Kristine Pearson has been producing affordable, eco-friendly, and appropriate technologies in Africa for over a decade. Her latest invention is the culmination of her work and research thus far: The Lifeplayer, a comprehensive radio, cellular, MP3, and Internet-enabled device meant to empower groups of families, villages, and schools in desperately remote or deprived regions with access to vital information and education.
Lifeline Energy, which is based in South Africa, today announced the launch of this innovative solar-powered technology for developing markets, which comes with 64 GB of memory and an additional 32 GB SD card, allowing educators and other individuals to download podcasts and MP3 files on any topic. But of particular relevance are educational curricula as well as information related to weather, farming, and agriculture.
The cost is estimated at $80, but depends on the features chosen, such as memory size. Users can pre-load content, listen to live radio, or download media directly from the Internet onto the device and then play it to large groups of people.
Pearson herself once played the Lifeplayer to a group of 100 people and it was audible, a feature she says makes it competitive. Pearson is taking a "utilitarian and practical" approach, she tells Fast Company. The device is catered and tailored to the exact needs of her target markets—those in isolated, rural, developing areas, but especially women, children, and refugees. "It's absolutely fit-for-purpose for the environment it was created for," says Pearson.
Radio programming in Africa is typically male-focused, Pearson says, which makes her device that much more needed and tailored to the needs of its users, since she hopes many will be women.
Delivery and implementation are often bottlenecks that minimize the benefits of new technologies in developing markets. That's why lifeline Energy partners with Ministries of Education, wherever possible, says Pearson. "We never do anything in isolation. Collaboration is one of our key values."
Because the device is meant for group-use, not individual, Pearson sees the Lifeplayer as filling a large gap in education. "We really see the market for the Lifeplayer, intrinsically, in the broadest sense, in education."
"For pastoralist families in certain parts of Africa—if you train mothers and women how to use these devices, you can keep your kids in school while you're traveling with your animals."
"This is a way to democratize education," she adds.
The device will be purchased by schools, NGOs, businesses and other institutions. "We haven't really worked out a model yet where individuals can buy it."
The device is targeted toward users in Africa, but Pearson does have her eye on Pakistan and Afghanistan. "It's very relevant in developing countries; our focus just happens to be Africa at the moment," says Pearson.
The Lifeplayer’s predecessor was the Lifeline radio, a robust crank radio, that users adored so much that they would weep when it broke down (which was often, because they cranked it the wrong direction!). Pearson has been based in Africa since 1988 and has collected valuable data in the field about user preferences of low-income and marginalized populations. Early on, people wanted cassette players and knowing how "power hungry" such players were, that’s when in occurred to Pearson that MP3 was "the way to go." Pearson says the Lifeline Radio was one of the most successful ICT-for-development devices in history, but the Lifeplayer updates and improves upon the device.
When compared to the similar but kiosk-based informational device, e-Choupal, Pearson says the Lifeplayer takes a "whole different approach."
"The model we've chosen to go down enables you to pre-load content and when it fills up you can delete it and fill it up again. You can also record live radio programs and record back when that's convenient. You can also record discussions and live voice."
A striking use of the Lifeplayer is for oral history. "I've talked to groups in South Africa that create memory boxes for children if they're dying of HIV/AIDS so they can leave a legacy for their children and it's backed up forever," says Pearson.