In a small shop about four feet by three feet, Sylvester Mwalo has plucked a power extension cable from the main socket on the wall. From the power extension cable, multiple other power adapters are fixed. There is a wooden shelf where the power sockets rest. Here you can see several phones charging, and if they are not phones, they are phone batteries being charged using universal chargers. Tiny blinking lights of different colors are seen from the universal chargers so Sylvester knows when a battery is fully charged and he can remove it and replace it with another battery.
At different time intervals, the owners come to collect their handsets or batteries, paying a small fee. These are clients from the rural settings who don’t have electricity in their houses. Some walk as far as three kilometers to access a center where they can charge their phones. The more the battery gets old, the more the owner will frequent the charging shop, because the battery charge can last for only two days.
Sylvester has taken this as his main income-generating activity now for three years since he left school. He uses the remaining space in his shop for cutting people’s hair. He has to raise money to pay rent for the shop, as well as pay the monthly electricity bill.
There are others like Sylvester who charge phone batteries using big car batteries or diesel powered engines, while others use solar panels. This has helped many rural residents to communicate with their families elsewhere, despite challenges like being off for some days in a week.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the need to travel to the center in order to charge the phone. Some use motorbikes or bicycles commonly known as bodabodas. Others will prefer walking the distance. However, now there seems to be a solution to this menace, as one Kenyan youth has invented a shoe that is able to charge a mobile phone. Anthony Mutua is an electrical engineer graduate of Mombasa Polytechnic University College, and for over two years has been developing a mobile phone charger which is placed in the shoe.
He developed a very tiny chip of crystals that is fitted under the sole of a shoe. When a person walks, the chip harvests the energy that is generated, enough to charge a phone. Mutua says the energy is harvested in two ways: “It charges the phone when the wearer is in motion through a thin extension cable that runs from the shoe to the pocket. The shoe can also charge the phone immediately after a walk since the crystals have the capacity to store electric energy.”
The chip can be inserted in the sole of any shoe, removed when the shoe wears out and then be placed in another shoe. There is also an option where the shoe can charge the phone immediately after a walk, a great advantage to people who may wish to do it for business, as several phones can be charged simultaneously using the stored energy.
In early 2013, a London-based site that gathers entrepreneurs' ideas rated Mutua’s technology as among the top ten in the world. In Kenya, the phone charging shoe technology is being ranked among existing inventions like the M-Pesa service, which enables people to send and receive money and pay bills through their mobiles, and Please Call Me, which allows a person with no credit on his or her phone to ask the other person to call.
It is just a matter of time before the shoe gets space in shops. Through his company, HATUA TECHNOLOGIES, the mass production phase has begun after Mutua secured partial funding from the Kenya National Council of Science and Technology. The 500,000 Kenya shillings ($6024), is a good boost to see that many people get the phone-charging shoe on their feet. His goal is to get $200,000 so that he can produce the shoes at an affordable cost. Currently a pair of the shoes costs 3,800 Kenya shillings ($46).
The product is already patented with the Kenya Industrial Property Institute, a body responsible for patenting and protecting intellectual property in Kenya. He is now developing a website that will promote the production and marketing of the product.
“We plan to start by building a community of passionate customers, and we plan to monetize our offering in the next phase,” says Mutua. He adds the shoe will have a lifespan of two years.
Mutua has exhibited his technology at several events, attracting overwhelming responses from industry leaders like Eric Schmidt, the Google Executive chairman, who said:
“As 5 billion come online, innovation will increasingly come from the margins, with entrepreneurs and inventors building for different audiences and incredibly specific problems. Consider 24-year-old Kenyan inventor Anthony Mutua, who has invented a chip that can charge phones with footsteps (a reminder of how problematic the lack of reliable and affordable electricity, and to a lesser extent short battery life, is for many people).”
With high hopes that the shoes will be available on the market at an affordable price, the money spent travelling to the nearest center to find a phone charging shop will be saved and used on other needs. People in the rural areas will be able to communicate with their relatives around the globe without fear of the battery running out.
This is a green energy technology that will help reduce carbon footprints from the diesel engines or car batteries that are used to charge the phones. Further still, it will open job opportunities for the young and old who would prefer wearing the shoes and later using them to charge other people's phones using the stored energy.
If the technology will be adopted by many people in Africa, life will be better as everyone embraces the use of information communication technology as a tool for development.
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