In my study I have a rather ingenious gadget called a GravityLight, an innovation that I wrote about in 2014, sponsored on Indiegogo and received in the post last year. It’s an LED light that is powered, as the name suggests, by gravity. The user pulls a cord which lifts a weight, and the falling weight powers the light. It was invented for developing world contexts and it was assembled in a factory in Kenya. I thought it was a clever idea when I saw the crowdfunding campaign and I have been keeping an eye on the technology ever since.
This week there has been some news from the GravityLight Foundation, the organisation that was set up to promote the light in Africa. Testing in the field has revealed a few complications. Customers who have bought the GravityLight do like them – they like the ease of use, and that unlike solar lights you don’t need to leave them outside to charge. However, since the GravityLight was invented the cost of solar has come down, and more people own smartphones. If a family on a low income is going to spend $25 on a gadget to replace their kerosene lamp, it will need to charge smartphones as well as provide light. This is not possible with a GravityLight.
And so after consultation with the communities for whom it was invented, the foundation has decided to cease promotion and wind up. This is rather sad after all those years of research, numerous prototypes, and so much hard work. But I applaud the GravityLight Foundation for taking the step, and there are a couple of reasons why I wanted to write this post.
First, when you first hear about an innovation on the internet, you come in fairly late in the process. It’s easy to forget just how much work goes into one of these campaigns, the blood sweat and tears that any inventor goes through, often for years at a time before they never get to the crowdfunding point. The first reason to write about it is just to honour the hard work that went into GravityLight, a technology that had not been attempted before, and that was for the benefit of some of the world’s poorest people.
Secondly, we hear about new technologies through the internet’s love of novelty. A lot of green tech reporting is simply ‘look, what a brilliant idea’, endlessly repeated. We’re less good at asking serious questions about the merits of the technology, as I wrote about with solar water purification recently. Since the ongoing development of a product isn’t news, we rarely get the end of the story. An idea that had a massive buzz around it may turn out to be fatally flawed, or not work quite as well as expected, or ultimately prove uneconomic. We don’t always hear about the failure rate of crowdfunded ideas, and it leads us to idolise the process of innovation, and undervalue the hard graft and rigorous testing that goes with responsible product development.
In a development context, that testing is even more important, and that’s the final reason I wanted to mention GravityLight’s closure. It’s vital that innovations for the poor are tested with the intended market and that users’ views are given full consideration. When this isn’t done properly, solutions are pushed on communities that didn’t want them, funders are misled, and money is wasted.
Take the example of the play pump. On paper this looks like a fantastic idea: a roundabout that would tap the youthful energy of playing children to pump water in remote African villages. In reality it was a disaster. They were more expensive and less effective than hand pumps, and since children were in school much of the day, adults were left trudging round the roundabout to get their water. They weren’t well maintained and quickly got stiff and useless as play equipment. And yet hundreds of them were installed, funded by enthusiastic donors who were unaware of how ineffective they were. But the charity was getting lots of attention, everyone loved the idea and it was very hard to walk away from.
To their credit, the developers of the playpump did eventually change tack, and now they only install them in schools and with ten-year maintenance arrangements. But millions of dollars were wasted, and diverted away from other more effective water solutions.
That won’t happen with the GravityLight, because the foundation took the time to listen, take the views of African customers seriously, and put their own egos to one side. Kudos. And since they’re inventors, they’re already taking the learning from the project and applying it to the next idea. The NowLight uses a similar mechanism to the GravityLight, but it’s a pull rope that’s hand powered rather than relying on the falling weight. It’s more powerful, easier to install and it can charge phones. I’m backing it, and consider this an invitation to join me.