Burro Brings Sustainable Power to Ghana's Poor


Villagers in Ghana. Photo: Stig Nygaard / Creative Commons.

In Ghana, where electricity reaches only about 16 percent of people outside major cities, residents rely heavily on batteries -- to power the flashlights, radios, and cell phones that allow them to connect with the outside world and to work or study after sundown. But single-use batteries are expensive for people who often live on just a dollar or two a day. The dilemma inspired one Seattle-based entrepreneur, who decided that cheap rechargeable batteries could be part of the solution."People living in rural areas [of Ghana] are spending up to $6 a month on throw-away batteries, using them predominantly to run wireless radios, torchlights, and other products that require electricity such as charging mobile phones," the BBC wrote last week in a piece about businessman Whit Alexander, who studied and worked in West Africa before creating the Encarta world atlas for Microsoft and helping launch the popular board game Cranium.

Rechargeable Battery Stations
His latest project, Burro, is a business that sells rechargeable batteries in the developing world, starting with a pilot program in Koforidua, Ghana, and sets up stations where they can be charged up at a fraction of the cost of buying new ones. Though Alexander hopes to turn a profit with Burro, he says it will also benefit the poor -- and the environment.

"[Customers] are saving a dollar or two a month. It does not sound like a big deal, but when you are living on such an amount each day, every penny counts," he told the BBC:

A problem with the inexpensive throwaway batteries is that they leak and they can destroy devices. You can imagine the challenge that brings to people when an expensive torchlight or radio is damaged. We only bring in nickel metal hydride batteries, which are relatively benign environmentally. In Europe and the U.S. you can legally dispose of them in any landfill with your household garbage, unlike nickel cadmium batteries, which we would never consider bringing into Ghana.

Burro's business model will also provide extra income for local people through part-time jobs selling, distributing, and recharging the batteries, Alexander says. The company is also experimenting with battery-powered lighting to replace kerosene and battery-powered cell-phone charging.

"The for-profit model is fundamental for me personally," he told the Seattle Times. "We really do have to demonstrate that private enterprise can create opportunities that are sustainable, responsible, and driving important social change."

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Tags: Africa | Batteries | Developing Nations | Ghana | Rechargeable

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