Transforming Lives In Kenya With Solar-Powered Backpacks.
A backpack that channels the energy of the sun into creating a brighter future for every child.
The Soular Backpack, a very early-stage social enterprise, seems to have it all: a product that potentially can help transform the lives of the people who buy it, provide employment for the community, incorporate a one-for-one model, and involve idealistic students on campuses as champions. And its founder hasn’t even graduated from college yet.
The backpack in question serves the usual function of carrying children’s books. But it also has a solar panel connected to a battery pack which can be charged by the sun during kids’ usually long walk to and from school. When they’re at home, the battery can be linked to an LED lamp.
The company recently ran an Indiegogo campaign which ended on 19th Jan and topped an impressive $50,000+ in donations.
The founder is Salima Visram, a student at McGill University in Montreal, who grew up near Kikambala , a poor village in Kenya, where 22,000 people live below the poverty line and lack electricity. Visram herself isn’t poor: Her family owns a nearby resort. But she started college determined to do something to address poverty. When she took a class in social entrepreneurship, she decided the best route was to start a social enterprise.
Doing something about the lack of electricity, she thought, could reap huge results. Households in many poor rural areas in Africa use kerosene, which is expensive and dangerous; 25% of monthly household income can be spent on the stuff, according to Visram. And 4,000 deaths occur daily as a result of kerosene-induced illness, according to the World Bank. A solar powered alternative would help kids study, while reducing household expenses and increasing health levels. Her initial ideas were using a pen or school uniforms, but she realized they weren’t the most efficient options.
Then came a eureka moment, when Visram thought of backpacks, something kids would carry almost every day and that could hold both a solar panel and battery. Specifically, the panel would be attached to the outside, with a wire connecting it to a battery pack in the bag that then could be linked up to an LED lamp at home. With three to four hours in the sun, the solar-powered battery would be able to power an LED lamp for up to eight hours.
In December, Visram visited Kikimbala to test out a prototype. With the proceeds of her crowdfunding campaign, she hopes to produce about 2,000 backpacks by May, to be distributed through the Kikambala Primary School, a government school in the village. For now the product is free. Eventually, however, she will charge something, though she still has to determine the price points. She plans to form partnerships with UNICEF, the UNHCR, and the Kenyan government to expand to many more schools in the country and throughout Africa.
Those aren’t Visram’s only plans. She wants to find a way for parents to set aside the money they would have spent on kerosene into a savings plan for secondary school education. Also, she aims to sell the backpacks in North America, using a one-for-one model whereby for every product someone buys, the company will provide a backpack and lamp to a child in need. In addition she envisions creating a hub in villages, where people will start micro businesses to sell the product. Plus she wants to assign campus ambassadors to champion the enterprise at their schools.
Of course, this is by far not the only social enterprise to use the power of the sun to provide lighting for places without electricity and Visram says she talked to many like-minded ventures while researching the product.
When she graduates in May, she plans to run the company full-time and base operations in North America and Kenya. I suggested she operate from her native country in January and February.
The above article by Anne Field first published on forbes.com Jan 17th, 2015.