Some astonishingly good inventions have seen the light of day with the help of crowd-funding options such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. My new favourite is called the GravityLight, punted as “a revolutionary new approach to storing energy and creating illumination”. Why is this good news for rural Africa? Because the GravityLight is designed to replace the ubiquitous paraffin lamp, with all its attendant horrors.
Introducing their concept to potential funders, the people behind the project – London-based designers Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves – sought to raise a modest $55 000 (about R500 000) to take it further. In the event, they collected an impressive R3,65 million in pledges, and they’re already working on a design that will be even cheaper to produce (the current model, selling for under R90, has no batteries and incurs zero running costs).
In essence, the GravityLight works by using a 9 kg weight (in the form of a bag filled with rocks or sand) to drive a series of step-down gears that power a dynamo, which in turn provides power for up to half an hour, depending on the chosen setting for the LED. Although the principle is ancient – consider grandfather clocks, for example – the application is decidedly new.
Here’s how the inventors motivated their Indiegogo appeal: “Following the initial inspiration of using gravity, and years of perspiration, we have refined the design and it is now ready for production. We need your help to fund the tooling, manufacture and distribution of at least 1 000 gravity powered lights. We will gift them to villagers in both Africa and India to use regularly.
“The follow-up research will tell us how well the lights met their needs, and enable us to refine the design for a more efficient MK 2 version. Once we have proved the design, we will be looking to link with NGOs and partners to distribute it as widely as possible. When mass-produced, the target cost for this light is less than $5.”
It’s a great initiative for a number of reasons. As Riddiford and Reeves point out, over 1,5 billion people have no reliable access to mains electricity. Instead, they rely on biomass fuels (mostly paraffin) for lighting once the sun goes down. “The World Bank estimates that, as a result, 780 million women and children inhale smoke which is equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes every day.
“The fumes also cause eye infections and cataracts, but burning paraffin is also more immediately dangerous: 2,5 million people a year, in India alone, suffer severe burns from overturned paraffin lamps” (the terrible cost to children in rural South Africa is well documented).