AfriGadget and the solar FLAP bag project

I’m scrambling to put my bags together for Ghana, as I leave in just a day for Maker Faire Africa. There’s only one problem, I don’t have everything that I need, and I’m waiting on a shipment from a California bag company. The good news: I’ve just been told that I’m no longer sworn to secrecy, so I can begin telling the story. Here is the FLAP bag project story (from my perspective) and AfriGadget’s involvement in it.

A little background

Four months ago the Pop!Tech team approached me about their collaborative project with Sheila Kennedy of the Portable Light project, who showed off her solar TB blanket at Pop!Tech 2008, and Timbuk2, the well-known messenger bag company.

FLAP bag project companies

Their plan was to develop a bag that has the potential to bring the benefits of portable power to selected global communities around the globe, and they were hoping the I could help with distribution and testing within the African communities that I frequent, where power is crucial. Of course, I jumped right in, this was just too intriguing to not do so, plus I have great admiration for all of the players: Pop!Tech, Timbuk2 and Sheila Kennedy.

The FLAP bag project

FLAP stands for Flexible Light And Power. The flap on the messenger bag has the single solar panel on it, connected to the tech tray, which has an on/off switch, an LED light and a USB connection. So, in concept, the bag can be used as a portable lighting and power supply unit for anyone. Most useful however, to those lacking consistent power for devices or an electric lighting option.

How to charge the FLAP bag

Image: How to charge the FLAP bag

This bag will be the official Pop!Tech 2009 bag, and will also be sold by Timbuk2 sometime after that. It’s a unique bag that has the potential to change the way a lot of people (not just in Africa) do things. I don’t have detailed information on any of that, so look to the Pop!Tech team for more information on availability.

AfriGadget’s part in this

Due to my fairly extensive travels, dealing with just the right cross section of potential users for the bag, I was in the right place to distribute some test bags for feedback from end-users. My job, over the next three weeks will be to find the right types of people to give a bag to, interview them before and after, and report back on my findings.

My first stop is Ghana, then on to Kenya and Uganda. I have 10 FLAP bags, with plans to hand out 4 in Ghana, 4 in Kenya and 2 in Uganda. To do the interviews, I will have the help of Henry Addo in Ghana (also a colleague or mine at Ushahidi), and with David Ngigi in Kenya (a young videographer and friend). Pop!Tech has supplied us with small video cameras that we’ll be using for the interviews, as well as some starter questions and types of individuals that they would like to see get the bag.

My objective is to find people from many walks of life, from taxi drivers to citizen journalists, and from roadside food ladies to seamstresses. One of my questions is this: can much of this bag be created from locally available materials?

My main goal: find out if it is useful, usable and if its adaptable to everyday life in Africa.
The Challenge: asking people how they would adopt these kits, looking for inventiveness.

I won’t be sugar-coating my own reviews, nor those of the people who we interview.

Tune in for more tomorrow

My next post will be pictures of the kits, unboxing of the items that I have received and my initial opinions on them. I’ll also be doing some personal interviews (video diary) of myself throughout the weeks ahead, giving some insights into the day’s events and overall thoughts on the FLAP bag project.

[Update: Day 1 video diary]

I’ll also be using Twitter for updates, and though I manage the @AfriGadget account, when I get on the road I usually just post from my personal @WhiteAfrican account.

Additional updates from the manufacturer and from the project team will be found on the Pop!Tech blog and the Timbuk2 blog from time-to-time.

18 comments » Write a comment

  1. Hi Erik, this sounds like a very exciting project. Am glad that you and Afrigadget were able to get behind this because it sounds like one of those things that could make a huge impact on the lives of so many.

    The applications for this could be so many…students in particular-come to mind.

    Can’t wait to see the video footage of the individuals using the bags. Everything about it sounds practical to me except the 6 hrs part. But I’ll wait for the reviews before making any snap judgments though.

  2. Please keep me posted, Eric, we’d be interested in assisting with distribution if its successful and have 10 volunteers around western Kenya right now (and in Nairobi/Matopeni) if you want them to test the bags. They’ll be in rural communities until October.
    Have a great trip
    Krgds Alison

  3. Allison, if you have anyone in mind, shoot me an email. I’ve not made the final decisions for the recipients yet. Most importantly, if you know someone who can sew that would be good.

  4. Hey.. I am a dress designer/seamstress living in Australia. I have just come back from Lake Victoria Kenya, where I have set up solar power,a Kickstart moneymaker water pump (a must have for any rural farmer ) and a water tank that we filled with the water pump..Do check out my facebook..I am interested in anything that can help my adopted family and orphans.The bag sounds great….. Elly Bath

  5. Looks like a great bag! Is it waterproof? And how much can you carry inside it? How many kgs does it load? How is the fabric – will it resist the red soil?

    How much will it cost?`Can it be produced localy? Is the pcb RoHs compliant? What kind of material is it made of?

    How long will it take to recharge the batteries inside (it comes with an internal accumulator inside, right?) and how strong are they? What kind of solar panels are used for this bag?

    Let’s hope this idea will inspire others to quickly flood the market with their own versions.

  6. This is a great project! There’s a practicality here that applies across cultures and countries.

    I’m curious as to how efficient the solar panels are…

  7. Very cool project Erik. I think all of Kenya would be interested right now – these power black outs are such a downer :(

  8. Considering my previous travels in Africa, I’ve got to say that one of the things I did tend to try to avoid was staying in direct sunlight for 6h a day. So while it’s sort of nice to have it charge while you’re on the move (and not in a car) I could imagine it not turning out to be a whole lot more useful than carrying a separate solar panel/Freeloader/etc.

    I submit the solar panel should be detachable from the bag, so that it can be left in the sun without the bag which might otherwise heat up unnecessarily.

  9. @Thomas

    I agree with you that a detachable solar panel sounds so practical. That sounds like an application that would be relatively easy to implement.

    @Erik

    If it works out and becomes a go how are they planning to distribute the backpacks? We actually have a client that manufactures solar lighting appliances and is looking at whether the African market will have a demand for the products. Again thanks for sharing this with us. This is great work!

  10. @Thomas, if you get a chance to look at the other posts on the project here, you’ll notice that the bag does have the detachable flap that can be hung out to collect sunlight so that you don’t have to stand out there with it. :)

  11. If you need to experiment in Zimbabwe please shoot me an email. Power cuts are getting worse. I leave in a week & a half.

  12. This project is awesome, I’ve been following some of the posts and think that it really does deserve a lot more media attention, the benefits to the lower income families in africa will be amazing.
    Thanks for the updates Erik!

  13. We would love to hear if there is any uptake or interest from midwives, or perhaps put you in touch with a group for testing these fantastic FLAP bags for midwives…. Portable Light is already on our innovation index!

    Meg
    Maternova

  14. Pingback: The FLAP Bags Arrive | AfriGadget