chance to explain all this better - I'm aware that our website could do a better job of describing how it works.
You can follow BuffaloGrid on the Twitter hashtag #buffalogrid to keep track of what is going on.
@Debera: Yes technology can do wonders to anyone who is willing to take the extra mile and try it out. Even things get a bit tough you should not stop it. Technology is something which has been made to make things easier so obviously it will make things easier for everyone once you get used to it.
Yes saji you are right that technology is just moving on and on and the time is not far away when we will be living in the fully techno world no doubt still we are living in it but this has to go far way ahead in future.
Hi Debora, thanks very much. As you said, we found that many rural people rely on their mobile phones for work, getting healthcare and banking. In rural areas, a mobile phone is much more critical than in urban areas, because it is often the only way to communicate outside a village. The UN has declared mobile phones to be the biggest economic factor for rural developing-world people.
The need to travel for miles to charge a phone, and wait hours for it to charge, makes mobile phones less useful. If charging a phone takes half a day, and it needs to be done twice a week, then a day each week is wasted. Consider also that most rural phones are charged at expensive diesel generators, which produce some of the world's most expensive power (for comparison, the cost of charging a phone for three weeks in Uganda is the same as charging for a whole year in the UK)
At the moment, BufaloGrid can be used to charge phones and lights. We know many poeple would also love to power sewing machines and televisions, and maybe we will look at them in the future, but today there are 500 million people with mobile phones and no power to charge them, so there is plenty to do.
Elizabeth, mobile device charging via text SMS is a good option. But for a full battery charge how many SMS will required, moreover in most of the countries SMS are also chargeable. Whats the mode of contact between these type of charging point and devices & whether it economical.
I'll have to get back to you guys on this, TJ. I didn't get a chance to talk to the founder of the project for the story. He did contact me a week or so later, so I can follow up and get a more detailed description. Stay tuned.
I will, TJ. I have to say, I didn't expect such a lively discussion about this. And people have brought up a lot of points I didn't even think about myself, as they always do (because our readers are a class act!). I definitely am curious to fill in the blanks myself now.
I was going to ask the same questions, which arose since no place in the article did it mention how the power gets to the phone from the charging box. One very big question is how did they avoid the problem of so many different connectors to the phones? I have a stack of 15 old phones using 15 different charging connectors. Of course they are from the era when phone makers wanted to force folks to purchase their vastly overpriced charging cables. That is one area that would have been far better if the government had mandated one single connector type and polarity for each of the three basic charging voltages, and not allowed any exceptions. Now USB charging is sort of like that except for those connectors with the fifth pin and that secret resistor.
What is so very complex about a charging system for a phone? A small generator/ PM alternator and a simple control circuit would do the job and if the gears and bearings were plastic the retail price could be under $10 USD. Of course they would probably have a 1000% markup if they were to be sold elsewhere in the world. Gred does seem to work that way.
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.
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.
What's surprising to me is that the potential customers can afford to purchase a cell phone and service but apparently can't purchase a small solar panel to charge the phone themselves. I just checked eBay and a typical panel is about $5. The solar idea is great, I just don't understand why they need a guy to pedal it.
I think that cell phones are probably a little easier to get in some of these countries than solar panels, although I am not sure, tekochip. I imagine they also are on "pay as you go" services, not service plans. But as I said, I don't know for sure. I just would think it might be hard for someone to purchase a solar panel. I live in southwest Portugal and even here I would find it hard to get one; I'd have to go online and have it delivered. And the mail in Portugal is quite bad and sometimes I don't get packages or have trouble receiving deliveries, so I can't imagine what it might be like in a truly impoverished place.
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?
Good point, Cabe, that could be one reason the bike idea didn't fly (or ride, so to speak). But I would have to ask the project founders about that. It's true the conditions there could be difficult, as they are difficult even for cars. I have a friend working in Africa at the moment and one of the first things he noted was the treacherous state of the roads.
I spoke to a few non-profits in Africa about distribution. They essentially said, there are too many bikes there.
They also said that people just steal electricity off the suspended power-lines. They will even use barbed wire as their connection. They said I have to tackle that problem before they would use my generator. In other words, I have to teach the users what to do.
It has been a back burner project of mine ever since the talk.
That's interesting, Cabe. It sounds like a worthwhile project if you could educate people there and show them how to get power efficiently and more legally. It's a shame it's such a desperate situation that they need to steal power off the lines with barbed wire! It can't be safe, either. I think they need the device the German student created to harvest energy from devices and power lines (that spurred such heated debate among our readers!): http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=260486
When you need to take the stolen power to one's house a mile away... with no other choice, they will use the barbed wire. I would say using devices like the "bathook" for accessing strung lines is more safe, but where will they find a spool of 6 gauge wire (powerline gauge, USA).
The problem is infrastructure, corruption in the government, desperation. There is no hope, for now.
That's a shame, Cabe, but perhaps one day this idea will be workable because it sounds like a really good one. Although corruption historically is a problem in underdeveloped nations and doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon, unfortunately.
Yeah, it seems like a really difficult problem to solve with a lot of complicated issues around it, Cabe. A friend of mine just returned from a four-month stint working in Botswana and from what he says, so many things need changing and fixing, and it's very difficult to do things that we take for granted every day.
On a similar subject - I feel a lot of non-profits are secretly for profit. The people that work them often take a paycheck, or it is their only job. But their salary is part of the NP's overhead. Trips are too. And trips are expensive, as we all know.
I heard on NPR about a charity doing work over in South Africa. It seems to me that they spent a lot of time "traveling around, seeing the country to get a feel for the people's plights." During the trip, he had to eat and sleep places, all on the charity's dime. I think he just wanted to travel. To me, it sounded like a fraud. Especially since nothing came of it.
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Cabe, that story about that charity in South Africa sounds alarming but not surprising. I imagine there are a few "charities" or "nonprofits" that take advantage in a similar way, which is a shame but unfortunately sometimes people aren't always doing the right thing. As for my friend, he was there for work--a friend of his set him up with a job overseeing construction of safari camps. He only stayed three months because the work was grueling and it was quite difficult, and he is in his mid 50s and didn't want to put himself through that kind of labor.
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.
Good point. In the photo, the orange structure attached to the rear of the bike appears to be a stand that can be rotated under the rear tire to lift it off the ground. In fact, such a stand is typically used for transforming a bike into a stationary exercise bike (not likely!) or a generator.
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.
The opportunity already exists for an entrepeneur to but a generator (be it hand, solar, pedal) and charge people to use it. The only innovation I see here is to give the cell phone companies a cut by requiring SMS payment. One way of attracting investment for your idea I suppose, but surely better to keep the cash in the local economy? Also, cell phone reception is needed before charging can begin.
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.
Thank you Elizabeth and all the other people who have posted here. My name is Damon and I work for BuffaloGrid. I wish I had found these great comments sooner. I will go through the comments here to try and answer your questions - apologies that some have been left unanswered for so long.
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