Batteries Not Included – Sierra Leone

October 2004

For marginalised people in Sierra Leone, a country emerging from the strife of civil war, information and communication technologies are few and far between. This has a profound social impact, as communication, interaction and participation are diminished. The efforts of BioDesign and Plan International are combating this problem by providing cheap and sustainable ways of communicating. BioDesign spreads the word on its do-it-yourself solar-powered radio, while Plan International has helped establish a radio station to encourage social engagement and education.

Communicating in Sub-Saharan Africa

© Annie Bungeroth/ITDG
© Annie Bungeroth/ITDG

The people of sub-Saharan Africa remain the most marginalised and isolated in the world. The region has just ten million telephones – two per cent of the world’s total – and half of these are in South Africa. The other five million are so dispersed that the vast majority of those who can afford to use them live two hours from the nearest phone. Yet the social and economic life of most people in Africa revolves around communicating with relatives, friends and those from the same tribe. In culturally diverse ways all over the continent, people work together to support each other. These traditions form the essence of what it is to be African, and create the social fabric that binds the people with their family, community, ancestors and heritage. A particularly important feature of this fabric is the oral tradition through which cultural stories and histories are communicated and preserved.

The emergence of affordable information and communication technologies (ICTs) – particularly radio, mobile telephones and the internet – over the past decade has provided sub-Saharan Africa with the opportunity to overcome its isolation. Fifty years ago, the first transistor radio became available to consumers. The radio, powered by batteries, was transformed from a bulky and expensive item into a cheap personal accessory. Its users can tune in almost anywhere. For the developing world, the power of the radio is in its low cost, portability, suitability for remote areas not served by electricity, and its accessibility by people who cannot read. In the developing world, therefore, the radio is as important now as it ever has been elsewhere.

The Plan in Sierra Leone

Radio is also an excellent way of educating and engaging people. In Sierra Leone literacy levels are low and newspaper distribution is limited to urban areas, but almost every family has access to a radio. The NGO, Plan International, has been working hard to educate people and to give them a voice through the medium of radio. After years of civil war in Sierra Leone, Plan is helping people return their lives to normal. Working in Moyamba with local DJ and manager of KISS-FM, Andrew Kromah, Plan has established Moyamba District Community Awareness Radio – MODCAR. Many children and young adults in the district missed out on education during the war, and the radio station, as well as keeping people informed, will help raise awareness of the importance of good education. Children produce 60 per cent of the programmes aired by the station, with the remainder produced by local authorities and parents.

Plan International

Vision: “A world in which all children realise their full potential in societies which respect people’s rights and dignity”.

The British journalist, John Langdon-Davies, and refugee worker, Eric Muggeridge, founded Plan in 1937. Originally called ‘Foster Parents Plan for Children in Spain’, the aim was to provide food, accommodation and education to children whose lives had been disrupted by the Spanish civil war. During the Second World War, the work expanded to help displaced children throughout war-torn Europe. As Europe recovered, Plan began to look further afield. Plan International now aims to bring lasting improvement to the lives of children wherever they live, whatever their circumstances. Working in 45 developing countries Plan drives towards its vision through five key areas: education, health, habitat, livelihood, and building relationships.

Although radio may be a lifeline, many of its potential users do not have access to grid electricity. These people face a choice of whether or not to spend the equivalent of up to three days’ food on batteries for their radio. An alternative is to use the wind-up or ‘clockwork’ radio, originally developed by the British inventor Trevor Baylis. The wind-up radio is often considered the most effective way of powering radios in remote and resource-poor areas. However, many have begun to question the viability of the wind-up radio, in the belief that a minimum initial cost of US$60 is too much and that handouts reach very few potential users.

“They [wind-up radio distributors] set out to reach a lot of people, but most of their market is in the United States and Europe…you can buy a lot of batteries for the cost of a wind-up. For many people it is too expensive.”
Ray Holland, ITDG

© Graham Knight/BioDesign
© Graham Knight/BioDesign

Therefore, the majority of listeners in Sierra Leone are still buying battery-operated radios as they cannot afford the cost of a wind-up radio. To reduce the amount people spend on batteries, an alternative method of power generation has taken off in Sierra Leone: solar power. In collaboration with BioDesign, Plan is advocating the use of solar powered radios, which can be operated for under US$2 – equivalent to a two-month supply of batteries.


