The SolarBerry is a self-financing, community-owned off-grid computer lab powered by solar energy with energy-efficient Raspberry Pi computers. You can see a 3D visualisation of the SolarBerry below.
There are currently 3.66 billion people worldwide without access to the internet, 1.19 billion of these people live without access to electricity. However, the situation is worse in rural sub-Saharan Africa where only 19% of the population has access to electricity. In Malawi, 98% of schools are without access to a computer. Currently the rapid growth of the ICT sector benefits mainly urban communities. This is mostly because it is more expensive for governments to bring electricity and subsequently ICTs to rural off-grid areas. This means that these, already poor communities, face being further marginalised from today’s digital world. This is limiting their potential as they lack access to ICT based educational resources.
The Turing Trust’s concept of a SolarBerry enables access to transformational ICTs and independent learning software hosted on its electronic library for lifelong learning opportunities for students & community members. When combined with innovative software the e-library can be hosted on Rapsberry Pis, revolutionary PCs that cost less than £30. Even better, Raspberry Pis are extremely energy efficient, using 100x less than a typical Desktop PC, and 5 times less than an LED lightbulb. This means that it is affordable and appropriate to power the Raspberry Pis with solar energy.
Moreover in supporting a sustainable world, the SolarBerry is constructed from an upcycled used shipping container that is transformed into a computer lab. A re-purposed container becomes an easily transported classroom that can significantly reduce construction costs, compared to a typical rural building, by installing in a remote community within a single day. The container also ensures a secure enclosure for the high-value technologies within whilst reducing unnecessary waste.
Perhaps most importantly is how the SolarBerry can be financed by the off-grid communities it is helping. Whilst there are approximately 750 million sub-Saharan Africans without access to computers, nearly half of these people have a mobile phone. Many of these phones are found in off-grid communities where rural residents have to pay for mobiles to be charged at exorbitant rates in the nearest on-grid town or by using generators, costing roughly 4 pence per charge. The SolarBerry uses surplus renewable energy to create income-saving activities for the community. It can charge mobile phones, radios, electrical lanterns etc. at a cost 2000 times cheaper at just 0.002 pence per charge.
Offering this service, as well as others such as movie nights and printing services, to the community will enable them to save income whilst also maintain and pay off the initial costs of the SolarBerry. This is the heart of the SolarBerry, a lease-to-own community financing model where the SolarBerry acts as a catalyst for growth by supplying renewable energy. The SolarBerry is expected to repay the capital costs within 3 years, enabling another SolarBerry to be installed in another community, creating a knock-on development effect.
We intend to begin the installation of our first SolarBerry in Malawi in Summer 2016. The demonstration of this self-sustaining model for ICT access in off-grid areas will then enable us to begin a virtuous cycle, where after the initial capital cost has been recovered by the income generating activities of the SolarBerry within the community we will be able to install a second SolarBerry in another off-grid community. Furthermore, with the evidence of a successful pilot we will be able to gain significant investments to quickly scale up our operations. This will be the start of our social enterprise that will connect off-grid communities to our digital age through renewable energy.
If you are interested in our SolarBerry please do contact us for more information. Or follow the journey by signing up to our newsletter. As we develop and finalise our designs we will be releasing all relevant design information as open-access resources to support any other interested parties in designing their own solutions to off-grid ICT access.
Our progress to date
Proof of concept
We have already established working computer laboratories in Ghana with networked Raspberry Pis. These are at Dodowa, Tatale and Zabzugu ICCES and allow students to access the wealth of learning resources available in RACHEL.
Prototype SolarBerry made in Edinburgh
Advice on design from some Africa experts
We have had some very useful comments from 2 new members of our advisory board who have worked extensively in Africa. They include the following:-
- Avoid using wood externally as the cellulose in plywood attracts termites
- Keep the SolarBerry off the ground as it can get very wet in the rainy season
- Maximise the security of the solar panels by using anti-climb security paint which comes off in the hand
- Protect the Raspberry Pi units at each workstation
- Send spares to replace anything that fails or is lost
- Use Shade Cloth outside for insulation against intense sun radiation, with the creation of shaded areas all around the SolarBerry for locals to gather
So – here is an idea from our Malawi project manager, Brian Ferguson, of what the shade cloth might look like.