World Cup Exclusive: Women Entrepreneurs Use Soccer Ball to Bring Clean Energy to Developing Nations

Jun 8, 2010
Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

new_soccket_photoThis Friday, when the 2010 FIFA World Cup begins in Johannesburg, South Africa, Adidas’s controversial new game ball, the Jabulani, will finally get its official world premiere. Days later, with far less fanfare but with far more potential for global change, the latest model of another game-changing sphere will make its South African debut: sOccket, a plug-in soccer ball that captures energy during play and stores the juice for later use as a power source.

The beauty of sOccket is that a kid in a developing nation can play a game of soccer after school, leave the playground, take the ball home, plug a basic lamp into a built-in fixture and have enough light to do homework—even if there are no buildings with electricity for 100 miles around.

While co-founders Jessica Lin, Jessica Matthews, Julia Silverman, and Hemali Thakkar hope sOccket will eventually develop into a global health tool, the ball is, first and foremost, an ingeniously simple portable generator.

Lin says sOccket uses an inductive coil mechanism similar to those found in shake-to-charge flashlights. The movement of the ball forces a magnet through a coil that induces a voltage to generate electricity. “The coil doesn’t affect the motion of the ball in any way,” says Matthews.

The sOccket 2.0 shines a little light in dark places. (Photo: Jessica Lin)

“The play-ability of sOccket 2.0 is much smoother and cleaner [than the prototype],” says co-founder Jessica Lin. The ball’s latest version was manufactured by Dot Dot Dot Ex Why Zed, a Cape Town design company. “With the use of a DC jack, we are able to test powering other appliances beyond an LED light,” says Lin.

For every 15 minutes played on the first version of sOccket, the ball was able to store enough energy to illuminate a small LED light for three hours. sOccket 2.0 has improved that ratio. Now, less than 10 minutes of play yields three hours of energy, according to Matthews. 

In most African countries, 95 percent of the population lives without access to electricity, according to a 2006 World Bank Millennium Goals Report. “There is a huge need for cheap, clean, simple, off-grid energy solutions that are available for immediate use,” says Lin.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide use kerosene to light their homes. “Not only is kerosene expensive, but its flames are dangerous and the smoke poses serious health risks,” says Lin. Respiratory infections account for the largest percentage of childhood deaths in developing nations—more than AIDS and malaria.

sOccket is the brainchild of a fall 2008 engineering class assignment at Harvard University. “We four girls were assigned to the same group, and quickly bonded over our shared experiences in Africa and other developing countries,” says Lin.

A first-generation Nigerian-American, Matthews has seen the need for clean, reliable energy during numerous family trips to Nigeria. Lin has taught in South Africa for WorldTeach and interned with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s SafeWater System in Kenya. Silverman has been to South Africa to work for a HIV/tuberculosis clinic with The Institute of Politics, a Harvard undergraduate organization. And Thakkar, a first-generation Indian American, has volunteered for nonprofit organizations in India.

Initially, other ideas were tossed about, including mobile health devices and video games.

“Two weeks before the end of the class, we refocused on the positive energy we had all witnessed in Africa, found on fields and playgrounds everywhere after school—the infectious energy of children playing soccer,” says Lin.

More than 270 million people play soccer worldwide, including 46 million Africans, according to a 2006 FIFA study. Last summer, sOccket was field-tested in Durban, South Africa, in coordination with WhizzKids United, a local organization that uses soccer to teach HIV/AIDS education. “We embedded sOcckets amongst normal balls and tracked how the children played with them,” says Lin.

Silverman will represent the ball’s co-founders in South Africa for the World Cup, attending press conferences and official FIFA junkets. Matthews says that while the response they’ve gotten from the business world has been “incredible,” a lot of the major corporations “…still don’t know what to make of it and what to do with it.” Still under consideration is the “buy one, give one” marketing model, whereby sales in Western countries would fund the cost of distributing the ball in developing nations, where it is needed most.

And what of the naysayers who might argue that sOccket won’t even begin to make a dent in the energy crisis in developing nations?

sOccket may not be a solution to the energy crisis,” says Lin. “But it is a new way of thinking about problems many people face on a day to day basis…and it enables empowerment, for children to literally power their own lives.”

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