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Impact Beyond Innovation: This backpack uses solar power so kids can study at night

Impact Beyond Innovation is an article series that features startups from Africa putting social good at the forefront of their business models.

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Large parts of Africa remain off the electricity grid, meaning people are forced to use alternative ways of generating energy. These alternatives, as necessary as they are, are not always safe. The most commonly used alternative form of light is kerosene, which is — according to the World Bank — the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

Growing up, Salima Visram witnessed this: kids walking long distances to school, knowing they were being exposed to the dangers of kerosene. To tackle this problem, she invented The Soular Backpack — a backpack that doubles up as a source of renewable energy.

Visram was born in Kikambala, a village of 22 000 people, just to the north of Mombasa, Kenya. But it was during her studies at McGill University in Montreal that the idea for the backpack came to her. Over a period of six months, she designed and put the potentially life-saving product together.

The backpack has a solar panel fitted on the back, with a storage battery that connects to an LED lamp, allowing children in places with no electricity the chance to study at night and not get exposed to the toxic fumes of kerosene.

To give you an idea of how practical this is, if a child were to walk in the sun for three to four hours, the battery will store enough power to keep an LED lamp on for eight hours.

The product’s obvious impact has resulted in pretty rapid success for the social enterprise and she has been catapulted into the spotlight as an entrepreneur to keep an eye on. Her invention has been written about widely. On the strength of the project, Visram went to attend the Global Social Business Summit in Mexico City — where she learned the ins and outs of shaping a social business.

Read more: Impact Beyond Innovation: How Lumkani’s fire detection system is saving lives

On the back of successfully shooting past its crowdfunding goal of US$40 000 on Indiegogo recently, Visram remains very confident about the product’s future. “I believe The Soular Backpack will give students a tool to empower themselves, and take charge of their own education, learning and hence, their futures,” she says. The money made from the campaign will be used to manufacture the first order of 2 000 backpacks.

It is worth noting that there have been similar ideas, including Little Sun and Nokero, which aimed to sort out the off-the-grid electricity problem.

Visram explains that the product is different because of its unique design principles:

When I was using human centered design to develop The Soular Backpack, I really wanted a solution that put the child at the center of their own learning and their own education, that gave them a tool to take charge of their own futures and that would get charged on their walks to school, again emphasising the idea of them being in charge of it.

Today, solar-focused projects in Africa are on fire. This is especially in East Africa where last year we saw two emerging giants M-Kopa from Kenya win US$1.5-million while pre-paid solar startup Off Grid Electric raised US$16-million.

These cash injections are hardly surprising as alternative ways of providing communities with power become increasingly necessary across the globe. Lighting Africa released a report in 2010 which states that, in Bangladesh, children from the newly solar-powered homes remained awake longer each day and used 38% of their additional time for studying and reading.

The same results were obtained in India, where a study on portable solar lighting found that the introduction of solar lighting raised the average study hours of students per household from between one and three hours, with a correlative effect on school performance.

In sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook, more than 620 million people in the region (two-thirds of the population) live without electricity, and nearly 730 million people rely on dangerous, inefficient forms of cooking.

The Soular Backpack is not going to eradicate this problem all on its own. And Visram is aware of that. It will however begin to chip away at a momentous problem by helping children study.

Each backpack costs US$20 to make and comes with the LED light. For parents living in a village, this price tag is simply not affordable. It is for this reason that Visram is looking at other ways such as subsidies to lessen the production costs.

The first batch of The Soular Backpacks will be distributed to the Kikambala Primary School, a government school in the village of Kikambala, Kenya. Visram plans to expand to other schools and villages within the next year and a half.

In May, Visram is graduating from McGill University when she plans to working full-time on The Soular Backpack initiative. She also hopes to form relationships with organisations so the project can spread beyond Kenya into other African countries. This in turn, she hopes, will further create more job opportunities.

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