African smartphone users will soon have an alternative means to get round the power shortages afflicting much of the world’s poorest continent – a portable charger that relies on hydrogen fuel cells.
British company Intelligent Energy plans to roll out one million of the new chargers this month mainly in Nigeria and South Africa, after successfully testing them in Nigeria over the last six months, its consumer electronics managing director, Amar Samra, said.
“In emerging markets where the grids are not reliable and people are using (mobile phones) as a primary device, it is mission critical; if you’re out, you’re out,” Samra said on the sidelines of a telecoms conference in Cape Town. The chargers are designed to back up the spread of smartphones and tablets across countries where cellphones have already helped to transform lives and businesses.
The hydrogen chargers, which fit easily into a handbag, consist of a fuel cell and a non-disposable cartridge that can be detached when exhausted. Samra said consumers could expect to pay less than $5 dollars (N800) to “refuel” a cartridge of the charger. This would translate to a cost of less than $1 to charge a phone, he said, adding that final costs would ultimately depend on how telecoms companies marketed and sold the product.
Samra said that if bought over the counter, the entire device will cost under $200 (N31000), although options being considered include $10 (N2000) a month for a two-year contract or getting it for free. “Alternative sources of power are very important, because smartphones and other devices need lots of power and you need to charge up every four hours, so for a businessman it is crucial,” said Melvin Angula, an engineer attending the conference. “We always have problems with cell batteries, so everybody will be keen for portable energy. But, it has to be the right price for it to fly in our markets,” said businessman Thabo Magagula, who also attended the conference.
Besides Intelligent Energy, Japan’s Aquafairy has also been developing fuel cell chargers, Samra said. Other companies, such as Dubai-based developer Solarway, have launched solar powered kiosks designed for communities that are not linked to a power grid, each capable of charging up to 40 cell phones a day.