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Tackling Energy Poverty

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Photo Courtesy of Lifeline Energy

Kristine Pearson is the CEO of Lifeline Energy (formerly known as Freeplay Foundation), an organization that is delivering self-powered energy solutions to impoverished populations throughout the world.

I met with Pearson when she was in New York City to launch "Lifeplayer," an MP3-enabled radio that she described as bridging "Internet, cellular, media player, and radio technologies." The three-band radio and recorder does not require batteries or electricity and is both solar and self-powered.

Pearson, who was named by Time magazine as a Hero of the Environment for 2007, spoke passionately about how the "easy to use device" could provide communication capabilities, essential "on-demand" education, and business or financial literacy programs -- in even the most isolated localities. Recognized for her initiatives by the Schwab Foundation for Social Enterprise, Pearson reiterated the term "energy poverty" in her explanation of how the Lifeplayer is a "game changer" that will give people access to continuing information resources. Downloads range from life-skills tutorials to weather reports and farming know-how. The constituency of her organization is "the critically poor person." Only six percent of rural Africans have access to electricity. Most importantly, Pearson underscored the inherent opportunities for the "democratization of education," which in turn enables societies to grow and move forward.

The Lifeplayer is a vehicle for group instruction, workable for at least 60 listeners at a time. Created solely for use in the "humanitarian sector," it can be pre-loaded with up to 64 GB of material. Programming can be updated with a microSD™ card, live voice can be recorded onto the device, and it operates in disparate climates. The fact that it is power independent, alleviating concern about electricity or battery demands, is of the utmost importance in rural areas. The wireless solar panel can also charge a cell phone through a USB lead. Considering that people walk miles to charge their phones in these settings, that is a major benefit. A hand crank serves as a secondary energy source.

Hollywood heavyweights have rallied to support the Lifeplayer, including George Clooney, Laurie David, and Tom Hanks -- who has been Lifeline's "American Ambassador" since September 2003. At the helm, Pearson has been a forceful advocate, pinpointing how the Lifeplayer can "democratize education -- inspiring people to learn at their own pace."

A repeated point of reference for Pearson was her emphasis on how this tool can change the lives of girls and women. She said, "If we can get education and information to rural women in Africa, then you start to change outcomes." Pearson underscored that women were "information have-nots." The Masaai women in Kenya that Pearson told me about have never turned on a radio. Now they are listening to political programs, and learning about their rights.

In Kenya, where the refugee camps are comprised of people who have left Somalia to escape the civil wars, over 70 percent are women. Only one in 500 of those women had access to radios, according to a UNHCR study. Pearson's group worked with content providers to develop material about female genital mutilation. This has opened a dialogue about the issue, raising awareness of the inherent health risks that include HIV and death from bleeding. Facts have been disseminated to village and clan leaders, and the program has grown over the past four years. Pearson describes it as being a "very powerful project."

The Lifeplayer has also affected the children of Rwanda -- where there are one million orphans as a result of the genocide. Children run 100,000 households in the country; those between the ages of 9-21 are overwhelming destitute. For them, the radio has boosted their self-esteem. They have gone from being humiliated about not being able to read or write and feeling "they don't know anything," to learning "practical stuff." Pearson spoke about a 17-year-old boy who was the caretaker for his two younger sisters. Through informational lessons he learned about nutrition, the physical needs and proper care of his sisters, and how to effectively parent them.

Currently, 10 African countries -- including Malawi, Kenya, and Somaliland -- have education curriculum on the radio. All programs are locally created in vernacular languages. In Zambia, testing results in math and science for "informally schooled" children were superior. The students who went through the radio schooling, met or exceeded, the testing results of their peers in public government schools. As a result, the government bought 8,000 radios to use countrywide.

Tom Hanks has said, "Lifeline's technologies can change the world -- one person, one house, one village at a time." Of the people that Pearson has seen impacted by the radio, she commented, "This can travel to them... and open up their world."

This article originally appeared on the website WomenMakeNews.