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Radio is a lifeline for many people in poor countries, who may have little other contact with the world outside their village.

But many of the two billion people worldwide who do not have access to grid electricity are faced with a difficult choice: whether or not to spend the equivalent of up to three days’ food on batteries for their radio.

In the mid-1990s, the problem of cheap power for radios appeared to have been solved. The wind-up or ‘clockwork’ radio — originally developed by British inventor Trevor Baylis — was widely touted as the best way to power radios in the world’s poorest countries.

But some critics say it is too expensive, and are looking at different approaches — such as solar power — to give poor people access to the airwaves. In particular, one UK-based company argues that it can convert battery-run radios to solar power for a fraction of the cost of a wind-up radio.

The wind-up radio is powered by an internal clockwork generator. When the spring is fully wound, this will power the radio for about 40 minutes. Some models have a solar panel for sunny days, and electronics that automatically switch between solar and wind-up energy. Other models also have a dynamo that charges rechargeable batteries.

But despite a burst of publicity over a possible ‘wind-up revolution’ in the developing world, the wind-up radio has only gone so far in addressing the wide-scale problem of powering radios for the poor.

One obstacle is that the initial cost of wind-ups radio is quite high, even though they are far cheaper to maintain than battery-run radios in the long term. The cheapest model costs around US$60 — far out of the range of the world’s poorest.

“They set out to reach a lot of people, but most of their market is in the United States and Europe,” says Ray Holland of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), an international non-governmental organisation that promotes the use of technology as a practical answer to poverty. “You can buy a lot of batteries for the cost of a wind up. For many people it is too expensive.”

Baylis argues that the people who benefit most from wind-up radios are indeed the poorest of the poor, who can’t even afford standard radios. Aid agencies are given special rates and can buy the radios for as little as US$30 each, before giving them away to poor communities.

“We provide a full pack of technology — and we provide it at zero cost to the people that receive it,” he says.

For those who don’t receive the handouts, however, the cost of a wind-up radio is just too high, says Andrew Kromah who runs KISS-FM, the only independent radio station in the provinces of Sierra Leone.

"They cannot afford to buy (them) and continue to buy batteries. Ironically, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) have being issuing very expensive so-called wind-up radios. I see this as a waste since the cost of one of those radios could have bought over 40 radios that could be powered by solar panels.”

He adds: “People need information to be empowered. But they need power to keep them playing their radios.”

According to Kromah, the future of powering radios in much of Africa lies in cheap solar power, rather than in wind-up or battery-powered radios.

He is enthusiastic about the potential of one technique — developed by another British inventor, Graham Knight — to convert battery-run radios to solar power.

Knight’s company, called BioDesign, supplies the raw materials that are then used for the local assembly of ‘DIY’ solar systems in developing countries.

“We have people in African countries who have been arranging the local assembly of our solar panels and, even including transport from the United Kingdom, they often find it is possible to power a 6-volt radio for under US$2,” says Knight. This is equivalent to a two-month supply of batteries for many people, meaning that the initial investment can be quickly recouped.

BioDesign keeps prices low by using off-cuts from commercial solar panels produced by a factory in the United Kingdom. And costs are cut further by dispensing with jazzy packaging and frames. The end result looks relatively simple — silicon-based solar plates mounted on plywood, with leads connected to battery terminals using crocodile clips — but it works, and it’s cheap.

“Our aim is to make the panels simple and affordable, and not try to compete with smart commercial versions,” Knight says.

Baylis argues there is one big disadvantage to solar-powered radios. “At the end of the day, you’re better off with clockwork than solar power, because with solar power you have to use batteries or you can’t use it at night.”

BioDesign says that it is addressing this problem by supplying rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries for US$3. These can be charged during the day, allowing people to listen to the radio at night.

While BioDesign has received substantial interest from individuals in developing countries, Knight admits that so far there has been disappointingly little take up. He says this is partly because many non-governmental organisations are “more interested in handing out goodies than helping poor people to start their own businesses”.

Plans are in progress to ‘spread the word’ about BioDesign by training entrepreneurs to assemble the kits and sell them on. “We need to get solar off the shelves and into the marketplace,” says Leo Blyth, who has run workshops in Kenya to train local people to assemble and sell the solar panels.

For example, children at the Nyumbani AIDS orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, are starting to assemble the solar kits to power a variety of appliances.

“We’re assembling them at the moment to power radios, torches and mechanical toys, but hopefully we’ll be able to get into manufacturing them for income generation,” says the orphanage’s head Angelo D’Agostino. “We believe there will be a big market for them in Kenya.”

And a community radio station in Haiti is offering to convert radios to solar power for a minimal fee in order to raise money for the station and increase its number of listeners.

This is one example of “people experimenting with small-scale projects,” says Ray Holland from ITDG. “They may not be the best solution technically, but people can afford them, and that is the most important thing.”

He adds: “The impact of small-scale commercial projects will be limited. … But all these different initiatives are great because people will learn what works and what doesn’t, and what people can afford and what they can’t.”

© SciDev.Net 2002

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Photo credits: Leo Blyth (top), BioDesign (bottom)