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Solar Pebble could light the way for rural Africans

Plus Minus Design vies to replace unsustainable and dangerous lanterns in the homes of off-grid Africans with the Solar Pebble.

A fully charged Solar Pebble can provide up to 22.5 hours of LED light. Plus Minus Design

A solar-charged light might seem like just another green gadget to the average American, but for families in rural Africa, it could prove revolutionary.

Product design consultancy Plus Minus Design is vying to replace unsustainable and potentially dangerous lanterns in the homes of off-grid Africans with the Solar Pebble. Engineered with the economic constraints of developing-world citizens in mind, the Solar Pebble will provide one hour of LED light for every two hours of charge, and will cost only $2.70 to manufacture.

Plus Minus Design, based in Leeds, U.K., was founded by three undergraduate students at the University of Leeds. While studying product design and engineering, Adam Robinson, Henry James, and Tom Eales were given the opportunity to work with SolarAid, a charity in the U.K.

SolarAid, which works to fight poverty and climate change, worked with the students to develop a solar-powered alternative to kerosene lanterns. Those lanterns, commonly used in rural Africa, draw 20 percent of an average Malawian family's income, SolarAid said, and pose respiratory health problems, as well as create fire hazards.

The undergrads spent months researching life in Malawi to design a product that addressed the needs of rural families, but also took environmental, economic, and lifestyle factors into consideration. Local maintenance, potential for the development of children's education, and adaptability to charge other devices were the team's key requirements.

One or two Solar Pebbles can provide enough light for one home, as houses in rural Africa are generally small. Plus Minus Design

Though mobile phones and portable radios are common in rural Africa, individuals must travel to locations with mains power for charging. With this issue in mind, the engineers designed the Solar Pebble to charge phones and portable devices in addition to providing light.

Plus Minus Design was also able to address the need for local maintenance with a simply designed product assembled through snap-in parts and repairable with basic tools.

The Solar Pebble provides light and a means of portable charging, but its implications are even greater. The lamp will ship partially assembled, providing jobs for locals who would finish assembly. Furthermore, Plus Minus Design hopes the lamp will increase radio usage, providing rural African families with HIV/AIDS prevention information.

According to Robinson, the Solar Pebble will launch in Uganda and the U.K. by midsummer.