With headquarters in both the UK and South Africa, this non-profit organisation strives to help give the extremely poor the opportunity to access real-time information on demand anytime, anywhere without the concern for electricity or batteries.
So far, more than 500 000 solar and wind-up radios have been distributed, conservatively benefiting over 20 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
“I feel passionately about what I do because I have seen – every single time I’ve gone into the field – the transformative power of radio,” says Pearson.
“When people have information, they make better choices and decisions. And for vulnerable women and children, the groups we predominantly work with, they simply don’t have this information access.”
Lifeline Energy designs, develops and manufactures the solar and wind-up media players, radios and lights it distributes. Its products have won or been nominated for numerous awards over the years.
Most recently, its Lifeplayer MP3-enabled radio was a finalist in the prestigious INDEX: Design to Improve Life Awards, which were held in Copenhagen during September 2011, and also received a top prize in the SAB Foundation Innovation Awards in South Africa in October 2011.
Essentially, the Lifeplayer is an oversized MP3 player that can be pre-loaded to hold 64GB of content, can download internet audio via a microSD card and can record live voice or radio programs for playback later.
With its solar panel backed up by a wind-up crank, coupled with excellent speaker quality, large groups of 60 people are able to hear it clearly.
“The Lifeplayer is designed for classroom use and for use in informal learning settings,” explains Pearson. “We are currently talking to a particular group that are very interested in using the Lifeplayer in post-conflict situations where children aren’t going to schools and there are no teachers.
"The Lifeplayer can be loaded with educational content that can very easily be acquired through a 3G cell phone or the internet and played back to these children and repeated as often as necessary.”
The MP3 Lifeplayer is a significant improvement on a previous radio-only model but before any design work actually began, Pearson and her team generated a brief based on what teachers, content providers and community leaders told them they wanted.
They spent more than two years gathering feedback from the field to ensure that the Lifeplayer would be fit-for-purpose and long lasting.
“What we do with everything we design or think about designing is talk to who will be is using it. You have to bear in mind that anything we put in the field has to operate in very harsh, uncompromising environments with people who may have little or no exposure to technology, and this is especially true of some rural women. To this day I still meet with many groups of rural women who have never turned on a radio,” says Pearson.
The design and software development took place in Cape Town where Lifeline Energy’s designer Philip Goodwin is based. “Phil Goodwin has been working with me on Lifeline’s products for over 10 years,” says Pearson.
“He has been into the field and done a lot of observational work and has combined that with his excellent design knowledge and principles.”
However, raising design and development funding was challenging. In 2010 Lifeline Energy changed its name from Freeplay Foundation and established its own for-profit subsidiary, Lifeline Technologies Trading, to serve its design needs and create an income stream.
Although the development of the Lifeplayer did have financial backing from the organisation’s US patron, actor Tom Hanks, Pearson says they still had to work with a razor-thin budget to deliver a product that had the features and capability that were requested by users.
But by designing the product in a modular fashion and for automated manufacture, Goodwin was able to deliver a suitable solution. Additionally, by reducing the size and volume by 20 per cent, an equal percentage saving on shipping was obtained.
The result is a 30.5 centimetre tall and 1.4 kilogram media player that has an intuitive LCD interface and only two knobs – one for tuning the radio and operating the media player, and the other for switching it on/off and controlling volume.
The Lifeplayer went into the field in early 2011 and already the changes can be seen. Pearson is very encouraged but feels more attention can still be paid to the hardware aspect of radio instead of all the attention currently being paid to software and programming.
“Nobody is really addressing the hardware around the transformation that radio can stimulate for social change and for community mobilisation,” she says.
“Radio is still the best avenue of information delivery. People can listen in groups, they can discuss, it can come from a variety of sources, whether it be the BBC or from the community radio station.”