While we Americans plug an ever-increasing number of gadgets into the wall, about 1.5 billion people in the world, most in sub Saharan Africa and south Asia, live without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. It will take years, perhaps decades, to get electricity to all of them, so in the meantime a small London-based NGO called Lifeline Energy with big ambitions is rolling out new products called the Lifeplayer and Prime Radio.
Both operate off the grid. Powered by solar energy and/or a hand crank, the Lifeplayer is a multi-band radio, an MP3 player and a cell-phone charger that can be used to deliver information and education to the rural poor, farmers, teachers, government workers. Prime Radio is a simpler and less expensive radio, which is equipped with an LED flashlight as well. Both have powerful speakers and are designed for group listening.
Recently, I met with Kristine Pearson, the co-founder and CEO of Lifeline Energy, to talk about the group’s work, and especially its efforts to find support from global corporations.
Lifeline is working with specialty coffee growers and an Wisconsin-based importer named Peter Kettler to get the radios to coffee farmers in Rwanda, who get timely market information as well as programming about agricultural practices. It recently worked out a similar arrangement with the SC Johnson Co. to provide radios to pyrethrum farmers, also in Rwanda. SC Johnson has been working with U.S. AID to help farmers improve their methods of collecting, drying and shipping pyrethrum, a natural insecticide used in such SC Johnson products as Raid.
The idea is to get the radios into the villages, and then give women and children an opportunity to use them, Pearson told me. “Culturally, radio has been a man’s preserve,” she said. Now, she says, “there are literally millions of children in Africa getting a high quality basic education from radio…I think of the Lifeplayer as an iPod for development.”
An American who spent three months traveling in Africa back in 1986, Pearson moved to South Africa soon after; today she lives in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London. “I’m an African American,” she jokes. She started Lifeline Energy (formerly known as the Freeplay Foundation) in 1999. Since then, Lifeline has distributed more than 215,000 radios since then, reaching anywhere from 20 to 250 listeners per radio. The group is currently distributing Lifeline radios in Haiti.
Lifeline has made friends in Hollywood, notably Tom Hanks, who was the prime funder behind the research and development of the Lifeplayer and Lifelights, which are LED flashlights powered by solar energy or wind-up technology. Hanks has worked with the group since 2003, talking about its products on television, auctioning them on eBay and appearing in a YouTube video. The NGO has also received donations from foundations, Rotary clubs, the World Bank and individuals.
Even so, its current budget is less than $2 million a year, Pearson told me. The Prime radio costs about $38 out of the factory, before shipping, and the Lifeplayer costs about $80. They are given to recipients, not sold, but in exchange people have to commit to maintaining and managing the radio and participating in follow up surveys. “There are lots of strings attached,” Pearson said. “They’re just not financial.”
The challenge for Lifeline Energy is getting to scale. Donations are will always be scarce. Business-oriented projects like the ones with SC Johnson and the coffee growers, where the companies gain by getting radios out to farmers in their supply chain, stand a better chance of getting the radios into the hands of a lot more people who can use them.