Democratizing Learning for Women and Girls

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Democratizing Learning for Women and Girls

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$1 million - $5 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Like on oversized iPod for development, our innovative Lifeplayer, an MP3-enabled radio offers unprecedented learning opportunities for women 24/7. Power independent, it can hold 64 Gb of educational instruction; play audio Internet and cellular content via an excellent speaker; record live radio for playback later; record women's voices for Internet or radio. It also charges cellphones.

About You
Lifeline Energy (formerly known as Freeplay Foundation)
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name


Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


Organization Name

Lifeline Energy (formerly known as Freeplay Foundation)

Organization Phone


Organization Address

Sandhurst Office Park, Block D, Ground Floor, Santdon, Johannesburg, 2196

Organization Country
How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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Your idea
Country your work focuses on
What makes your idea unique?

No tool exists that offers the spectrum of fit-for-purpose features to enable on-demand learning like the Lifeplayer. Educational and learning opportunities are desperately scarce for women in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in isolated areas and for marginalized groups. After years of research talking to hundreds of groups of women and vulnerable children (mainly girls) who have received our solar and wind-up Lifeline radio, we created the next generation tool that combines practical technologies to fill the huge learning opportunity gap. NGOs working in the educational space were also consulted. Lifeplayer is power independent as 85% of Africans have no access to electricity, poor women cannot afford batteries and solar isn’t enough, so there’s a fail safe winding function for when the sun isn't shining.
Pre-loaded educational content on the MP3 feature can be paused and repeated enabling women to learn and discuss at their convenience. Lessons can be repeated as often as necessary. A radio health drama can be recorded for later playback. Its excellent sound quality enables groups of 60 or more to hear it clearly. Women can create their own content and share their voices, their stories by uploading them at a community radio station for broadcast or a cellphone or the Internet via an SD card. Women generated content can be widely disseminated. Business training can will help women to develop the skills and learnings necessary for setting up a business or getting a job. The Lifeplayer’s solar panel charges cellphones and includes onboard software indicating exactly how the tool has been used. Robustly constructed to operate in harsh climates with an easy to understand user interface, the Lifeplayer powerfully democratizes learning for women.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

Tell us about the social impact of your innovation. Please include both numbers and stories as evidence of this impact

It’s a new innovation and will be formally piloted in mid-2010. However, for 12 years Lifeline Energy ( formerly Freeplay Foundation) has been distributing solar and wind-up radios to women’s groups and girl heads-of-households and have collected 12 years of feedback. Batteries are a gender issue. In sub-Saharan Africa, especially in rural areas, women are less likely to have money, to buy radios or batteries to power them. In many cultures, women aren’t allowed to even touch radios. They are the preserve of men. Poor quality batteries average 8 hours, so listening is tightly rationed. In Africa, there is no greater power for social change than radio and we developed the only radio for the humanitarian sector – the power independent Lifeline. Since 2003, over 215,000 have been distributed, conservatively reaching 10 million listeners who would otherwise not have listening access. The majority are female. Engineered for group listening (50 can hear it), they’re used in thousands of classrooms in Africa to support distance education. For example, in Rwanda, our radios support widow’s associations. Rural widows had no radio access. Now listening groups gather to hear local and international news and current affairs; they discuss programs on reproductive health, their rights, new laws, peace-building, and climate change. They say that they no longer feel uninformed or ‘stupid’. They’ve forged strong cross-ethic relationships in their listening groups. They gain a sense of belonging, feel more empowered, do things differently now and they believe that women are central to building a peaceful Rwanda. With millions spent on the radio programs created to benefit women, the reality is that women don’t have equal access. Our Lifeline radios provide sustainable access for women. The Lifeplayer is the next step in women being able to gain a quantum leap in opportunities for knowledge through technology. We know that the Lifeplayer will empower, encourage and inspire poor women as never before. In addition, African ministries of education suffer a shortage of skilled teachers in subjects like math, science and English. Years of quality content in these subjects can be loaded on the Lifeplayer offering unprecedented learning opportunities for girls.

