|Traffic | Weather | Your account||Movies | Restaurants | Today's events|
Small generator gives power to Africans
MUSHERI CENTER, Rwanda — In this remote village of dirt-floor homes, recharging a cellphone has long meant bicycling 25 miles to the nearest town with power, or 4 miles to the closest charged-up car battery.
So the excitement was palpable when aid workers showed up with the first test model of what may be an energy revolution for Africa: the Weza, a foot-pedal power generator.
Originally created to give an emergency kick-start to stalled boat engines, the sleek little South African-designed machine, pumped with one foot, can charge a cellphone battery in five minutes or a car battery in half an hour.
The device's creators, who plan to distribute it across swaths of Africa far from the power grid, hope it will jump-start economic-development efforts as effectively as it does dead cellphones.
Residents of Musheri Center, fit but fatigued from bicycling long hours for power, saw the machine's advantages right away as it charged not only a batch of cellphones but also the car battery that runs the village hair salon's blaring stereo and pair of electric hair clippers.
"I was using two legs. Now I can use only one!" enthused Frank Rwagafirita, 35, a community leader, as he stomped away on the machine's foot pedal while perched on a listing chair. "It's more relaxing."
Rwanda, like most African nations, has a serious shortage of power.
Less than 5 percent of the country's 8.4 million people have access to electricity, and even in Kigali, the capital, power outages are a problem.
To power their radios, stereos and cellphones — now ubiquitous in Africa — most people turn to car batteries. But even those regularly need recharging, necessitating long trips to the nearest electrical outlet.
"You often find people walking from village to village with a car battery perched on their head, going to get it recharged," said John Hutchinson, a South African engineer who helped create the Weza.
"When people see the Weza in action they begin to brainstorm about what they could do," said Midi Berry, a senior development consultant for the Freeplay Foundation, a nonprofit group that started out distributing windup radios and now hopes to use the Weza to spur economic development.
The portable device, which sells in the U.S. for about $270, is the result of brainstorming on ways to create larger amounts of power than the hand-crank flashlights, radios and mobile phone chargers the Freeplay company now sells.
After experimenting with bicycle-powered generators and a kind of seesaw, engineers at the company eventually settled on a simple foot-pedal machine with an internal, rechargeable battery, designed for rough use in remote areas.
"Here in the First World, there's an aversion to using human energy. People say, 'I have to wind this thing for five minutes?' But in Africa, people say, 'I've got free power!' " Hutchinson said.
"I'm really happy with it," said Jean de la Croix Habiyambene, 40, a sorghum and corn farmer, as he stomped on the device's pedal, creating a whirring noise a bit like an electronic frog chirp.
"I wish I had one. If I was given one, I could get rich."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company