We flip a switch and expect energy to be suddenly, magically available. That luxury is not something all parts of the world can take for granted. That bothered Ben Markham. When he retired as Vice-President of Engineering at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, he opted to spend the next 18 months volunteering in Ghana. He and his wife were smitten by the joy and energy of the children, but he was bothered by their lack of playground equipment and access to electricity. In the rural tropics, where days and nights are equal in length, no electricity means no way to study once chores are done.
Markham’s career in energy made him wonder if the children’s kinetic energy could be turned into power. He collaborated with Brigham Young University. Faculty and students put their engineering and innovation skills to work developing playground equipment that generates electricity. The invention became the basis of Empower Playgrounds, whose mission is to change lives:
Empower Playgrounds, Inc. enhances educational opportunities for children in deprived villages by providing renewable energy through electricity-generating playground equipment, smart LED lanterns, and hands-on science kits.
The energy-generating equipment looks basic to anyone who grew up with merry-go-rounds, but these have a major difference. Their hub is a windmill generator that charges a large AGM deep cycle battery as the children play on the the merry-go-round. Energizer Battery Corporation developed and supplies the LED lanterns charged by the AGM battery.
A Fast Company article explains that children are sent home with the charged lanterns. They are organized into “Lantern Groups” of about six children so they can study around one lantern. Each charge lasts approximately 50 hours.
The merry-go-rounds (“The Whirl”) were field tested in Ghana, with the help of a Ghanian engineering company that used locally available materials to build the U.S.-designed equipment. Empower Playgrounds worked with Anno Engineering and the Ministry of Education. So by the time they set up the first test models at selected schools, teachers also had a science education model “using the play equipment as a living lab”.
According to Fast Company, the lantern groups are having social impacts:
Poverty is so prevalent in Ghana that even though schools are ostensibly free, most families cannot afford to send all of their children because of the incidental expenses of clothing and school supplies. Because of this, most girls don’t end up going to school. Instead, the boys are sent, since they will continue to live with and provide for their families, while the girls will be married off and sent away as young as 15. But Empower Playground is trying to help change that by making the girls who do go to school into ‘lantern leaders,’ further emphasizing the status of an educated woman as not just a role model but a light-bringer.
Empower Playgrounds is a fascinating model for an enterprise with a social mission. They give me hope.