Problem: Describe the primary problem(s) that your innovation is addressing

Our innovation addresses two significant and strategic impediments for women and girls: access to education (education in its broadest terms) and access to clean energy. With its MP3 capacity, the Lifeplayer can come pre-loaded with whatever content is desired or needed – i.e., how to start a business, what is credit and microfinance, English instruction, best practice agricultural approaches, how to harvest rainwater, dramas about HIV/AIDS, or the rights of women and girls - all in local languages. Radio remains unrivalled as the primary communication medium in Africa. Access to information empowers. However, women's access to information is severely curtailed by the lack of money to buy batteries (which are toxic, poor quality and often unavailable in rural areas). Sometimes cultural practices prevent women having listening access at all as radio is the preserve of men - information is power. With the Lifeplayer being energy independent, women don’t have to worry about the ongoing cost of batteries or listening being rationed, strongly democratizing education. Only 5% of rural Africans have Internet access and the MP3-enabled Lifeplayer bridges radio, Internet, and cellphones. Its solar panel charges cellphones, saving women walking long distances and the cost to power them. They can charge a fee to others for charging phones to generate income. The Lifeplayer is robustly constructed to operate in harsh conditions and extreme climates and will not intimidate users with little or no exposure to technology as it has a simple and intuitive user-interface. It comes with cartoon-based instructions, which can also be in audio format.

Actions: Describe the steps that you are taking to make your innovation a success. What might prevent that success?

To ensure success we conducted an in-depth, intimate study of the ‘market’ and developed a tool that responds to current gaps in information and education whether formal curriculum-based or practical. The Internet reaches a fraction of women in sub-Saharan Africa and, although millions have cellphones, they battle to charge them. There is a paucity of opportunities for women to learn practical business and life skills and in their own time. By addressing needs through an end-user centred design process, we’ve developed a feature set and functionality that increases the likelihood of success of both the device and the projects that use it.
The success of the Lifeplayer will be driven by awareness of this previously unavailable product, its unique feature set, as well as through structured partnerships between government, NGO and sector organizations to ensure the effectiveness of the projects that use it. The Lifeplayer will be officially launched to the global media and our own database on 7 April. We believe it will attract the interest of technology and social innovation media in particular. We’ve retained excellent content creation specialists and are discussing potential projects with our long-standing partner organizations for both development and emergency response. The CEO has held high-level meetings with various African government ministers and African corporates who are interested in sponsoring the device in large-scale projects. Lifeplayer will be piloted formally in Congo later this year. Further, we have established a for-profit trading arm, Lifeline Technologies Trading Ltd (LTTL) which will market and sell the Lifeplayer to multi-lateral donors. Any profits earned by LTTL revert to Freeplay Foundation as core and research funding, creating a virtuous cycle.

Results: Describe the expected results of these actions over the next three years. Please address each year separately, if possible

Lifeplayer will be launched with pilot projects in Rwanda, Congo, Kenya and South Africa. Embedded data logging software allows accurate monitoring and evaluation its use. This data, coupled with project information tracking (i.e., measurable aggregate improvements in education initiatives), will assist in device and content enhancement and provide case study data to promote use elsewhere.
2010 focus areas, but not limited to:

Education - improving education standards of students and teachers by acting as a teacher’s aid and delivering excellent educational content in languages of choice. Audio content, accompanied by visual aids, will exponentially facilitate learning for students while serving as a mentor to teachers. Content can be played, paused, discussed and re-played until clearly understood by all.

Health – aiding field-based health care workers and mid-wives in health education. The Lifeplayer carries awareness campaigns to mitigate the spread of HIV, malaria, cholera and TB – and be quickly and remotely updated to address seasonal outbreaks of influenza or measles. Hand washing or boiling drinking water is re-enforced to combat water-based diseases. Family planning, violence against women, rape and women's health issues can be accurately and sensitively addressed to include women and men.

