Solar Powered Computers for Off-Grid Schools

In 2009 a 19-year-old graduating senior from Hong Kong's International School named Charles Watson, armed with a rudimentary computer, took a year off from starting university to journey to Nepal to work on a project he came up with while still in school - providing schools off the grid with solar-linked computing power.

"Once I got to Nepal, I was running a blog, taking photos and so on, saying ‘We need computers,'" he says. "I did a fundraising run in Nepal and that raised enough to buy 30 computers at US$300 each - US$10,000 if you include the solar panels."

Watson, an American who grew up in Hong Kong, is now 23, still hasn't started university despite being accepted at the University of Illinois and doesn't plan to any time in the foreseeable future. Instead he is the founder and chief of SolarLEAP (http://solarleap.org/), a shoestring nonprofit company whose computers are often assembled by his mother and father at their kitchen table - but they are delivering computing power to schools with unreliable electricity, or none at all, in countries as diverse as Nepal, the Philippines, Ethiopia and, he hopes, across the world.

As many as 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the world's population, remain without access to electricity, he says. Ten countries—four in developing Asia and six in sub-Saharan Africa—account for two-thirds of those without electricity. Unless further action is taken, it is projected that close to one billion people will be without electricity still in 2030.

The devices cost US$300, far less than any laptop to build and operate - with another US$200 for shipping and handling. Maintenance is handled by local school organizations. The units draw only 12 watts of electricity for the monitor and 12 for the computer itself, about the same as most netbooks on the market. A new design that is to go into production soon will dramatically reduce power even more, to about 15 watts overall.

"The actual power consumption of each computer should be as low as possible, since you pay for solar power by the watt," he said. "Prices in developing countries can be as high as US$4/Watt, which means the solar capacity to run a conventional 200W desktop computer would cost 13 times as much to run as is needed to run a SolarLEAP computer."

In that first summer, Watson funded five computers out of his own US$2,500 summer job kitty. The original ones were built from only six to seven components, he says. "Once you know what you're doing, once you know the parts, putting them together is like playing with Legos. It's plug and play." His new design, he says, will have only three components. "My mom and dad, on a tight deadline before a gig in Ghana, were doing the assembly work. My mom has trouble with Facebook. This wasn't a problem."

He has since branched out to Ghana, where he installed 24 computers, each running on solar power in off-grid schools. After the projects in Nepal and Ghana were completed, demand from rural communities started to grow. Within weeks, organizations in India and Ethiopia were looking for the unique low-power consumption computers to run in schools without electricity. Furthermore, Watson was looking for a way to continue the work without his direct, on-the-ground involvement, and thus SolarLEAP was born.

Today, he has installed 200 of the solar powered computer in five countries, with funding from NGOs and anybody he can solicit money from. The transformation of schools is dramatic, he says. In 2010, after installation .of his computers in Canumay School near Antipolo in the Philippines, the school moved from last place to a first ranking in its school district. He provided the first solar-powered computers to any schools anywhere in India.

The devices come from readily available parts. The solar panels are from China. The computers run on Linux and Windows operating systems and contain a range of educational software for children, as well as math and science content and software for high school and university level students and a digital library.

"One in four people around the globe don't have access to electricity," he said. More than 100 million children don't have access to education and a large share of students fortunate enough to be in school don't have access to quality educational materials."

Watson is seeking US$500,000 in donations to scale up to deliver 1,000 units to nonprofit organizations across the world. He receives a steady trickle of donations from friends and associates of his parents. The nonprofit exists today as an approved Hong Kong charitable enterprise. He would eventually like to create a for-profit organization alongside the nonprofit, he said in an interview.

Major partners have so far been the CLSA Chairman's Trust, Goldman Sachs Gives, The African Children's Educational Trust, The Solar Energy Foundation (Ethiopian educational non-profit), Hybrid Social Solutions (Philippines-based social enterprise).