According to a 2009 World Bank study, inadequate access to energy is the single largest impediment to economic growth across Africa, yet in the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa more than 500 million people lack access to energy in the form of electricity. Even modest increases in electricity or lighting services have a profound effect on human development, specifically, at a residential scale, in improving education and productivity.

American Robert Workman, owner of a global hobby and craft products empire, visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2007 and was shocked at the basic lack of power, and the lack of opportunity this represented to a people torn by war and political turbulence. Workman founded TIFIE Humanitarian – 
an acronym for Teaching Individuals and Families Independence through Enterprise. Two years later, with an understanding in real terms of what might and might not work in an isolated, technologically unsophisticated community, Workman founded Goal Zero.

TIFIE Humanitarian aims to supply and teach the use of renewable solar energy technologies to communities in need, through their Light a Village program as well as in response to natural disasters. Light a Village requires villagers to pay 50 per cent of the cost of either a portable solar kit (PV panel, power pack and 3-watt LED light) or connection to a TIFIE-installed solar farm, with cash or labour payment due within 24 months. Goal Zero is tasked with delivering innovative, portable, renewable power solutions that are durable and simple enough to work in TIFIE’s projects around the world.

Three years young, Utah-based company Goal Zero was recently named one of the top 50 companies in the US to work for, and has delivered portable solar solutions to the communities Workman and TIFIE identified in the Congo, relief work camps in Haiti, to tsunami-affected areas in Japan and, most recently, to people in the US hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. The not-for-profit product giveaways are funded by sales of Goal Zero products to campers, Burning Man participants and survivalists in developed world markets.

“Knowing that the products are making a significant difference in people’s lives is a huge team motivator,” says Goal Zero CEO Joe Atkin. “We are a purpose-driven organisation and our goal is to empower people.”

Good product design is central to the success of the company. The ‘off-grid nomad’ portable solar accessory market is a burgeoning space in both developed and developing worlds, but few players cross function and design as effectively as Goal Zero and much of that success comes from the modular, foldable design that characterises each of their solar-power systems.

The best-selling Guide 10 Plus adventure kit, for instance, presents as a 0.36 kg, iPad-sized nylon folder, opening to reveal two integrated 7 watt solar panels, a power pack sporting a USB port for charging 
mobile devices, and a plug-in battery charger with four rechargeable AA batteries. It’s neat enough to pack into any bag, light enough to not make a difference to a pack and it sports all kinds of camping language accessories like a built-in LED flashlight, elastic closure toggles and a carabiner for hanging the whole kit. In full sunlight, Goal Zero boasts that this kit can charge a mobile phone “as fast as the wall”.

A slew of patents aimed at keeping Goal Zero at the fore in portable power includes innovations like interchangeable tips on a battery, for use with a range of portable devices, as well as various relationships between the panels, the batteries and the packaging. Other design details appeal from a sustainable point of view: water-based lithium ion phosphate batteries, water-based printing, and casings made from recycled rubber and plastic. A particularly useful innovation is the patented connection design that allows every Goal Zero product to chain and stack. The design was developed in response to a common off-grid issue when devices require a higher wattage, or a longer period of power.

The lightweight Goal Zero Escape power pack is a particularly appealing ergonomic design with the sleek, thermos-shaped silver pack hanging from a large, round, rubberised handle. That pack can power – among other things – a low power, long-lasting LED light designed as an indestructible, flexible light that can stand or hang. Intended for use in the TIFIE projects, the compact size, long-life and robust construction also make the light and the power pack perfect camping accessories. The 3-watt LED (equivalent to a 45-watt incandescent bulb) will run for 50 hours on a single charge, and up to eight of these can be daisy-chained together. This thoughtful, innovative and efficient approach to product design is the reason Goal Zero so successfully straddles providing two very different worlds with portable solar power.

Goal Zero is forward in celebrating its outdoorsiness as an essential part of the design and testing process. The head office is kitted-out with an onsite gym, a climbing wall, and a slide connecting the first and second floors. Product designers and developers are depicted climbing mountains, packing for remote extremes and submersing solar panels, all in the name of field-proven portable solutions.

Take solar panel materials selection, for instance. Cheap charge-up garden lights and gadgets that quickly lose their effectiveness have given consumer-sized solar a bad name. The Goal Zero design team reports that ruggedness is mainly dependent upon the top clear layer, which can be glass or plastic.

“Glass is longer-lasting than plastic (in weather) but more fragile. However, glass is also more efficient at power transfer than plastic,” says Atkin. “That’s why we build our panels to fit the needs of the user – our go-anywhere Nomad panels are rugged and durable (but) for more permanent, longer-lasting installations, we have our aluminum-framed Boulder panels, covered with tempered glass.”

The product names – Yeti, Boulder, Sherpa – the olive and charcoal colouring and the no-nonsense materials 
effectively convey the company’s mantra. And when you ask Goal Zero just how durable their products really are? The official line speaks volumes: “How durable is Chuck Norris?”

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