Business skills training – women learn about setting-up a business and financial literacy, micro-finance, credit, bookkeeping, marketing and dealing with banks, interviewing skills, etc.

Agriculture – providing information to improve productivity of farmers. Financial literacy content empowers farmers by providing business skills and information on seed pricing and fertilizers or market rates for produce sales – even weather reports. Information can be recorded locally and shared in co-ops to retain collective knowledge or broadcast over radio stations.

2011 – Project data gathered in M&E programs is expected to demonstrate marked improvements in above focus areas. Case studies will support expanded roll out into new and existing programs, reaching many thousand more beneficiaries. Data may point to opportunities to improve the Lifeplayer, achieved through software updates - implemented retrospectively to devices already in use.

2012 - New technologies will be explored to further enhance impact, including zero power LCD screens to include text and images, as well as GSM modules to allow remote data transfer without the need for intermediate companion technologies like cellphones.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your innovation seek to have an impact on public policy?


If your innovation seeks to impact public policy, how?

Yes, it could impact public policy ito of using MP3 technology as viable and underutilized technology in development. In ministerial meetings with African governments, they see the huge benefit of this tool. They can make it mandatory for use in schools for English instruction, for example. The technology makes learning possible in ways never before increases the quality of teaching. It can be loaded with information on government policy for all to hear.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for less than a year

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your innovation

Partnership from the beginning has been one of our core values and underpins everything we do. Our business/implementation model is rooted on partnership. We are lean and fast-moving as a result of partnerships and alliances with organizations with whom we share common values. We work with in-country NGOs to identify beneficiaries. We train and help capacity build local NGO personnel (who are mainly women) or community volunteers in our distribution methodology. We consult with women and girls consistently in any new product development process and women have been involved in our design briefs and focus groups and distribution sessions. While the Lifeplayer provides an practical vehicle to provide sustainable access to information, it is critical that the information provided is also of excellent quality to ensure successful results. Recognizing this we have partnered with experts in existing radio-based instruction to advise and to co-ordinate the creation of appropriate quality content to accompany Lifeplayer distribution. We are also in discussions with financial literacy content partners to ensure high quality programming in this space.

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

The research and development of the Lifeplayer was sponsored by our patron, Tom Hanks, and his friends. There are no R & D costs to recover. The Lifeplayer initiatives will be funded through six revenue streams. 1.It will be included in a variety of grant-funded corporate and grant-making foundation proposals with a focus on education (school curricula), teacher training, agriculture, education students and teachers for fragile states, and business skill development and training. 2. NGO partners will include Lifeplayers to support their projects and programs and will fundraise for its use. 3. We are already submitting comprehensive proposals to national governments in Africa to include Lifeplayer to provide language, maths and science tuition. This includes both the Lifeplayer and the creation of content. 4. We will raise funds on the Internet for Lifeplayer for specific projects which focuses on individual funders, as we already do for current projects. 5. We have established a for-profit trading company that will make the Lifeplayer available to the UN and other multi-lateral donors. Any profits from the trading company revert to the Freeplay Foundation. 6. We will work with MFIs to make the product available to women’s associations and others for purchase.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

There are many as I’ve spent years interviewing beneficiaries about the impact that our Lifeline radios on their lives. Here is just one example of a defining realization of the need for our innovation. In early 2008 we were evaluating the impact of Lifeline radios on two islands in Zanzibar, Unguja and Pemba. Both are dependent on diesel fuel brought in by ship from mainland Tanzania to power radio stations which broadcasts the distance education program, Tucheze Tujifunze. The islanders follow the same national curriculum as the mailanders, but don’t always do the same lessons the same day because of the fuel supply. If Unguja received its supply of fuel and Pemba didn’t, it would continue to broadcast, leaving the Pemba schools behind their lessons. When the Pemba station received its fuel for their diesel generator, it would start broadcasting the lessons from the same point as the radio station in Unguja, jumping ahead numerous lessons to finish the national curriculum on time. This created serious difficulties for the students and teachers as they had to make up the lessons missed, but without the help of the radio programs. Further, all students take the national exams at the same time, irrespective of whether or not they learn the curriculum from radio or conventional teachers. An MP3-enabled radio would solve this problem while decreasing dependency of the schools on the radio station’s erratic fuel supply. I’ve seen national and local radio stations several times lose their power for more than a day in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tell us about the person—the social innovator—behind this idea.