“The cost of one of these [wind-up] radios could have bought over 40 radios that could be powered by solar panels…people need information to be empowered, but they need power to keep them playing their radios.”
Andrew Kromah, Manager KISS-FM


© Graham Knight/BioDesign
© Graham Knight/BioDesign

Biodesign is a non-profit organisation offering a do-it-yourself solar technique for producing low-cost solar panels. The organisation was established ten years ago to find a way for the resource-poor (with less than US$100 per annum) to avoid spending several dollars a year on dry cell batteries for their radios. Solar panels allow people in developing countries to have low-cost alternatives to expensive disposable dry cells and dangerous wick lamps. The DIY technique allows solar panels to become cheap and affordable for poor people. Considerable savings can be made in just a few weeks by replacing dry cells and paraffin with rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries. These can be charged during the day, allowing people to listen to the radio at night.

BioDesign acknowledges that the DIY solar panels do not hold all the answers. Many people have witnessed powerful commercial solar systems that provide energy for many users. The DIY solar panels cannot provide this amount of energy, but they can provide enough power during the day for items such as radios, small fans, pumps, and low-voltage lights. They can also be used for solar charging existing batteries, such as car batteries. Rechargeable cells are more expensive than locally bought, disposable dry cells, but the shelf life of dry cells is so short that saving for a rechargeable cell is a viable option.

“Our aim is to make the panels simple and affordable, and not try to compete with smart commercial versions”.
Graham Knight, BioDesign

DIY Solar Charger for Small Radios

The combination of a DIY photovoltaic (pv) panel and a rechargeable cell can be used to power small radios normally fitted with two or three dry cell batteries.

© Graham Knight/BioDesign
© Graham Knight/BioDesign

Required materials
The material used for the solar panels is amorphous silicon glass, which has a special layer deposited on ordinary glass. It can be cut to the required size before attaching leads. Other materials include thin plywood, clips, plug/socket, diode, 3.6V rechargeable cell, and Velcro (an optional non-adhesive means of attaching the solar panel to the radio).

The ‘glass’ is cut to a strip about 4 – 5 cm wide and the plywood cut slightly larger. Leads are fitted to each end of the glass along with the clips. A plug/socket connects the panel leads to the leads on a 3-way terminal block (diode, rechargeable cells and ‘crocodile’ clips, which are used for attaching electrical wires). The panel is best fitted with a long lead so it can be placed in the sun. If required, it can be mounted on most radios with Velcro strips but this usually limits the amount of charging for evening listening. For more information on assembly and on acquiring a demonstration kit, contact BioDesign (details at the end of the case study).

© Graham Knight/BioDesign
© Graham Knight/BioDesign


  1. The rechargeable cells will need frequent charging for several cycles before they attain full capacity.
  2. Low radio volumes extend battery life.
  3. Plugs can be provided for connection into radios with an input socket.
  4. When soldering is possible, neater connections can be achieved.

Inspiring Entrepreneurs

BioDesign emphasises that the DIY solar panels also allow marginalised people the possibility of becoming enterprising rather than relying on handouts. The successful adoption of the DIY solar panels by a community-based organisation in Kibera, Kenya, demonstrates this added benefit. Kibera Community Youth Programme (KCYP) approached BioDesign with interest in using solar power as an income generating activity. BioDesign responded with initial basic training on assembling the solar panels, and the group were eventually able to use their own capital to construct solar panels for sale in the local community. They are focusing on 6-12 volt panels which can be used for radios, cassettes and mobile phone recharging. BioDesign have now incorporated ‘production and distribution’ into their workshops, whereby participants are split into groups on the second day and asked to make some panels, agree a minimum sale price, and then attempt to sell them in the community. Not only does this exercise help the group acquire skills in entrepreneurship, it also helps spread the word in the community that cheap solar panels are available.

Mobile Charging

BioDesign has been receiving an increasing number of requests from developing countries for information about the solar charging of mobiles (cell phones). Although not affordable for most people, they are often of great value in remote parts, so long as network servers cover these areas. Mobile phones are often hired out in villages so that people can contact relations abroad or get vital business information. The main problem is charging the mobile where there is no mains electricity. One answer is to charge the mobile battery directly from a solar panel, which is possible at the cost of just a few dollars.

Further Information


BioDesign. Solar Charger for Small Radio. Ashford: BioDesign.

BioDesign. Solar Electricity for the Poor. Ashford: BioDesign.

Participating Organisations


Plan International

Donor and Funding Organisations

Department for International Development (DFID)



ITDG Technical Briefs

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