Charity turns theft into opportunity
Last August, while checking a solar-powered water system in Haiti, an engineer with Water Missions International noticed something amiss:
Someone had rigged devices to suck excess electricity from the panels to charge dozens of cellphones.
"Our first inclination was to stop the guy, and we could have shut him down right there," said Andrew Armstrong, an engineer with the Charleston nonprofit.
But instead of seeing a thief, the engineers saw an entrepreneur -- and a new way to make their projects more sustainable.
"The guy was making $8 a day charging phones," Armstrong said Saturday at the charity's Walk for Water event.
That's nearly enough to cover daily maintenance costs of the fresh-water system. Now Water Missions International is piloting cellphone-charging side businesses in Honduras and Uganda, Armstrong said.
A prototype of the charging system was on display Saturday during the event, which was held at Cannon Park in downtown Charleston and attracted several thousand people.
The main draw was a 3.5-mile trek through downtown Charleston. Participants wearing blue T-shirts picked up buckets in Cannon Park, filled them with dirty water at White Point Garden and trudged back to Cannon Park. It was a simulation of sorts of the distance many women and children make each day to collect water in developing countries.
Armstrong said the cellphone-charging concept is an example of the nonprofit's attempt to create systems that pay for themselves and reduce dependence on foreign donors.
Cellphone use has exploded in many developing countries, but keeping a phone juiced in areas with spotty electricity has been a problem. Solar panels increasingly are being used as battery chargers in remote areas.
Armstrong said the Water Missions International system can charge up to 50 cellphones without affecting the water treatment equipment.
"We give complete credit to that guy," he said of the Haitian who tapped into the system.