The Summer Must-Have: Powering Up Africa

July 3, 2013 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

Is it just me, or has soccer suddenly started trending at World Cup Final levels on Twitter?  Okay, so actually, it is “SOCCKET” that has exploded over the social and mainstream media airways, but I guess that happens when the White House Press Corps captures the President of the United States playing with a portable generator masked as a soccer ball.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Yesterday, touring a Tanzanian power plant with President Jakaya Kikwete, President Obama stopped to, well, kick the SOCCKET.  “There is a mechanism inside,” said President Obama, “so that the kinetic energy, when you kick the ball, creates a battery.”  He then connected a cell phone to the ball and remarked, “So now you can power this.”

The skeptic in me couldn’t help but think, “sure you did,” but this was no dead ball.  In fact, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and new U.S Trade Representative Michael Froman couldn’t resist kicking it around – and charging it up – beforehand.  “We test drove it,” said Ambassador Froman, who previewed the trip at the USGLC’s Washington Conference just last week.

Harnessing Innovation

You don’t have to be an avid sports fan to understand how this innovation has the potential to make a big development impact.  As the world’s most popular sport, people start playing soccer at an early age in rich, poor, and even very poor countries.  Kick the SOCCKET around for about 30 minutes or so, and it can do more than charge your phone.

In fact, a revved up ball has enough juice to provide more than three hours of light, and for sub-Saharan Africa, more than any other place in the world, the ability to safely light your home is life-changing.  According to the World Bank, only 24 percent of the region’s population has access to electricity (as compared to “40 percent in other low income countries.”)  Meaning, less than 1 and 4 can turn the lights in their home.

The SOCCKET actually bounced onto the scene in 2011 when President Bill Clinton featured the “quite extraordinary” invention at a CGI University event.  The 20-something year old SOCCKET creators, Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman, were also honored with the MCC’s Next Generation Award (presented in partnership with the UN Foundation), which is all about commingling top international development leaders and government practitioners to exchange ideas.

SOCCKET isn’t the only player here.  Another innovation that harnesses the everyday activity of cooking to create electricity was featured at our Smart Power Expo last week.  Going by another all caps name, VOTO, was created by entrepreneur and Point Source Power CEO Craig Jacobson in his Alameda, CA factory. Described by USGLC Executive Director Liz Schrayer as something “I might use in my barbecue over Fourth of July,” the VOTO “actually has the ability to charge a phone merely by putting it into a fire pit” and light houses in East Africa.


“VOTO,” a cell phone charger powered by cookstoves

VOTO’s creator was also featured as a LAUNCH Innovator in 2011, which is a global initiative to identify and “accelerate solutions to meet urgent challenges facing our society.”  The coolest part of the VOTO, however, has to be the fact that LAUNCH is a public private initiative that partners the State Department, USAID, and NASA with the U.S. athletic gear giant NIKE.

In short, inventions like the VOTO and SOCCKET are examples of what can happen when you fuse American ingenuity and technological advancements with critical development needs and then leverage private sector, civil society, and government knowhow, network, and scale.

And they don’t just give me a newfound appreciation for light switches, but represent the first of many Smart Power Innovations to be featured as my Summer Must Haves.

So go on, throw around a beach ball and light up that grill for July 4th.  You never know, the next big development impact could be right there in front of you.

Missed the USGLC Conference? Check out the two-minute highlight reel