DIY solar panel maker heads to Africa for charity
In a north London suburban street there is an unassuming wooden door which leads into a garage-cum-workshop which at first glance is remarkable only for a drum kit at one end.
A second glance reveals a bunch of solar panels stacked against the wall and a man, busy breaking them up and reassembling them in a very home-made fashion.
The end result is DIY solar kits that can recharge phones and batteries. They look makeshift but they have the potential to make a huge difference to people thousands of miles away in Kenya.
As the director of KnowYourPlanet, Mark Kragh’s day job is to resell solar panels to small businesses and hobbyists.
But in February he will travel to Kenya to distribute specially-made kits he is giving away as charity, and to show local people how to make more.
For many in Africa there is little access to electricity due to mains power shortages. Infrastructure has not kept pace with the explosion in mobile phone ownership so it is not unusual for people to walk for several hours just to charge their phones.
“Often, charge points are driven by petrol or diesel generators, which are dangerous to operate and of course emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants. A daily phone charge can cost a considerable amount relative to people’s wages,” said Mr Kragh.
He was inspired by a chance conversation with a friend to experiment with using solar power as an alternative method to charging phones and batteries.
“The project started a few years back when my friend in Senegal asked me if I had any cheap options for solar power for Africa. I told him that PV [photovoltaics] was way too expensive and not a viable option, it required batteries and many other components and he should just forget about it.
“I kept thinking about this, could this really be true? Why could we not use a renewable energy? So I did some research and realised there was an entire community of people who already make solar panels from scrap,” he said.
He was also inspired by his grandmother Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, a lifelong charity worker who founded the UK’s Donkey Sanctuary.
“She passed away this year but my granny travelled in Africa for 40 years, hands-on with all the good and bad that brought with it. She made a huge impact on the local people’s lives and I hope that I will be able to carry on this work in my own way,” he said.
The kits he creates are made from solar panels that manufacturers have rejected.
“There are very strict rules,” said Mr Kragh.
Slight chips in the corner render the panels useless for traditional solar energy use but perfect for the DIY kits Mr Kragh has designed.
He aims to make them deliberately makeshift, creating a fairly crude circuit of solar panels on plywood.
The panels also require some more sophisticated kit.
“Initially we will bring specialised materials with us such as voltage regulators, UV stable encapsulants, solar cells and PV ribbon,” said Mr Kragh.
But over time he hopes to be able to source components locally.
“To start with that would be glass, LEDs, batteries, wood and metal, wires and connectors. A great part of the pilot is simply testing and trying lots of non-solar materials to see what works,” he said.
“Our main concern is the intense sun which causes degradation due to the high levels of heat and UV rays,” he added.
Armed with a £5,000 grant from charity World in Need, Mr Kragh aims to build at least 1,000 kits when he arrives, training local people along the way so that they can build new ones and service old ones.
The ultimate goal is to create a $1 (64p) solar charger which has at least a five year lifespan.
“We aim to train local people in these techniques to create cottage industries, giving people locally the opportunity to generate income and keep currency in the community, rather than pay European and Chinese manufacturers and distribution chains and retail networks,” said Mr Kragh.
And, in case you were wondering about the drum kit in the corner of his garage – it is for letting off steam and celebrating good deals. Come March Mr Kragh will be hoping to sound out a distinctly African beat.