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The FLAP Bag is a project that was initiated at PopTech, together with Portable Light and Timbuk2 (join the discussion on FLAP bags here)  The FLAP is a messenger bag, designed by Timbuk2, which incorporates a removable flexible solar panel made by Portable Light.  The solar panel can be left on the bag and charged on the go (i.e. while you walk around in the sun) or removed and laid out flat to absorb the sun.  Connected to the solar panel is a battery that feeds into a small light, useful for walking/riding a bike at night, and a mobile phone charger. Photo: FLAP bag.

For use at home when there is no power, the light can be hung up or set up to reflect off the silvery back side of the solar panel for increased reach of its brightness.  A day of charging gives 10 hours of light.  Phones can be plugged into the USB port on the battery.  The phone charger (I learned) is direct charge – i.e., it charges through the battery only while in the sun, not from the battery after sundown. Photo:  FLAP bag with reflective side showing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about taking the FLAP bag to Mozambique to see what people thought of it.

While there I also got a few reactions on video (3 mins long).


Note:  I didn’t embed the video here because you can’t watch it with subtitles if it’s embedded, so you’ll have to check it out via this link.  To turn on the captions/subtitles, click on the lower right hand triangle of the video player.  That will show you a “cc” box. Click on the “cc” box to turn it red, and that will turn on captions/subtitles.  To the left of the “cc” is another little triangle. Hover over it, and you’ll see the language options.  (And for something really cool – then check out how you can translate the captions! but that’s another topic…)

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After my month in Mozambique with the bag, and based on some conversations sparked by my last blog post, my thoughts are:

How the FLAP worked for me

I charged the panels up a few times in Mozambique and at first had trouble getting the light to turn on. I emailed Portable Light and they explained that you need to keep the button pressed down for a bit for the light to come on.  Bingo, it worked fine then.  We had a week of steady rain the 3rd week I was in Mozambique and the power was out in my room at the hotel.  I was able to use the light for 4 consecutive evenings for a couple of hours and the battery held the power even though I wasn’t recharging the panel during the day.  For some reason I wasn’t able to get my i-phone to charge, so need to figure out what’s going on there.  I didn’t realize at first that phone charging has to be done via direct sunlight, not stored power, so maybe that is the problem. Will keep trying.

Purpose.

It’s a great idea and meets real needs:  light and mobile phone charging. People love the idea. It turns heads and the bag is very nice.  Everyone wants one, as you could see from the video. I liked the poetic quote that the FLAP gives you power for the fundamentals: “a telephone to communicate and a lamp to illuminate.”

Openness to testing.

I love that the FLAP folks are open to feedback and adjustments to the idea to develop something that’s localized and works for different populations/situations.

USB port.

Most people in the rural communities where I tend to travel don’t own or have access to computers and their phones come with wall plugs, not USB cables. So I think the USB port needs some kind of adaptor.   I tested the few USB cables I was able to find, and they only transferred data, not electricity (they didn’t charge up while connected to either a computer or the FLAP battery).  This includes the fancy Nokia E63 that I use when I travel.  So either I’m missing something (highly possible!), or the bag needs to come with a cheap universal electricity/USB cable, or if the system is built locally, cables for the most popular phone types could be included or manufactured as an accessory.  There are also different ways that people charge locally that could be looked at (though these are probably imported, worth a look?), for example, the universal charger in the photo above, which I’ve also seen in Senegal. You can connect a camera or phone battery directly.  Perhaps an idea to think about.  Another option might be something like this universal charger that was announced in October 2009, though it may not be compatible with existing phones that people already own.

Cost at ‘BoP’.

The cost is currently too high for people at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP).  It probably needs to come down to $5-$10 for the solar panel/battery/light. Research on income, similar products (if available), current phone charging costs/costs for candles/other light sources, and perceived value would help to find realistic price point.  People don’t normally carry bags where I was, except for backpacks for school, made out of very inexpensive plastic/vinyl. Some ideas that people had on where to put a solar panel included: on school backpacks, curtains, cloths, parasols, clothing, foldable panels that can be taken out and set up at the market or while doing outside work during the day, or something to set in a back window or on top of a car. Photo: Common style of school backpacks in Mozambique.

‘Cost per beneficiary’/ROI at NGOs.

One person at a large global NGO read my recent blog post and got very excited about the possibility of children having light to study by at night.  When I revealed the cost, however, even at $50, the ‘cost per beneficiary’ that many NGOs adhere to due to internal rules or donor expectations was too high.  It would be interesting for FLAP to find/do/publish some research on the benefits of light in education, learning, future income, etc., or cost saving in other areas by having solar light. This could be combined with research on economic benefits of mobile phones and the costs for charging locally (eg., in Mozambique this is about 10 MTs/day or USD $0.40) to make the case for FLAP. (Maybe this is already being done).   I’m not sure if most NGOs currently include environmental benefits as a main factor when measuring ROI, but these kinds of numbers would be helpful to inform decisions.

‘MoP’ Uses.

The bag in its current form at a mid-range price (e.g. $30-45?) could be widely used at the “Middle of the Pyramid.”  NGOs already spend on camera batteries, bags, etc. for staff as part of normal operations, and if they were manufactured locally they could generate local business.  In the case of Plan (where I work), for example, staff take lots of photos for sponsorship and program operations.  Using rechargeable digital camera batteries and FLAP, savings over time could potentially offset the costs, and could be one concrete way to start reducing negative environmental impact.  So a good entry point for FLAP could be NGO workers, university students, government workers who spend time in communities and need to keep their phones or digital cameras charged up for mobile data gathering or collecting data, surveys, etc. in ‘the field.’  Another possible link would be with the Peace Corps or other large organizations that equip their volunteers or staff with essential gear before sending them to live/work in rural communities.

Note on who I was talking with:

In order to qualify things, I did a little unscientific research.  While everyone at our workshop was together in the same room, I read 6 statements, and asked them to raise their hands if the statement was true.  We had around 45 kids in the room, roughly 75% male/25% female, between the ages of 12 and 20, attending secondary school and living in communities within a 1 hour radius (by public transportation) from the school.  The school is located along a main road, put in 3 years ago, and the communities/commerce along the road are growing.  Also in the room were 10 adult teachers/local NGO partners/folks from national radio stations living in the district.  I suppose you would consider the students “poor” by typical global standards, however the fact that they are attending secondary school means that they are not the poorest of the poor. Teacher salaries are around 3,000 MTs/month or about $100.  Photo:  The phones that were at the workshop.

The results:

· 34% had their own mobile phones (more than half of this % were adults)

· 100% of their families had mobile phones

· 25% of personal or family’s phones had a USB cable

· 25% of the phones can connect to internet

· 24% had used the internet at least once before the workshop

· 43% have electricity at home

I asked everyone in the room to put their phones on the table (photo above).  You can see that the most popular types of phones are the Nokia 1100 or 1200 (which do not come with a USB cable, though I believe they do have a 5-prong USB jack).

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