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Peddling Up Power in the Developing World

Fenix International looks to spark a new small-scale power infrastructure in the developing world.

The problem is not just that there are roughly 500 million cell phone subscribers in the developing world who do not have easy access to a power grid*. One solution to this conundrum – using a car battery to juice up phones – creates its own problems. The lead acid inside the batteries can leak and burn users. Plus, users often must lug the battery a long way, into town, to recharge them.

A San Francisco-based company called Fenix International is rising (har!) to the occasion by producing a safe, rechargeable battery system, called ReadySet, designed for charging phones (or other small electronics or lights) in off-grid parts of the world.

photo of a young woman holding a telephone tethered to a small device

ReadySet consists of a ruggedized battery with two car adapter ports and two USB ports. It's also significantly more portable than a car battery, weighing in at about 7 pounds. Currently, it operates on either pedal or sun power (it can be sold with a 100-watt kinetic generator, designed into a bike trainer, or a portable 15-watt solar panel) or it can plug directly into grid power. But micro-wind and micro-hydro adapters are in the works.

Fenix is looking to partner with the telecommunications companies that serve Sub-Saharan Africa – and is in discussion with a number of these companies – to develop a distribution model. Currently, most subscribers in rural East Africa, if they lack any means of powering their phones inside their homes, bring their devices to shopkeepers (who also, generally, sell cell phone minutes, as subscribers pay on a debit system rather than through contracts). Today, these shopkeepers might use car batteries or, if available, a grid connection to charge the phones. Subscribers might pay roughly 25 cents per charge, says Luke Filose, Fenix's vice president of business development.

Fenix hopes to tap into their shopkeepers in order to get the ReadySet devices into use. ReadySet batteries have longer useful lives than car batteries and would provide a wider range of energy generation to these small businesses. It hopes to sell them for $100-$150 to telecoms (depending on the charging system), and expects the telecoms would resell them for roughly $200 to shopkeepers.

That's a pretty penny for most of these entrepreneurs, but Filose notes that they could generate about $75 each month through charging services, allowing a reasonable return on investment. Plus, Fenix is looking at microfinance as a possible means for getting more chargers into the field.

But what would entice a shopkeeper to lay out cash for a ReadySet when car batteries are cheap and ubiquitous? The battery in the ReadySet is lead acid (though it's sealed for safety) so the basic technology is the same. The difference, says Filose, is that car batteries deteriorate faster and often don't provide a full charge for phones. And then, of course, there are the wider options for re-charging the ReadySets, compared to car batteries. Plus, the USB ports widen the usefulness of the ReadySet beyond charging phones.

Will that be enough to give ReadySet a foothold? We shall see. If it does take off, there will be yet another stream of devices entering the e-waste stream in Africa and whatever other countries Fenix taps. But Filose says the telecoms will have the end-of-life issues covered.

"We expect the ReadySet's battery to last between two and three years," says Filose. "Our telecom customers have extensive repair networks for handsets and pay phones, and users will be encouraged to have their battery replaced at a service center so that the original battery is recycled."

*That figure is from the cell phone industry group GSMA, and is from 2009.

Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mary Catherine O’Connor writes about the environment, adventure sports, and technology. www.mcoconnor.com

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