Saturday, August 18, 2012

Solar Charger Made for Africa Coming to the U.S.

It's not often that technology designed in the United States for people in developing countries comes back to the U.S. But that's exactly what's happening with an off-grid solar charger.
It won't run your refrigerator, but this solar panel with a battery
will charge small electronics and power a light during a blackout.

San Francisco-based startup Fenix International has raised enough money on Kickstarter to offer its ReadySet solar charging kit in the U.S. The $300 package includes a 15-watt solar panel about the size of a lunch tray, a battery with USB and car-charging ports, and an LED light. The company expects U.S. customers will use it to charge small electronics, such as tablets and cell phones, with solar power.

In Uganda, the ReadySet kit is being used mainly to charge cell phones. There are hundreds of millions of cell phones in developing countries, but the lack of reliable power makes charging them a challenge.

With the off-grid solar power, individuals can charge cell phones for others and collect a fee. The light bulb also provides light at night, replacing dangerous kerosene lamps. So far, about 2,000 of the kits have been distributed, and the company is getting ready to expand into Rwanda, said Fenix International's Mike Lin.

There have been many efforts led by humanitarian groups and non-governmental organizations to distribute solar chargers and lights, but Lin sought out a profit-driven business model for the company's product.

"We wanted to devise an evergreen, or sustainable, business model that didn't rely on a special subsidy or promotion. All too many well intentioned NGOs distribute water pumps or solar panels but they aren't around to support that initiative," he said.

Instead, Fenix International forged a deal with South Africa-based telecom MTN Group, which sells the ReadySet kit with its branding at cost through its distribution network. Fenix was able to convince MTN Group that providing access to power increased revenue per cell-phone user because subscribers can charge their phones more often. That increase in revenue has been born out in trials, Lin said. Cell phones are used for a wide variety of tasks in Uganda, including checking crop prices or mobile banking.

The Kickstarter campaign sprang from conversations with friends at home, who said they'd like to have a solar charger themselves. The 15-watt panel can be hung outside a window or on a deck to charge the lead acid battery which holds 54 watt-hours, or about as much as 10 full smart-phone charges. There's an indicator to show charge along with two USB ports and two 12-volt car charging ports.

As of today, the company has handily exceeded its funding goal, having raised $75,700, most of which are preorders for the kit which will be available in October. The Kickstarter campaign allowed the company to gauge demand for its product in the United States, Lin said, and help raise the company's public profile. There are a number of solar chargers for electronic gadgets, but having a battery makes charging much more convenient.

The funding campaign will also be used to build an API that will let outside hardware developers create connections to the ReadySet device. For example, a person could design an interface so that a fan or water pump ran off the battery and solar panel.

Fenix International hasn't shifted its primary focus from the developing world, though. It intends to raise about $10 million from institutional and angel investors to expand into other countries, Lin said.


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