Science & Tech

Students looking to light African night

5 min read

Start nonprofit to bring appropriate technology to rural Africa

Some current and former Harvard students have joined forces in an effort to apply new technology to an old problem: how to light Africa’s rural areas far from modern power supplies.

The six members of Leboné Solutions — named after the word for “lightstick” in a South African tribal tongue — came together in Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering David Edwards’ class ES 147: “Idea Translation” in the fall of 2007. They are looking to use concepts developed by Harvard Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Peter Girguis, who has been working to harness the trickle of energy produced naturally by anaerobic microbes as they digest organic matter.

Girguis has designed microbial fuel cells that harness electricity through insertion of an electrode into a supply of organic material — a simple bucket of soil or a pit filled with garbage. The electrode harvests electrons that the microbes would otherwise give off into the surrounding material, creating a small energy supply.

In an early design, Girguis hooked the electrode up to a small circuit board that had outputs for a low-energy light bulb and for a cell phone charger, providing an important means of recharging devices that have become more and more popular even in poor, rural parts of the world.

“I think [microbial fuel cell technology is] very promising, but a bit young,” Girguis said. “I look at myself as a technology driver and look for a group like Leboné to bring knowledge of the local environment and how to distribute technology as a way to get it out in the market. Leboné really has their thumb on the pulse of the energy crisis in South Africa. They know what’s going on.”

Leboné plans to build off Girguis’ technology and expertise, adapting and refining the fuel cells for the specific African application, according to Leboné member Alexander Fabry, a Harvard senior. Hugo Van Vuuren, another Leboné member who graduated from Harvard College in 2007 and who works in the “Idea Translation” lab, said the group is working to improve its technology and lower its cost in the wake of field research last summer in Tanzania. The goal, Van Vuuren said, is to get the overall cost of the device to between $10 and $15, so it will be affordable to African markets, something he said wouldn’t happen until they begin large-scale production, hoped for in 2010. They plan to field test the device next year in Namibia.

Leboné won a $200,000 World Bank grant in May and is supported by the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. In addition to Van Vuuren and Fabry, Leboné is made up of Stephen Lwendo, a Harvard junior from Tanzania; David Sengeh, a Harvard junior from Sierra Leone; Zoe Vallabha, who graduated from Harvard College in 2007; and Aviva Presser, a doctoral student at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Microbial fuel cell technology is not new; it has been worked on for decades. What is new is the development of low-power light bulbs and the spread of cellular phones that need recharging into rural areas. Girguis said Leboné Solutions” strength is their understanding of the African marketplace, which would give them a leg up in creating appropriate technology.

While Leboné was created around the idea of marketing a cheap, usable microbial fuel cell, Van Vuuren said that isn’t the only way they’re trying to help rural Africans. Leboné is a social enterprise organization and seeks to use markets to improve people’s lives. Van Vuuren said they’re willing to promote the technology and products of other innovators if that proves the best way.

Leboné, he said, has three goals. The first is focused on the fuel cell and on efforts to create one that is practical for everyday use, is durable, and costs little enough to make it attractive to cash-constrained markets. The group’s second goal is to look for innovative applications of technology to help solve various problems plaguing the continent — from shortages of power to a shortage of mosquito nets, which have been shown to fight the spread of malaria. Their last aim is advocacy: to highlight the continent’s unserved needs. For lighting alone, Fabry said, the World Bank estimates there are 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with no access to electricity. The vast majority of those — 95 percent — are likely to remain without power for at least 25 years, he said.

That’s not to say, however, that people today do without light entirely. The current annual market for lighting in Africa is $38 billion, though much of that money goes for kerosene for lanterns, batteries, flashlights, candles, and other off-grid solutions. Fabry said he didn’t believe that the microbial fuel cells were a permanent solution to Africa’s power shortage, but rather something that could fill a pressing short-term need.

“This is potentially enormously powerful until people are connected to the grid,” Fabry said.

Edwards said Leboné isn’t the first organization to come out of the “Idea Translation” lab, but said it is a “wonderful example” of what he’s trying to accomplish: helping students take good ideas and push them out of the classroom.

Leboné’s founders got together in the lab in the fall of 2007. They contacted Girguis and got organized last spring and applied for the World Bank grant, and then, last summer, did their initial fieldwork.

“I think their approach is as important for the technology they have in mind as it is for the philosophy they are promulgating of empowering Africans to solve an African problem,” Edwards said. “The fact that the original members of the group, in my class, were mostly African clearly mattered.”