With a strong focus on sustainable development in Africa, Kristine Pearson, CEO of the Freeplay Foundation, recently shared her thoughts with us on the organization and its work around the world. A big thank you to Kristine for taking the time to share her thoughts with us...
1. Could you provide a brief overview of the Freeplay Foundation and your role within the organization?
Freeplay Foundation transforms lives by providing access to dependable and clean technologies. Our principal beneficiaries are orphans and other vulnerable children, women, refugees and people who are ill. Founded in 1998 in the UK, we are best known for the creation and distribution of the large, bright blue, solar-powered and wind-up Lifeline radio. Since the Lifeline’s launch in 2003, more than 200,000 radios have been distributed, reaching at least 10,000,000 million listeners, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Next year the Lifeline will be made MP3 enabled, allowing for radio programmes, 3G and audio Internet content to be played on demand without an external power source. This could revolutionize rural learning and content delivery.
In addition, we have moved into the lighting arena to provide clean renewable LED lights to replace toxic, dangerous kerosene and candles. Our new wind-up ‘Lifelights’ with a detachable solar panel are launching in 2009 in two projects - one is aimed at improving academic performance of rural school children in South Africa and the other will enable grassroots women’s political caucuses to meet at night and allow women to light their night time business activities .
Just like with a CEO who runs a commercial entity, my role is to lead the organisation, entrench the vision and values and to create strategy in collaboration with our three boards in the UK, USA and South Africa and ensure that that strategy is successfully implemented. However, probably more than most non-profit heads, I spend time in the field. I thoroughly enjoy working with our partners and beneficiaries and participating in distributions and witnessing firsthand the impact of the radios and the lights. The only way that we can develop products and approaches that serve our beneficiaries is to ask them what they want and need to improve the quality of their lives in terms of the technologies we use. I care passionately about the children made orphaned by disease or conflict and am constantly amazed and inspired by their courage, resilience and hopefulness.
2. What drove you to focus on "self-sufficient and environmentally friendly technologies" for communications and lighting as a bridge towards development?
In developing countries, radio remains the primary and most efficient means of communication. However, only 6% of rural areas have access to electricity and the high cost of batteries makes them unaffordable to the poor, especially women and children. Important educational, health-related and agricultural radio programmes often do not reach the groups they are meant to benefit. Lifeline radios solve the problem of access. With access to information, people seize economic opportunities and make more informed choices and decisions.
Moving into lighting was a natural next step. Having to be dependent on toxic and inefficient kerosene and candles is horrendous in every respect. Providing women and children access to reliable and safe lighting completely changes their world, as it brightens their homes. Instead of their lives and activities being defined by daylight hours, learners can study, teachers can grade papers, hawkers can sell their wares, people can walk safely at night and mothers can leave an LED burning instead of a candle through the night to keep an eye on their infants. Breathing kerosene is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes, in addition to burning the eyes. Fires are a serious problem with both of these fossil fuels. I’ve watched people using firewood for residual light, as well. Africa is a fragile continent and the environmental and climate change issues associated with both biomass and fossil fuels are very serious.
In the future we also plan to launch ‘Women Lighting-up Africa’ whereby women will be able to set up their own renewable lighting sales, rental and repair enterprises and receive business training. Lighting is the ‘next big thing’ in Africa and it is important that women can capitalise on the opportunity. Off-grid and portable lighting is still a cottage industry in Africa, but it’s progressing quickly.
3. With millions of people now having access to information, the success of the Freeplay Lifeline radio is without question, how about the organization's more recent move towards lighting with its clean-energy Lifelights and the Weza generator? Could you provide an update on the initiatives?
We have integrated lights into some of our smaller projects in South Africa, where we will be measuring increased academic performance. We are formally launching a pilot in South Africa shortly, which we believe will demonstrate a direct correlation between clean lighting and improved academic performance among children, especially adolescent girls. We think clean lighting will be a proven lever to better grades. We’re also launching a pilot project with Lifelights in Kenya in partnership with the Caucus for Women’s Leadership, where we will also be looking at the effects of safe lighting on increased empowerment and involvement in local governance for women, greater economic opportunities, increased home based micro-enterprises and improved night time sales, greater night time mobility and security, and other factors.
Our two pilot projects with the Weza foot-powered generator in Rwanda and Zambia have come to an end, but the feedback received from them has been excellent. The Weza Enterprise Model was successful in creating jobs and additional income. The enterprises were generating a small income per month through charging cell phones and ball lights, which demonstrated the Weza’s income generating potential and the financial sustainability of the projects. The Weza proved to be a viable product for electricity generation in rugged rural conditions and the enterprise model generated income, reduced poverty and enhanced the quality of life for people in Rwanda and Zambia. However, there were some technical issues with the Weza itself, which we are currently addressing. We’re also exploring other energy solutions before more energy/income generating projects can be launched.
4. With the success of your projects in Africa, what are some of the lessons you learned along the way in overcoming the challenges that organizations often face in Africa, such as bureaucratic red tape and the lack of infrastructure?
We work with a strong network of partner organisations on the ground and mainly we rely on our partners to deal with the red tape since they are in-country and we are not. Some countries are more efficient than others and many of our partners have bilateral agreements with the host nation. However, we had a dreadful experience with Kenyan customs, whereby 10,000 Lifeline radios destined for some of the poorest and most isolated Kenyans and rural schools were detained for 30 months. Perseverance and a change in personnel at the Treasury helped get them cleared and no money changed hands. It was the worst kind of the African bureaucracy stories that you hear about. In the end, thousands of dollars were wasted trying to release the radios from customs duty-free when those funds could have been used in training and capacity building. In the end we were successful. Rwanda, on the other hand, has an excellent and transparent system of importing goods for humanitarian use. But in any case, in nearly 11 years, Freeplay Foundation has never ever not delivered on a project, no matter the lack of infrastructure, bureaucratic snafus or perilous weather. We’re pretty proud of our track record!
5. What is the best way to support or get involved with the work of the Freeplay Foundation?
The easiest way to support the Foundation is by donating a Lifeline radio or a Lifelight online by visiting http://www.freeplayfoundation.org/donate.html A donation of any amount will help transform lives and help tackle energy poverty.
Or people can join our network of community fundraisers. Previous ideas have included an Annual Tom Hanks Day, fun runs, school events and auctions. We also have a wide range of office-based volunteer opportunities throughout the year, in addition to ongoing internships.
6. Any additional thoughts?
It is outrageous that energy poverty is not included as a Millennium Development Goal (MDG). Access to modern energy will help achieve every one of the eight MDGs.