Our History

Like many social enterprises, we started with a visionary idea and a shoestring budget. Our formal story begins in January 1999, operating out of a dining room in a small apartment in London under the name Freeplay Foundation. Rapid growth saw us move within a few months to a shared office with Freeplay Energy, the manufacturer of our wind-up radios for our initiatives in rural African communities. We established ourselves as an independent registered charity in the UK, USA, and South Africa, each with its own dedicated board of directors.

Relaunching as Lifeline Energy

In 2010, we re-launched as Lifeline Energy. We felt this name accurately described our mission. We also established Lifeline Technologies to manufacture our solar and wind-up products.

Providing Critical Information to Those Most in Need

Since officially launching in January 1999, we have been dedicated to distributing wind-up and solar-powered radios across sub-Saharan Africa to those often lacking information access: rural women, child-headed families, displaced populations, pastoral communities, and isolated or disabled people. Our reputation for speed, flexibility, efficiency, and tangible results quickly grew. This allowed us to forge partnerships and coalitions with NGOs and UN agencies throughout the continent, often working directly with local communities.

However, feedback from recipients revealed that the commercially designed Freeplay radios, tailored for Western markets, were unsuitable for humanitarian projects. Founder Kristine Pearson saw that the radios could break if wound anti-clockwise by mistake. This realisation drove us to innovate, leading to the development of a new radio model specifically designed for distance education, children living on their own, and displaced populations, powered by both solar and wind-up mechanisms.

The Lifeline Radio Comes to Life

In November 2001, we won the first Tech Museum of Innovation Award in the education category, triumphing against stiff Silicon Valley competition. The $50,000 NASDAQ-sponsored prize funded the research and development of the Lifeline radio – the first radio created specifically for humanitarian use. Additional funding was secured from the Vodafone Group Foundation, Anglo-American, and technology pioneers Brad Feld and the late Leonard Fassler.

Engineers developed several radio designs from a design brief with input from orphaned African children that had been gathered from rural focus groups. Each design was rigorously tested during field trials with children with minimal technology exposure. Kristine then took the first fully functional prototype back to Rwanda and Kenya, where groups of vulnerable children provided detailed feedback. Based on their input, 31 changes were made to the final design. Although the term “human-centred design” was unknown to us, this is precisely what it was.

Rwanda focus group with kids, and goats in the background
Rwanda focus group with Kristine Pearson

In April 2003, two years after our concept paper for the Lifeline radio was created, an 18-year-old orphaned Burundian refugee became the world’s first Lifeline radio recipient. She was among 500 young listening group leaders who received Lifeline radios in Tanzanian camps as part of a Voice of America (VOA) youth health and HIV-education project.

Between 2003 and 2010, before we launched our next-generation Prime radio, more than 255,000 Lifeline radios were distributed across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, reaching many millions of listeners. They were used in distance education projects, emergency responses, refugee camps, women’s listening groups, agricultural initiatives, health clinics, and to support child and widow-headed families.

Maasai woman with Lifelight

Pioneering Renewable Lighting

While we understood what people listened to on the radio, we later realised they were listening in the dark at night. Back then, an estimated 75% of the sub-Saharan African population (excluding South Africa) lived without electricity. (Now that figure is around 60%, so progress is being made.)

Africans who live on the margins rely on hazardous, polluting, and inefficient fuel-based lighting: kerosene, candles, and firewood. These sources can consume over 15% of already stretched household incomes, cause debilitating respiratory problems, and result in widespread fires, severe burns, and death. Millions of children attempt to study using these perilous lighting sources.

In 2007/8, we were some of the expanded into the renewable lighting sector. We conducted lighting-needs assessments, focusing on child and grandmother-headed households and those with ill or disabled members. Based on our findings, we collaborated with engineers to create fit-for-purpose, clean energy lights and lanterns, called Lifelights.

However, we found that the financial investment required to develop both lighting and audio products was not feasible for a lean organisation like Lifeline Energy. At that time, solar lighting investment was predominantly directed towards white males in the Global North (and to some extent, still is).

As a result, we concentrated on our area of greatest impact: audio products for education and information. We continue to provide solar lights for education and emergency response initiatives through excellent partner suppliers when requested.

Establishing Lifeline Technologies

Few commercial companies develop products specifically for users at the base of the pyramid. The creation of Lifeline radio highlighted the importance of an appropriate development process for this sector. Consequently, we strategically established Lifeline Technologies Trading Ltd (LTTL) in 2010. This UK-based for-profit company focused on developing, manufacturing, and supplying products to the humanitarian sector. As a unique hybrid social enterprise model, profits from LTTL accrued to the charity, creating a virtuous cycle.

Lifeline Technologies developed the world’s first power-independent media player, radio, and recorder, the Lifeplayer MP3, which was recognised as an “INDEX: Design to Improve Life” finalist and an SAB Foundation Innovation Award winner. The company also designed the Prime radio and the SolarStor cell phone charging solar panel. We closed the LTTL in 2023 as it proved to be unviable in the long run.

Focusing on Information Access

In addition to group-listening radios, we began distributing the Polaris and Fenix solar and wind-up radios for individual and family use. Despite their small size, these units are powerful, featuring LED lights and long-lasting lithium-ion batteries. Tens of thousands were distributed during the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling children to listen to school lessons and study at night.

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