With This Pedal-Powered Generator, Biking Gives Light to Kids Living Without Electricity

The Bicycle Factory project has designed and built a custom generator that charges a removable lantern while students ride.
Jun 4, 2014·
Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

“The dog ate it,” or “My little brother poured juice all over it.” Kids are known for coming up with creative excuses for why they don’t have their homework. But, as is the case in too many parts of the world, children living in rural villages in Ghana have a legitimate reason for not completing assignments. Thanks to a lack of electricity, once the sun sets, their world goes dark. That means no reading, no writing, no studying for exams, and no finishing homework.

While having electricity installed would be ideal, another solution is being spearheaded by none other than a chocolate company.

Yes, you probably know Cadbury as the maker of those delish eggs everybody loves to indulge in around the Easter holiday. But through its annual social-impact campaign The Bicycle Factory, it has distributed tens of thousands of bikes to kids across Ghana. Although the campaign has helped children get to school, ensuring that they can study throughout the day has emerged as a new goal. It will do that by making light accessible in homes through bike-powered light generators.

“The main thing we are suffering for is the light,” says head teacher Otwebedi Adua in the above video. “When I give them an assignment, it can be difficult for the person to do it. They come back to school [and] that is when they try and do the homework [I] have given to them, when it’s supposed to be done in the house. But because they [don’t have a] lighting system over there...they don’t do it.”

Back in 2008, Cadbury tapped marketing agency The Hive to develop and launch The Bicycle Factory. On a typical day in Ghana, it can take children up to two hours to walk to and from school. With a bicycle, they can cut their travel time down to one hour.

Over the past six years, through the campaign’s interactive website, the public has been able to help build virtual bikes. All you have to do is become one of the project’s bicycle factory workers by registering as an individual or a team. Then, during the predetermined bike-building time, a “worker” drags Cadbury products through the bike creation process. Every virtual bicycle completed by the public turns into one real-life bike that is then donated to children. The program has proved a success, with more than 23,800 bikes delivered to Ghana and a projected 4,000 more to be sent through the 2014 campaign. However, after spending time on the ground and seeing the challenges the kids face because of the lack of electricity, the idea of doing more began percolating.

“Every year we travel to Ghana to witness some of the distribution of the bikes. We saw many villages without electricity and heard about the challenges this presented for studying from both students and teachers in these communities,” says Simon Creet, The Hive’s chief creative officer.

So how does it all work? The generator comes in the form of a small unit that is attached near the bike’s back wheel, which spins a motor that generates enough voltage to allow either a small light or a mobile phone to charge. The key was to create a device with as few moving parts as possible, to decrease breakage. Creet and his team searched for a generator that already existed but was also inexpensive and durable enough to handle the unpredictable Ghanaian climate and terrain. To their surprise, no viable option existed, so they hired industrial designers to build a prototype. With the efficiency of 3-D printing, designers were able to create a workable design quickly and economically.

“The prototypes are in field testing in the village of Mpaem” (about two hours north of the capital city of Accra), says Creet. “We’re monitoring their performance over a six-month period and will be refining the design based on this feedback. We hope to move into manufacturing in time to install them on next year’s bikes that are sent to villages without electricity.”