Thursday, February 27, 2014

How African Ingeniosity Can Sometimes Beat the Best Engineering School in the World

Dr. Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher in his influential book "Small is Beautiful" speaks about sustainable development and appropriate technology. Appropriate technology is generally recognized as encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled. 

I'd like to share such an appropriate technology that I recently found in a school in Kigali.

In my posting "OLPC: from MIT lab to the reality on the ground" I explained why the OLPC laptop was inappropriate for Africa. In particular, the OLPC short battery lifetime of 2.5 hours created a logistic nightmare in that school who had just received 907 OLPC laptops for their students. With only a few power plugs in the school, how could they possibly reload these laptops (907 of them!) every night? I was desperate but did not want to share my feeling with the school as I really think that these laptops could make a difference for these kids even if they may not be the best solution.

A few months later, at the OLPC booth at a conference in Kigali, I saw the OLPC solution to the problem developed by their MIT experts. They built a multi-battery charger capable of recharging 15 OLPC batteries at once. I was excited by that solution until they told me the price for it. I don't recall exactly how much it was, but I remember it was in the thousands of US dollars. I was not able to get an answer to my email to OLPC org to know the current price.

I found that charger at the National Library in Kigali. Here is a picture of it and how it works.

                                       OLPC multi-battery charger (capacity: 15 batteries)

                                First you need to remove the battery from the OLPC laptop

                                    Then you insert the battery in the multi-battery charger

When charged, you need to reinstall the battery back into the laptop.

Recently I went back to the same school I left desperate 18 months earlier. I was helping journalists from a french TV station working on a documentary about ICT in Rwanda. I invited them to come film young kids working with the OLPC laptops in that school. I was a bit apprehensive, hoping that they found a problem to the battery problem.

And here is the solution they designed: a cabinet that can host 60 OLPC laptops for recharging.

There is no need to remove the battery from the laptop. Instead you insert the laptop with its recharging cable in the shelve inside the cabinet where there is one power plug per shelve to connect the small charger.

This charging cabinet hasn't been tested yet, this is the first "prototype". But at first it offers some significant advantages.

Here is how the school had to handle the 907 laptops. After each class, they had to bring the laptops back into a secured storage room to prevent theft. As air can be very dusty during dry season, the laptops were stored into boxes to protect them from the dust. The chargers were stored separately. The transport from the storage room to the classroom and back was happening every day. Because of the battery charging logistic problem, the laptops' batteries were not recharged. Instead the school was using home made multi-power plugs and each laptop was connected to power for use by the students in the class. Just that installation of 50+ laptops to be connected before being used took 45 min when we visited the school last week.

The Rwandan made charging cabinet is designed for one classroom. In Rwanda you can have from 50 to 60 students per classroom. In the final design it will be secured with locks on the doors addressing the security problem. By storing the laptops into a closed cabinet, it will address the dust problem. The cabinet being in the class room, it will spare the transport of the laptops to the secured storage room, freeing that room for other purposes. The laptops will be stored in the charging cabinet at the end of the class, connected to the power plug in the cabinet and recharged over night, ready to be used again the next day. So there will be no need to install power for all laptops (45 min). Instead the students will just take the laptop from the cabinet in the classroom, without the power plug that will be left in the cabinet, and they will use the laptops from the recharged battery.

Last but not least the cost of one charging cabinet for 60 laptops in $147!!! and it provides work to a local artisan!

There could be few problems still to be solved, but these are not difficult to address. One could be the heat from the chargers in the cabinet. Small fans could be installed (local cost is around $10). Another one is that if the charger stay connected after the battery is fully recharged, it will still consume a little bit of electricity. One could use a power plug with a timer (estimated cost: $15) for the cabinet cutting of the power after the time needed for the recharge. This is an appropriate solution and all material required can be found in Rwanda and it can be build locally, meaning it can be repaired locally if needed.

When visiting the National Library to take pictures of the OLPC multi-battery charger, I was wondering why it was stored in a corner. They told me that they were missing a piece of equipment and that is was therefore not working for several months as they can't find that piece.

So make your choice: four OLPC multi-chargers (for 60 batteries) built by the best engineering school in the world in the US (to be shipped to Rwanda) for thousands of dollars or the locally made charging cabinet for $147?

If you choose the first solution, beware that its main material is aluminum a limited earth resource, its carbon footprint will be high as you will need to ship the equipment from the US to Rwanda in the middle of Africa, that it will cost you probably 10 times more, and that all that money will go back to a company in the US to pay a few people operating a production chain.

If you choose the second solution, its main material is wood a renewable earth resource, its carbon footprint will be minimal as it is locally produced, its cost will be affordable and it will generate a large number of jobs for its manual labor based production and that money stays in Rwanda and will impact hundreds of people's life through the workers salary supporting their families.

Rwanda currently has at least 210,000 OLPCs so there is a need for 3,500 of these charging cabinets. This can generate jobs for years.

That is what I call a sustainable and appropriate solution for Africa which I have been advocating for years in this blog.

Seeya later alligator...


Barrett Nash said...

Still does not solve the problem of how expensive it is to charge the laptops, but inspiring to see a self-driven locally developed ecosystem that is beginning to tackle the logistics challenges

Ceri Whatley said...

I wonder if you could tell me whether this school is allowing children to take their laptops home (since "Ownership" is one of OLPC's core principles?) I'm assuming not if the hope is for them to charge them at school every night? Interesting blog, thank you!