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Posted on March 15, 2013

Charging mobile phones via a text message

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In recent years mobile phone communication has been a major contributor to economic growth in developing countries but its spread has been hindered by limited charging options for the 650 million off-grid mobile phone users who have network access.
Many millions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid are expected to acquire mobile phones, greatly benefiting their lives, business activities and access to information. However, most of these new subscribers will not have direct access to electricity.
To tackle this problem the Buffalo Project has created a unit which consists of a portable micro generator which has been developed to provide a new service: on-demand mobile electricity. Mobile phones are charged via a solar-powered cellphone charging station which can only be activated through a text message. A customer sends a text messag to the device, once the message is received an LED socket on the battery lights up, indicating that it is ready to charge a phone. At the Konokoyi coffee cooperative in Uganda, each text message allows a phone to be charged for 1.5 hours. A fully charged Buffalo Grid unit can last for three days, has up to 10 charging points and charges 30 to 50 phones a day.
This innovation will fill the gap between existing single-charge solar units and more costly mini power station schemes in developing countries. Creating employment while producing electricity, this is an opportunity to make a major social and economic impact through mutually beneficial commerce.
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Mobile phone usage is a major contributor to economic growth in Africa. Having an operational phone means access to services such as m-banking, water point mapping, and many other successful mobile services that have improved banking, health and farming in Africa.
In addition to this, Buffalo provides environmental benefits through supplying zero CO2 power which translates into increased access to safe lighting, reducing respiratory complaints and indirectly tackles other problems such as the one created by kerosene lamps that claim the lives of 1.5 million people each year, over half of which are under the age of five. Having safe lighting also means that people can be more productive through the dark hours, allowing children to study for longer.
In Spring 2011, the Buffalo research team spent two weeks in Uganda testing early prototypes of the Buffalo charging station. This was followed by a further two weeks of research in Ghana.
In Uganda only 4% of its territory is covered by grid electricity and even in those places with access to the grid people have generators, as this grid power is quite unreliable. There is a large mobile phone penetration across the whole economic pyramid and many people have more than one phone, swapping from sim card to sim card according to their needs. People with really low income, living from the land in remote villages would rely on their phones to sell their crops and in more personal ways, people would give each other "miscalls" as a way of saying "Hi, thinking of you".
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Uganda suffers from serious unemployment and local newspaper "The Monitor" claims that for every 400 000 youngsters at working age, there are only 8 000 jobs available. Uganda represented the perfect environment for the Buffalo Unit to start to make a difference. The unit is not only a source of power, it is a source of income and employment to the small entrepreneur.
Ghana, like many other parts of Africa has been changed by mobile phones. Millions of mobile phones and billions of airtime minutes are just the start of the African tech revolution. Mobile phones are transitioning the cash based economy of these nations to a m-banking economy and are offering new health services and farming services. Mobile phones are improving life in Africa at many levels.
But the same problem remains; electricity supply is the biggest infrastructure challenge in Ghana and while mobile phone penetration is increasing by the day the electrical infrastructure is delayed by decades.
The initial trials demonstrated huge demand for Buffalo's solution. They also provided very valuable market research and insight.
Source and top image: Buffalo Grid