Solar mobile phone chargers for sub-Saharan Africa to launch next week


A suite of handheld solar phone chargers by U.S.-based World Panel, set to be unveiled next week at the AfricaCom industry conference, target a region where scarcity of electric power is a widespread problem.

The devices are designed to charge virtually any phone, tablet, or other electronic device that uses a USB cord as quickly as plugging it into the wall, without depending on electricity from the grid. With the company's "direct-from-the-sun" technology, the chargers, which can charge up to 10 phones per day, are built to endure the harshest environmental conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the region, the electricity supply is largely non-existent, and erratic where available. In most cases, users have to charge their phones at charging points powered mainly by generators.

"It would be a welcomed development," says a Freetown resident, Samuel Taylor, about the chargers. "On several occasions, we have to drop our phones at various charging points for few hours. In the course, we'll be deprived of using the phone. What if we have something urgent to attend to? But with these solar chargers, I believe one can use it at his or her own convenience."

Another phone user, Sidikie Turay, said: "Some of us have to leave our phones for charge overnight and there have been instances when such charging points were burgled and phones submitted for charge carted away. We were left with few options. "

According to World Panel, recent independent tests performed on the chargers show that the most popular phones in Africa charge in an hour, providing five to six hours of talk time.

"Consumers will like that they're small, can be thrown on your back (with our clear on-the-go included backpack), colorful, fast, durable and can be a money-maker if they choose to charge others' phones for a fee. Entrepreneurs will like that they can pay for themselves within a month," says World Panel co-founder Cheryl Gordon.

The company targeted sub-Saharan Africa after CEO John Anderson visited Uganda in 2011, Gordon said. "Everyone told him, 'We want to charge our phones normally.' When he delved deeper, they explained that 'normal' was like a wall plug. He didn't quit the design process until the charger exceeded wall plug speeds on our testing meters."

However, potential users of the chargers may have problems getting their hands on them due to distribution and cost issues. Stringent trade barriers that exist in some African countries may slow down distribution of the devices and jack up the price of the chargers in some areas.

Gordon said telecom companies will set the retail price. "We envision that they will bundle the charger with airtime -- and maybe with phones to add new rural subscribers," she said. "We anticipate that the price will be less than one month of a subscriber's mobile budget."

"Research says that subscribers would like to convert their charging budget to airtime expenditures," Gordon said. Doing this will boost average revenue per user (ARPU), increase mobile money transactions and allow for more data services, she said.

"We've had early discussions with huge operators and it appears that they haven't been happy with the products they've reviewed thus far," Gordon noted. She added that the distribution of the products will be done through telecom providers.

World Panel plans to take orders at the AfricaCom show to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, but the products won't be available until early 2014.