Like many social enterprises, we started with a great idea and a shoestring budget. We began formally working out of an apartment in London in January 1999. At that time we were known as the Freeplay Foundation. Within a few months, we’d moved into a shared office with a company called Freeplay Energy, which manufactured the wind-up radios for use in our initiatives in rural Africa. We operated independently as a registered charity in the UK, USA and South Africa and all with separate boards.
Relaunching as Lifeline Energy
As Freeplay became an increasingly unreliable supplier for our Lifeline radio, a radio we had raised development funds to create, in 2010 we re-launched as Lifeline Energy. We felt this name accurately described our mission.
Providing Information Access to Those Who Needed it Most
From January 1999 when we officially began operating, we worked across sub-Saharan Africa to distribute wind-up and solar-powered radios to groups who needed them most: child-headed families in Rwanda, flood-displaced populations in Mozambique and teachers in Zambia. Quickly establishing a reputation for speed, flexibility, efficiency and results, we built partnerships and coalitions with NGOs and UN agencies across the continent, often working directly with local communities.
However, we quickly realised from talking to recipients, that Freeplay (who manufactured the product for us) radios, which had been designed for commercial and Western consumers, were not appropriate in humanitarian projects. Founder Kristine Pearson realised that if wound anti-clockwise in error, the radios would break. From that point on, we set our sights on creating a solar and wind-up radio designed specifically for distance education, children living on their own and displaced populations.
The Lifeline Radio Comes to Life
In November 2001, we won the first Tech Museum of Innovation Award in the education category, against stiff Silicon Valley competition. The $50,000 NASDAQ-sponsored prize financed the research and development of what we would come to call the Lifeline radio – the first radio ever created for humanitarian use. We secured additional funding from Vodafone Group Foundation, Anglo-American and technology pioneers, Brad Feld and the late Leonard Fassler.
Kristine then took the first fully working prototype to Rwanda and Kenya where focus groups of orphaned children gave us their detailed opinions. From their feedback, 31 changes were made to the final design. Although she’d never heard the term “human-centred design”, this is exactly what it was!
In April 2003, two years after Kristine wrote the concept paper for the Lifeline radio, an 18-year-old orphaned Burundian refugee became the world’s first Lifeline radio recipient. She was one of 500 young listening group leaders who received Lifelines in the 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 in sub-Saharan Africa (and beyond) reaching many millions of listeners. They were used in distance education projects, emergency response, refugee camps, women’s listening groups, agricultural initiatives, health clinics and to support child and widow-headed families.
Pioneering Renewable Lighting
While we understood from the outset what people listened to on the radio — it took us longer to realise that at night they were listening. An estimated 75% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa (outside South Africa) lives without access to electricity.
Africans rely on hazardous, polluting and inefficient fuel-based lighting: kerosene, candles and firewood. Fuel-based lighting uses more than 15% of already stretched household incomes. Exposure leads to debilitating respiratory problems and causes widespread fires, resulting in loss of property, severe burns and death. Millions of children try to study using these perilous lighting sources.
This is why we expanded into the lighting sector in 2007. We undertook a series of lighting-needs assessments, which included child and grandmother-headed households and dwellings where someone was ill or disabled. Results in hand, we worked with engineers to create fit-for-purpose, clean energy lights and lanterns called Lifelights.
However, we discovered that the financial investment required to pursue both lighting and audio products wasn’t possible for a lean and agile organisation such as Lifeline Energy. At that time solar lighting was in a nascent stage with investment funding going almost exclusively to white males in the Global North.
Consequently, we focused on the area where we have the greatest impact: audio products for mass education and information. We continue to deliver solar lights to support education and emergency response initiatives on request, but with excellent partner suppliers like Nokero who specialise in lighting.
Establishing Lifeline Technologies
Few commercial companies develop products specifically aimed at users at the base of the pyramid. The creation of the Lifeline radio demonstrated the importance of an appropriate development process for this sector. Therefore, we took the strategic decision to establish a for-profit company, Lifeline Technologies Trading Ltd (LTTL). LTTL started operating in 2010 as a UK-company focused on developing, manufacturing and supplying appropriate products to the humanitarian sector. A charity owning a for-profit consumer electronics company is a unique hybrid social enterprise model. Profits from Lifeline Technologies accrued to the charity, creating a virtuous circle.
The world’s first power-independent media player, radio and recorder, the Lifeplayer MP3, which Lifeline Technologies developed, was acknowledged 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.
Focusing on Information Access
In addition to radios for group listening, we began distributing the Polaris and Fenix solar and wind-up radios for individual and family use. Although small in size, they are loud in sound and also include LED lights and lithium-ion batteries, which are far longer lasting. Tens of thousands of these units were distributed during the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the Covid-19 pandemic, enabling children to listen to school lessons and also to study at night.