Shiny new toy saves the poor.

This article on the BBC last week is the latest of many to salivate over Soccket, the ingenious invention of Harvard students that brings a smile to the faces of anyone who hears about the idea; and has garnered plaudits from the world’s media, to TED, to President Clinton.

The technology is smart. The idea is seductive. Kids kick a football around for a couple of hours and before you can say “Penalty Shoot-out”, the ball can be taken home and has become a generator, capable of running a range of electrical devices such as small lights or mobile phone chargers.

Working here at SolarAid, I understand how tough life can be for people without access to electricity. I’ve seen how life stops at sundown; how kids can’t study for school; how people are bled dry by the brutal cost of kerosene lamps; and how children are burnt and killed on a nightly basis as kerosene does more than just light up their homes.

I also understand the power of football in young people’s lives. I live in Nairobi, Africa. Inspired by my eldest son, Ethan, my family have adopted a local football club where talented young boys from the Rongai slums keep themselves busy and out of trouble by playing football; and dreaming of scoring goals for Chelsea.

I get the problem. And it’s easy to see why football can play a part in the solution.

So maybe you’d expect me to be celebrating this wonderful little piece of life-changing ingenuity. To join the BBC’s reporter, Clark Boyd, in rejoicing. “And what could be more worthwhile,” he says, “than using the ball you scored the winning goal with to light your room and study for tomorrow’s exam?”

Quite. What could be more worthwhile than that? But I’m afraid when I think of Soccket, there are two words that come to my mind: Play Pumps.

This was the product that involved children’s roundabouts doubling up as water pumps. As the children happily span around, grateful for their shiny new toy, the roundabout pumped water to the surface for Mum to carry the short distance back to her home. Kids are happy! Mum gets water without having to walk! Western donors pat themselves on the back for being so damn smart and generous!

But start writing ‘Play Pumps’ into Google and one of the first search terms that Google suggests is the slightly ominous, ‘Play Pumps failure.’ Dive deeper into the web and you will find that Play Pumps – whose light once shone brightly in the the world of development – has closed its doors. Watch this fantastic speech by Kevin Starr of Mulago and you will start to understand why. When spinning that roundabout becomes a daily chore, it ceases to become a toy and all that ends up happening is that Mum is bent over, turning that roundabout when all sorts of other technologies are more convenient, more effective… and don’t break down rendering the well completely useless… and forcing Mum to now walk several miles to a not-so-nearby well. And the pumps are expensive (costing four times more than the traditional hand pump).

When big white man shows up to do his evaluation, the kids are rushed out to skip merrily around the Play Pump, smiling for the cameras and making the whole world a better place.

“Somewhere along the way,” writes Laura Freschi for AidWatch, “PlayPumps stopped being a smart homegrown idea and became a donor-pleasing, top-down solution that simply didn’t fit many of the target communities.” Ouch.

And so back to Soccket.

Here are some questions I think the organisation, ‘Unchartered Play’, need to answer:

1) If ten kids are playing football, what happens in the homes of the nine who don’t get to take the football home that night? What technology will they be using?

2) What if you have no kids… or your kids don’t like football?

3) The Nigerian Government is apparently looking at buying them for schools. Is that one per school? Errr… so who actually gets to use the light here? I can see head teachers enforcing kick-abouts so that they, themselves, can charge their mobile phones that evening.

4) What happens if kids don’t want to play football that night? Does Daddy force them out to have a kick about for two hours so that they can then do their homework?

5) When the football breaks (have you seen nine year old boys having a kick-about?), who is going to mend it? What is the supply chain that gives local people the incentive and ability to get this thing fixed? The BBC article points out that, “Others will have visions of broken and unwanted Socckets littering roadsides,” and says that the inventors acknowledge this as a difficult question. D’oh. So what is the answer?

6) The business model is one where primarily donors will pay for their purchase and distribution. Whether that’s the Nigerian Government or American consumers getting a warm and fuzzy feeling through their ‘buy one, give one’ retail strategy. But if the idea is so good, why don’t they just sell them to those Nigerian families? If the product is such a God-send, the demand for them will be the proof of the pudding. I acknowledge this won’t be easy but it’s possible. SunnyMoney, SolarAid’s retail business selling solar lights, is selling 20,000 lights per month. Selling. If the poorest people don’t trust them, don’t like the warranties (does Soccket have a warranty?) or don’t know how they will be fixed when they break, guess what… they don’t buy them.

 

I feel a bit bad writing this blog piece. Here at SolarAid, we like to take our inspiration from the sun. To exude bright, positive, happy values. There might even be some frowns from my colleagues that I could write such a negative piece! And the people behind Unchartered Play are clearly inspiring and motivated young people.

But here’s the thing. This is people’s lives we’re talking about here. It’s not good enough to be smart and well-intentioned if you just end up diverting attention and investment away from the solutions that actually might work. And donors deserve better than this.

I’m greatly disappointed to predict that the Soccket is unlikely to make much of a dent in the challenge of bringing energy to the world’s poor. This is as predictable as England losing to Germany on penalties. It’ll continue to create some excitement amongst donors until the whole thing fizzles out. When the inventors are forced, tragically, to pick up their ball and go home in disappointment.

It’s an own goal. A dull nil-nil draw. A straight red card.

And I don’t get any joy from saying that.

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Posted in Uncategorized at June 19th, 2012.

  • http://twitter.com/bradbelltv Brad Bell

    How many software developers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?That would be a hardware problem ;-)

    It’s notable that both Soccet and Play Pumps are hardware solutions. They are like a set of encyclopaedias rather than Wikipedia app. When hardware fails, it is catastrophic. When software fails, you publish an update.

    Most of the value we will gain from improvements in our tools will come from software adding intelligence to simple devices we already have, rather than from fundamentally new hardware. 

    An example from my own personal filmmaking point of view: an iPhone is a better camera than a Leica – it’s just not as good at taking beautiful pictures.

  • Vicky Phillips

    Annoying!  Not much you can do except keep pointing out the flaws to people including those behind Unchartered Play and the donors. 

  • http://twitter.com/AaronAusland Aaron Ausland

    Steve, I just found this blog post of yours through your comment at BBC Future. It is well-written. I wish I had seen it before writing ‘Deflating the SOCCKET Ball’ (http://wp.me/pYIwQ-aw); I would have referenced it. I think it is interesting that both you and I thought immediately about the PlayPump when we heard about this thing. I expect a response from Unchartered Play soon and so will have an opportunity to write more as I’m sure I’ll have to respond to their response. I’ll be sure to mention this blog post at some point.

    • Steve Andrews

      Thanks Aaron. I was a bit surprised to discover, after i had written this, that Bill Easterly had retweeted someone else making the Soccket/ Play Pumps link. I think it’s encouraging that there’s a growing consensus on these things. I’ve signed up to your blog and look forward to your future missives.

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