Wind-Up Wonder

How old-fashioned low-technology saves lives in the developing world

| July/August 2002 Issue

In the Western world, we’re so wired to cell phones, laptops, and disk players that the electronic din drowns out just about everything else. But there are parts of the world where electronic technology is so precious that one transistor radio can literally mean the difference between life and death. For rural Africans, a radio report on AIDS prevention basics could be a lifesaver, as could a community cell phone for Indian families in a flood-ravaged village. But the very parts of the world that could benefit most from electronic technology are the ones that are least likely to have access to it. A big part of the problem is electrical power. While the West is tangled in wires connecting everyone to everything, people in the poorest parts of the world may still need to walk miles just to reach the nearest electrical outlet. Batteries are expensive and hard to find—and they wear out. A simple but effective answer to this problem is self-powered technology: flashlights, radios, cell phones, and even computers that use muscle and mechanical power instead of electrical input. Thanks to recent advances in this technology, people the world over may soon be turning on even when they can’t plug in. In certain parts of the globe, the result would be nothing short of miraculous. "Access to communications can have far-reaching effects on people’s lives," says Kate Raworth, co-author of the 2001 United Nations Human Development Report, in New Scientist (Sept. 8, 2001). "And wind-up technology offers the possibility of moving forward without having to supply electricity to rural areas." Contemporary advances in wind-up technology began some 10 years ago, when British inventor Trevor Baylis, inspired by a television report on the spread of AIDS in rural Africa, developed a wind-up radio that could play for more than eight minutes after 30 seconds of winding. A certain number of the low-cost radios, originally manufactured by the Freeplay Energy company, were sold in Africa, according to New Scientist, but the devices soon became a novelty hit with Western consumers. Larger electronics companies like Sony, Philips, and Aiwa soon jumped on the bandwagon and developed a wind-up flashlight. Later, concerns about Y2K computer bugs sent sales of wind-up devices skyward. After New Year’s 2000 came and went without event, these companies have turned their energies to less pressing concerns, like clockwork batteries for cell phones, electric razors, and even laptops. Now that wind-up technology has focused on more moneyed Western consumers, international anti-poverty activists have expressed concern that an invention originally designed for the world’s poorest citizens has been hijacked by the interests of the richest. Sony, Philips, and Aiwa don’t sell their radios in developing countries and have no plans to do so, according to New Scientist. Still, some manufacturers are making the technology more widely available. Motorola’s new Freeplay-powered phone charger is being launched globally, and a second-generation cellphone will be marketed exclusively in the developing world next year. Freeplay also has been funneling profits from sales of its products in the West into reduced-price sales and giveaways in developing countries. After floods scattered scores of people in Mozambique, for instance, the foundation distributed more than 7,000 wind-up radios through various humanitarian organizations, allowing the displaced to hear basic information about hygiene, sanitation, detecting land mines, and contacting lost family members. All this was done with profits from the company’s sales to Western consumers. And, Freeplay representatives add, the development of new self-powered devices is also funded by profits from Western sales. It’s an interdependent relationship. "So if you want a wind-up revolution, go and buy the first wind-up device you see," writes New Scientist’s Cooper. "The gadget will pay for itself anyway, and you could be helping make life in the developing world run more smoothly than clockwork."