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Illuminating Africa

  • Story Highlights
  • Freeplay Foundation trialing wind-up, solar-powered lights in South Africa
  • Candles only source of light for many poor families, fire a constant risk
  • Lifelight being distributed with mosquito netting to reduce incidence of Malaria
  • Freeplay best known for providing Lifeline radios through aid groups in Africa
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By Hilary Whiteman
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Twenty-seven year old Thobile is raising five children on her own. The youngest is five months, the oldest eleven.

Villagers learn how to work the Lifelight during a training session -- the light's being distributed with mosquito netting.

They live in Nkomazi, an impoverished municipality in South Africa.

By day, Thobile uses a wood fire for cooking and bathing. By night, she leaves a candle burning as a nightlight for the children.

"She wants them to be able to see if they wake up, and she wants to be able to see them if she wakes up," explains Kristine Pearson, the CEO of Freeplay Foundation.

Thobile is one of the families Freeplay Foundation hopes to help with a new program to distribute wind-up and solar lights, or the Lifelight in Africa.

"These developments are about improving people's lives," Pearson says.

"You can massage statistics any way that make it look good. I want to know how it makes your life better, tell me now. If you don't have to worry about burning your house down now... " she says, trailing off.

African Lifeline

The Freeplay Foundation is best known for its bright blue plastic Lifeline radios, which are being distributed around Africa by the thousand. Photo See pictures of Freeplay in Africa »

There are 10,000 in Kenya and 10,000 in Tanzania. Another 10,000 have gone into Malawi in the past year alone and there are more in Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.

Sudan is also being populated by the wind-up, solar-powered device.

"There's been a significant number, an unbelievable number, of radios that have gone in and are going into southern Sudan," Pearson says.

She doesn't want to reveal exactly how many are in the war-torn country, explaining the situation is "sensitive."

The U.S. diplomat who was driving the distribution of radios within the country, John Grenville, was killed by an unknown gunman on New Year's Day 2008.

A bright idea

During the course of the Foundation's work in rural Africa, the need for a new, safe source of light became obvious.

Once the charity had identified the need, its commercial partner, Freeplay Energy, went about designing the product. Click here for more about Freeplay Energy and its founder Rory Stear

The light's now being trialed with mosquito netting on the border area between South Africa and Swaziland.

"There's such a push for mosquito netting to prevent the spread of malaria around Africa," Pearson says.

"But if you have mosquito netting you cannot have a candle around it because it'll go up in flames, so it becomes quite dangerous with traditional light sources."

If the trials prove successful, the Lifelight will go into production.The plan then is to empower local people to create their own industry.


"We're looking to set up women in lighting businesses and people who have been burned in fires," Pearson says.

Potentially, the scheme could give women like Thobile a new income, and save the precious money she spends on candles each month, almost nine percent of her meager income. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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