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Lifeplayer: Solar-Powered Digital Radio in Rural Africa

  • Joe DeCapua

There isn’t much modern technology in many parts of rural Africa. But one thing those areas do have is abundant sunshine. The Lifeline Energy Company is using that age-old resource to power 21st century technology on the continent.

This week, the charitable organization launches the Lifeplayer, a solar-powered digital, mp3-enabled radio. The device costs between (US)$80 and $120, depending on features and memory capacity. The major funder of Lifeplayer is actor Tom Hanks.

“The Lifeplayer is the first of its kind, [an] mp3-enabled radio and it’s been designed and engineered specifically for the humanitarian sector,” says Lifeline Energy CEO Kristine Pearson.

Lifeplayer is an AM / FM radio and also has three shortwave radio bands. As for its audio storage capacity, Pearson says, “It’s capable of holding 64 gigabytes of content. That’s literally years’ worth of programming. It’s books, dictionaries, podcasts -- any kind of audio programming.”

Multiple audio sources

“There are several ways that you can add content. You can provide us with content, which is what some of our partner organizations are doing. Educational content. It can be loaded at the factory. Alternatively, there’s a slot in the front that takes a micro SD card and you can load content that comes across 3G networks from a mobile phone,” she says.

African child with Lifeplayer

African child with Lifeplayer

Audio can also be downloaded from the Internet onto a PC or laptop and then transferred to the Lifeplayer. The device cannot be directly linked to the Internet.

“On top of that,” says Pearson, “you can record radio programs. Radio programs are great, but if everybody isn’t there to listen to them you never get a chance to listen again.”

Classroom size audiences

The Lifeplayer is not designed for individual or family use. One reason is cost.

“This is really a tool to deliver education and community level content. So, it would be adopted by schools, by health clinics, by governments, who want to upscale their government workers,” she says.

The Lifeplayer has a sound system that Pearson says can be heard by an audience of 60 to 100 people. Additional speakers can be added.

Lifeline Energy, former known as Freeplay Foundation, teamed with the VOA in 2003 to launch a project using Lifeline radio. The goal was to help Burundian refugees in Tanzania. Pearson says it was “the first windup and solar powered radio for the humanitarian sector.”

Programming

Some groups plan to use the Lifeplayer for teacher training programs and primary school curriculums. Pearson says in Liberia it will be used to help rebuild the country’s palm oil sector.

“They’re interested in using the Lifeplayer to load it with agricultural content. But it would also have content about health, life skills, financial literacy,” she says.

“We believe that an investment in a tool of this nature that really can deliver education and information anytime, anywhere, has the potential to create real systemic social change.”

Pearson was named a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment in 2007. She currently serves on the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University.

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