Inside PopTech's Solar-Powered Bag FLAP: Testing Across Africa

In the fourth installment of our story about a new product collaboration between PopTech, Timbuk2 Designs, and the Portable Light Project, White African's Erik Hersman takes the FLAP prototype to Africa for testing.

August was setting up to be a crazy month. I knew this, so naturally I agreed to add to this the chance to use my AfriGadget network to help test the FLAP (Flexible Light and Power) bag project Africa. Thus began my whirlwind adventure, carrying 10 partially fabricated bags and 10 solar light kits through Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.

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My goal was twofold:

  • First, determine if the portable solar power is needed and practical in Africa?
  • Second, see what would happen if I gave the raw materials to tailors, electricians and fabricators in each country--what would they create, and would it be more locally relevant than a Timbuk2 messenger bag?

Five of the bags that came were fully fabricated, and had only to be handed out to individuals. The other five were only fabric, thread and electronic pieces that still needed to be put together. This second five un-fabricated bags seemed to be a challenge, but one that in the end turned an interesting experiment into a personally engaging adventure.

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My first stop was Ghana, putting on Maker Faire Africa, an event that brought together roadside innovators and inventors with PhDs, all showcasing their solutions--solving everyday problems with African ingenuity. I handed out a bag to some electrical students from a local university, who promptly told me that the electronics were too fragile and would need to be ruggedized for African usage. I gave another to a Kenyan inventor who promptly went home to Kenya and used the materials to create a new solar vest for bicycle taxi operators.

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Then came the fun part. Henry Addo, a Ghanaian colleague of mine at Ushahidi, and I jumped on motorcycles and started searching for tailors who could take our raw FLAP bag parts and create something from them. We found two tailors, Elijah and Mohammed, who used traditional mud cloth and Kinte cloth to make striking looking bags.

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My next stop was Kenya, where I joined forces with my videographer friend David Ngigi. Knowing more about Nairobi than Accra, I headed over to Jericho Market on the outskirts of the industrial area where fabricators of all types could be found. There, an energetic young designer by the name of Stephen Omollo, and his counterpart, Joseph Muteti, a soft-spoken, 18-year veteran of the Nairobi tailor trade, took on the challenge.

A few days later Stephen and Joseph provided three new designs (completely disregarding the messenger bag model) that they thought would have more use and viability in the Kenyan market.

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What were some of the key things that I heard throughout the trip?

  • The American-style Timbuk2 bags were generally thought of as too large.
  • Electronics need to be put into a more rugged case to survive the beatings that they’ll take in Africa
  • People wondered if there was a way to hide, or cover, the solar panels to disguise what the bag was--for security reasons.
  • There was a general feeling that there was more use for portable light and power in rural settings rather than urban.
  • The ability to remove the solar components from the bag was genius.
  • The tailors wanted to make their own designs, and wanted access to cheap components to experiment with, and then sell.

What I learned was to never discount the creativity inherently a part of Africa. Whether it’s an electronics student, a tailor, a taxi driver or a businessman, there is a desire to incorporate new and better technology but with an innate knowledge for what is contextually relevant in their own community.

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Finally, I learned that companies would do themselves a great service by testing ideas and components in Africa to come away with original ideas that they would never have come up with on their own.

FLAP launches at PopTech October 22, so stay tuned for the final installment in our story this week.

Related:
PopTech's Solar-Powered Bag FLAP

Erik Hersman is an editor at White African and AfriGadget, where you can find more posts about FLAP. He was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008.

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