During a 2006 trip to Kenya, I came to realize that cellphones are everywhere. I noticed that even rural African villagers had these devices. Modern cellphones are not made to work in these living conditions. The designers of these phones never had the “African villager” as one of their user personas! Rural African villagers are forced to use products produced under the assumption that people can afford them, know how to use them, can plug them into the wall, and have pockets to carry them. A cellphone designed for rural Africa looks and acts very different from what you and I have in our pockets.
I visited several small schools and spoke with stuedents, teachers, and administrators. Even in small villages, mobile devices help bring people together. Tourism and education are closely linked with greater access to the outside world. Mobile phones help bridge this gap in some of the most isolated parts of the world.
My observations of living conditions if rural Africa:
These became my design criteria.
I noticed cell phones are not designed for these circumstances. Modern cell phones:
Most remote villages have a single, communal cell phone. When the battery runs out, they send a runner to the nearest village (which may be many miles away) with a diesel generator. This takes time and costs money.
In my own experiments, I was able to charge my cell phone with two different methods. First, I took apart a small solar flashlight and five 99-cent calculators. When wired properly, I was able to achieve a constant charge. Second, I took apart a hand-crank flashlight. This also charged my cell phone. I decided to go with the solar option because Africa has plenty of sun, and the intended users spent most of the day outside.
The final device is worn around the neck in a hand-crafted sachel. This allows the sun to charge a small battery. One button activation connects the user to a local operator, who then directs the call. This is similar to phone communication of the early 1900's. We are used to giving out our phone "number" and everyone understands what that is. That seemed much less relevant in a society where pen and paper are scarce. Instead, the system is based on talking with an actual person, the primary means for communication in remote villages.