A company called Off-Grid Solutions has committed itself to eradicating energy poverty for 1.5 billion people worldwide by leveraging sales of its signature product, the WakaWaka Power portable solar charger that combines a mobile phone charger and lamp. On that account we agreed to take a WakaWaka Power out on a test run, and boy are we glad that we did, because that gave us a first hand opportunity to compare Off-Grid’s strategy for addressing energy poverty with a similar goal rather inartfully expressed by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at its annual shareholders’ meeting last week.
The Portable Solar Charger Experience
If you’ve never used a portable solar powered charger before, the experience is kind of like being hit over the head with a hammer — but in a good way. It’s the kind of life-changing experience that you get from any common tool that makes your life easier every day.
Pick your own examples but I’ve got two of my own, one being an ergonomic hand-powered can opener (hey I use a lot of cans, what can I say?). The other one was the only other product I’ve ever reviewed, the home water carbonator from SodaStream.
In the case of portable solar chargers, there are a number of features that you want to look for and WakaWaka Power has them all.
Start with the compact, handy shape, which is about the size and weight of a typical smart phone. That’s important not only for portability but also for charging, if window space is at a premium where you live or work.
Then there’s the sleek styling (it comes in black or yellow, btw) and the intuitive-friendly design. The WakaWaka Power has only one button to push, and though it comes with an instruction sheet you can figure it out by yourself after fooling around with it for a few seconds.
As for set-up, that’s also intuitive and takes less than two seconds. Part of the case pivots out to form a base so you can stand it up for charging, and for using the lamp (it comes in two versions, one of which is lamp-only).
That large hole in the base is also self-explanatory. Find a bottle about the shape of a liter soda bottle, fill it with water or marbles or whatever, and you can pop the WakaWaka Power on top to make a “real” lamp.
How Well Does The WakaWaka Power Perform?
As for performance, the company notes that its solar panels are 200 percent more efficient than any other competing product, and we’ll take their word for it. Although I have limited access to direct sunlight at home, my WakaWaka Power still got a 75 percent charge in less than the recommended eight hours. The next day I let my iPhone power down to less than ten percent (you know, the red thingy) and the WakaWaka Power restored a full charge in less than two hours, with plenty left over to run the lamp.
Now, here’s where the hammer part comes in. Normally when you’re charging your phone and you have to go somewhere before it’s done, you have to pull out the plug and settle for less than a full charge. Well, not so with the WakaWaka Power. I had to go out before my phone finished charging, so I just took the whole thing along with me.
Sure, you could use a portable battery-powered charger, but loading up on batteries is an inconvenience and an expense compared to a well designed solar powered device.
Solving Energy Poverty
That brings us around to the energy poverty solution advanced by Off-Grid Solutions. Over here in the U.S. the portable solar device clearly has a mobility advantage over conventional energy, but in emerging economies it’s a matter of life and death.
Off-Grid’s primary goal is to help impoverished communities replace “dangerous, polluting” kerosene lamps with safer, more sustainable forms of energy. To that purpose it donates $10 from each WakaWaka Power sale to its WakaWaka Foundation, which promotes a sustainable business and education model for local entrepreneurs.
Compare that empowerment model to the ExxonMobil conventional seller-customer model, which apparently has roots in the company’s long history of kerosene sales. Tillerson’s now-notorious comment to ExxonMobil shareholders has been reported as “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” by way of making the argument that continued fossil fuel development is the most effective way to alleviate global poverty.
Not quite sure how that addresses the safety hazards of kerosene lamps, kerosene cookstoves or for that matter natural gas fracking and tar sands oil, but I guess that all depends on what your definition of suffering is.
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