Kristine Pearson founded Lifeline Energy and headed the Freeplay Foundation (former name) since its inception 12 years ago. She is has made a lifelong commitment to the development of women and girl children in Africa through appropriate technologies. She had the idea and vision for the unique solar and wind-up Lifeline radio, after working with orphaned children in Rwanda. People in the development sector she spoke to about a radio specifically designed for children living on their own and distance education to benefit girls and women most thought the idea was a non-starter. Not taking 'no' for and answer, the Lifeline radio concept won the very first Tech Museum of Innovation Award in 2001. She personally raised all the funds for its development. Since 2003 more than 215,000 have been distributed reaching 10 million listeners who would otherwise not have listening access. She raised the funds for the Lifeplayer and has overseen its research and development in collaboration with the head of LTTL, Phil Goodwin. In addition, Kristine has spearheaded the FF's lighting efforts, raising funds and overseeing the research and field trials for the Lifelight - a solar powered, wind-up LED light. She is spearheading a sweeping initiative to create clean energy lighting/charging business for rural women called 'Women Lighting-up Africa'. She spends as much time as possible in the field instead of the office. Kristine immigrated to South Africa from California in 1988. Previously Kristine was an executive at a large banking group and prior to that had her own consultancy specialising in the development of women in management. She has been recognised as a fellow of the Schwab Foundation for Outstanding Social Entrepreneurship of the World Economic Forum.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Email from Changemakers

If through another source, please provide the information
Does your project address any of the following barriers to women’s technology access and use?

Women’s time poverty, Social norms, Economic or institutional constraints, Women’s lack of involvement in the technology development process.

If you checked any of the boxes above, please explain how.

Women are involved in our entire new product development process, from idea generation, research, design briefs, prototype testing, field trials, programme design, training and project/programme implementation . Women are interviewed in depth about energy poverty and the consequences of their use of fossil fuels and toxic disposable batteries. Women can listen and learn at their convenience to radios and the Lifeplayer due to their power independence. What we develop gives women more productive time in their days and reduces their dependency on fossil fuels and poor quality batteries. Freeplay Foundation is an all-woman organization.

Does your project involve women in one or more of the following stages of the technology lifecycle? Identification of the problem the technology will solve:

Technology design, Market research, Technology introduction, Technology training, Technology supply and distribution, Assessment and evaluation.

If you checked any of the boxes above, please explain how you will ensure women’s involvement in each relevant phase of the technology lifecycle.

Women were interviewed from the get-go before we began the development process and we drew on 12 years of feedback of listening to women and their information needs. They are involved in our market research processes, training design and implementation as well as in research and evaluation. They will be involved in their own content creation once the projects are implemented. We will also train women in maintenance and repair. There is a possibility they will be involved in supply chain and distribution in some of the projects.

If women are a focus of your project, how did this focus evolve?

The project focused on women from its conception..

Which type of women will your project reach directly?

Rural, Peri-urban, Low income.

In what ways does your project team/leadership involve women?

It is led by a woman/women., It is led by a woman/women from a developing country., The core project team includes women., The core project team includes women from developing countries..

Has your organization formed any new partnerships in response to this challenge? If so, with what type/s of organization/s?


Has your project leadership had prior experience with the following?

Working with women, Working with technologies, Working to increase women's economic empowerment through technology, Working on innovation.