Two electrical engineering students at Nairobi University, 24 year old Jeremiah Murimi and 22 year old Pascal Katana, have developed an innovation to literally bring power to more people in Kenya. Using salvaged parts from old televisions and radios, the duo retrofitted the dynamo attached to all bikes sold in Kenya so that cyclists can charge their cell phones as they ride.
Of Kenya’s 38.5 million people, it is estimated that roughly 17.5 million own a cell phone. However, many Kenyans lack access to the necessary electrical infrastructure to charge their phones, forcing them to travel great distances and pay steep prices to juice up their phones at charging stations (around $2 a charge). This new device, which is small enough to fit in a pocket along with a mobile device, will sell for about $4.50, meaning that consumers will recover the purchase price by the third charge.
As a species, humans are living in an increasingly industrialized habitat—one crammed full of complex machines designed to perform often mundane tasks that we once accomplished with the twist of a wrist (electric can openers?) or ancient technology (plug in air fresheners?). In such an environment, it is easy to forget that our bodies can do more than consume.
The pendulum has swung, hopefully as far as it ever will, in the direction of high-tech solutions to low tech problems (keyless ignition in luxury cars?). There is a backlash of low-tech innovation, largely a product of more sustainable thinking and good design. This is not a coincidence. In design, less is more, so it makes sense that some of the most ingenious innovations arise out of scarcity and improving efficiency. A concept like CO2-free cell phone charging and transportation just makes sense. Yet in the US we dump fossil fuels into gigantic hunks of metal to get around, and plug cell phones into electrical grids powered by coal. I forget, why don’t we have more bike powered cell phone chargers in the US? Here’s a link to make your own.
I think we will continue to see great innovations toward sustainability out of people like Murimi and Katana, who face a sort of perfect storm for innovations that benefit people and the planet: scarce resources, a shoestring budget, and the desire to improve the lives of others. The real challenge is to get the attention of the right people with the financial ability to scale these technologies and truly bring them to the masses. And by the masses, I don’t just mean people in Kenya—I mean around the world.
What other high impact innovations can you think of that arose out of scarcity and shoe string budget?