Like many start-ups, we began operations out of an apartment in London in 1999. Known then as Freeplay Foundation, we soon moved into offices. For many years, we enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the company Freeplay Energy, which manufactured our Lifeline radio. Although we shared a brand, we operated independently. As a registered charity, we had separate boards in the UK, US and South Africa.
Freeplay was a reliable donor and supplier until 2008 when New Delhi-based businessman Devin Narang bought the company. In April 2010 we re-launched and re-branded as Lifeline Energy, distancing ourselves from Freeplay. Shortly thereafter, Freeplay Energy UK was placed into administration and ultimately liquidated, owing Lifeline significant funds and putting the charity under considerable stress. Read more about this at Forbes.com
In early 1999 we began working across Africa, getting original model wind-up and solar-powered radios into the hands of groups who needed them most. Quickly establishing a reputation for speed, flexibility, efficiency and results, we built NGO and UN coalitions throughout the continent.
We soon realised that these original model wind-up radios, designed for commercial use and Western consumers, weren’t appropriate for aid projects. Our CEO Kristine Pearson saw with child-headed families in Rwanda, flood-displaced populations in Mozambique and teachers in Zambia, that if wound anti-clockwise, the radios would break. She believed that a new solar and wind-up radio designed for distance education and children living on their own was urgently needed.
In November 2001, we won the first Tech Museum of Innovation Award in the education category for our concept of the “Lifeline radio”. The $50,000 NASDAQ prize financed the research and development of the Lifeline radio. Additional funding raised from Vodafone Group Foundation, Anglo-American and technology pioneers Leonard Fassler and Brad Feld, enabled the tooling to be created and product field testing.
Working from a design brief informed by orphaned children, South African designers and engineers produced several radio designs. Each design was tested in South Africa with focus groups of children who had low levels of exposure to technology. Kristine took the first working prototype to Rwanda and Kenya where it was evaluated by groups of orphaned children. From their feedback, we made 31 changes to the final design.
In April 2003, exactly two years after Kristine wrote the concept paper for the Lifeline radio, 18-year-old Devotte Hafashimana became the world’s first Lifeline radio recipient. A shy Burundian living in the Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania, Devotte was one of 500 young listening group leaders who received Lifelines as part of a Voice of America (VOA) youth communications project.
From April 2003 until we replaced the Lifeline radio in 2011 with our next-generation Prime radios and Lifeplayer MP3s, more than 255,000 were distributed mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, reaching many millions of listeners. They were used in large distance education projects, emergency response initiatives, women’s listening groups, farmer cooperatives, at health clinics where women gather, and to support child and widow-headed families.
From the beginning, we understood what people listened to on the radio; it took us longer to realise that at night people were listening in the dark. An estimated 75% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa lives without access to electricity.
The poor rely on hazardous, polluting and inefficient fuel-based lighting – kerosene, candles and firewood. Fuel-based lighting uses up to 40% of already meager household incomes; exposure leads to debilitating respiratory problems; and causes widespread fires, resulting in loss of property, severe burns and death. Millions of children try to study using the weak flames of candles and makeshift kerosene lights.
To help address the need and demand for portable, safe, clean energy sources, we expanded into the renewable lighting sector. We undertook a series of lighting-needs assessments that included child or granny-headed households and families where someone was ill.
After reviewing the assessment results, we worked with engineers to create fit-for-purpose clean energy lights and lanterns called Lifelights. However, it became clear that sizeable investment was required to pursue both lighting and educational tracts, which was not possible for a lean organisation like Lifeline Energy. We determined that we could make the greatest impact by focusing on audio products for mass education. We still offer solar lighting products to support education and emergency response initiatives.
Our Lifeline radio demonstrated the importance of appropriate product development for this sector. Consequently, we took the strategic decision to found and fund a for-profit company, focused on developing, manufacturing and supplying appropriately developed and powered products to the humanitarian sector. Lifeline Technologies Trading Ltd (LT) became operational in 2010 as a UK-registered company. A charity being the majority shareholder in a for-profit consumer electronics company is a unique social enterprise model. Profits from Lifeline Technologies accrue to the charity, creating a virtuous circle.
The Lifeplayer MP3, which Lifeline Technologies developed, has already been acknowledged as an INDEX: Design to Improve Life finalist and an SAB Foundation Innovation Award winner. The company also designed the popular Prime radio, the SolarStor cell phone charging solar panel and offers the Polaris range of radio/lights.