Power in the palm of your hand - Freeplay to launch self-powered mobile charger in Africa

Top Story

In a continent where at best 20% of the continent has access to electricity, new forms of technology that require this kind of power can seem largely irrelevant. Battery technology has not advanced as fast as other areas of technology. Then along comes a cheap, hand-held device from Freeplay (the people who made the self-winding radios) that can be used to charge a mobile. Not only is it useful for those areas where there's coverage but it is also offers Africa's many street vendors another stream of income. Also coming soon from the same organisation is a foot-charger (used in marine contexts in the developed world) that can be used to charge less power-hungry laptops. Mapara Syed spoke to Freeplay about how these devices might be deployed.

Access to energy can be a serious obstacle for many mobile phone users who need to re-charge their phones when they find their battery is dead but have no means in doing so. This in turn is a major problem for mobile operators who are constantly losing revenue from the reduced call time. In light of this, Freeplay Energy, a company that specialises in self-sufficient products that gives freedom and independence from traditional power sources, has developed a solution that may help eliminate this dilemma.

The Freecharge Mobile Phone Charger has been developed to provide emergency power to mobile phones and allows the user to make and receive calls at any time – even with a flat battery. “GSM telephony is far more accessible across Africa than electricity is. This leads to many people possessing mobile phones but not having access to power to charge them when the battery dies,” says the product’s Business Development Manager, Phil Goodwin. “Consequently, we had heard of stories where people from villages in Kenya were sending their phones in packages to relatives in cities so they could charge their phones. All of this results in the Telco losing revenue. As many mobile phones are also communal where one phone will be shared amongst many in a single village, the operator is not just losing the valuable talktime of one person when the battery is dead but several. What you have to realise is that money is not the main limitation to talktime but the availability of energy. Therefore, we produced a portable device that enables the user to have access to meaningful power for their phone where ever they go.”

The Freecharge works by winding a lever that generates electricity, which then charges the phone once it is plugged in. According to Freeplay, the wind-up mechanism is the world’s most efficient human energy conversation system. “We originally launched the product in 2001 with Motorola as a strategic partnership,” explains Goodwin. “Back then we were retailing it as a cellphone accessory so the model didn’t quite work. This time around we re-launched with Freeplay last December and we are now offering the Freecharge as a bundled package through the service provider rather than as a retail accessory. This is mutually beneficial to the operator and the customer as access to power is access to talktime. ”

The Freeplay wind-up system is built around a custom designed, highly efficient alternator. The architecture of this patented system has been developed to maximise the ability of the user to convert human mechanical into stored electricity quickly and efficiently. The winder can be cranked in both directions and the harder you crank, so to speak, the more energy you create. A crank level LED indicates the optimum winding speed but the only limitation to how much energy is created and stored depends on the user.

What makes the Freecharge unique from the range of other Freeplay products is that the interface has been customised for charging cellphones, in specific, and maximising battery efficiency. “Conceivably the technology can provide power for a variety of different purposes but the offering has not developed in that way,” says Goodwin. “Because we are offering the product as a bundled opportunity with mobile carriers, the device needs to mimic the circuitry for battery management so this excludes other electrical devices from benefiting from the power generated.” The Freecharge is compatible with Motorola, Nokia or Siemens handsets and is customised to each specific phone through an interchangeable pod interface. This ensures that the charging protocols, specific to each phone, are replicated for efficient and effective charging and maximum talk time. Adaptor modules for other popular handsets are currently in development.

“There is an African version of the device and what we call a first world version. Both are ultimately the same and operate using the same principle of winding the lever to generate power, however, with the first world device there isn’t an issue of an insufficient power supply so you can charge the Freecharge using the phone’s own adaptor when there is no need to use the wind-up system,” says Goodwin. Using the AC/DC facility the Freecharge acts like a spare battery to the phone, allowing one full discharge into the phone before ever needing to wind it up. “As a device the Freecharge is not available in Africa at the moment as it has not been placed yet. We are currently in talks with some mobile operators so it is imminent,” disclosed Goodwin.

Another Freeplay product that will also be introduced to the African market is the Freecharge Marine Portable Power Pack, which is a footcharger energy pack. This has variable applications from charging laptops to medical products and is more powerful than the mobile charger, producing 25W comfortably and 40W at best compared to the handcharger’s 8W when pushed. “This has not yet been manufactured but we are hoping to launch it in Africa in September,” says Goodwin. “Unlike the mobile charger, which is an individual orientated product, the footcharger will be primarily designed to provide power for community based systems like humanitarian projects or commercial projects to encourage entrepreneurship. With the latter case, somebody may decide to purchase the footcharger and charge others to use it to make money.”

Goodwin is keen to emphasis that the Freecharge range is not designed to compete with solar power systems. “Both solar power and Freecharge power have their benefits,” he says. “Freecharge power doesn’t rely on anything external and the products in the range are all portable. The power density is also greater. Once you start winding or pedalling the power is immediately available in real-time, which isn’t the case with solar power systems. Nevertheless, even though solar infrastructure is a big investment, it does provide greater capacity.”