Using dirt and waste to bring light to Africa

It is so heartening to see how Africans approach technology innovation. They are focused, not just on finding solutions to basic problems such as providing lighting, but on making it possible for Africans themselves to implement those ideas.

Lebone Solutions, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working to bring light to poor and remote African communities through a microbial fuel cell that uses waste and dirt to make small amounts of energy, Cate Doty reports in the International Herald Tribune Nov. 11, 2008.

“You can just literally make energy from dirt,” said Aviva Presser, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “And there’s a lot of dirt in Africa.”

Presser is one of the founders of Lebone Solutions, which is being financed by a $200,000 World Bank grant and private investments. Lebone’s idea is a microbial fuel cell, a battery that makes a small amount of energy out of materials like manure, graphite cloth and soil, which are common to African households.

As waste decomposes, it produces electrons that stick to an electrode, like a piece of graphite, that then creates enough of a charge to power a small lamp or cellphone.

“It can be made by people with minimal training,” Presser said. “It doesn’t take a massive investment.”

Presser founded Lebone, which means “light stick” in Sotho language, with fellow Harvard classmate Hugo Van Vuuren. Both grew up in Africa, and their class project involved looking at sustainable lighting technologies for the continent. Last summer, they piloted the technology in a small Tanzanian village, Leguruki, where six families used the batteries for three hours a night. Over the next two years, in Namibia, they will see if more easily available materials, like chicken wire, will create electricity.

Lebone hopes that as the technology becomes more refined, each household will be able to build a battery at a one-time cost of no more than $15.

Eventually, Lebone wants to create a new business model for energy distribution in Africa, helping to funnel fuel cells and other technologies tested in Africa to distributors there, rather than reducing developed technologies to meet African needs.