Open Collaboration for African Techies
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
When I first came to Buea to join ActivSpaces, a night walk through the suburban residential areas revealed one outstanding insight: the paths stretched out into total darkness. It was only a matter of time before I heard the accounts of accidents, outright robbery, and other mishaps due to the absence of adequate street lighting in the small town. Identifying this problem, I took it straight to the African Center for Technology Innovation & Ventures where I was already involved in a real estate project.
Nurturing Ideas & Collaborating
My first idea was to write up a project for the erection of light poles around residential areas. These would have a display panel affixed to them which could generate advertising revenue to keep the lighting solution sustainable. While theoretically feasible, Sebastian Prengel, a member of ActivSpaces and one of best engineers I know, cautioned me on several difficulties with this approach, the most pertinent being finance.
Sebastian and I debated until we hatched out a smaller version of the original plan, where we would build an innovative lighting unit that could be attached to public infrastructure as opposed to setting up entire light poles. The main objective would still be reached and even better, this was a project we could easily set up in the lab.
The “Rebirth” of Bisou
Sebastian and I set to work gathering the material needed to build the first model of the street lighting unit. After a few days of purchasing and assembling pieces, we had a working prototype ready for testing. It was however on this fateful day that Sebastian’s cat, Bisou, who had kept him company during all the tinkering, tragically passed away. As homage to his cat, we named our street lighting device “Bright Illumination & Sound Unit” – Bisou.
The Kiss of Light
Bisou is effective, cost efficient and an easy hardware hack. We connected a lamp with a motion sensor to a pair of speakers and an MP3 player. The lamp only comes on when there is motion to minimize consumption. Once the lights are triggered they are accompanied by audio media which can run a message such as “This light is sponsored by ActivSpaces“. Our 2nd Bisou prototype featured an encasement to protect the unit against weathering and to facilitate secure installment on outdoor structures.
After test-running Bisou in a student residential area and recording positive results, we applied to the town council for the approval to operate the project in Buea. The Mayor of Buea, Charles Mbella Moki, was delighted with the initiative and being formally employed at AES-SONEL (the national power utility company), he pledged to support the necessary negotiations that would need to be established with them. With the mayor’s endorsement, we knocked at AES-SONEL’s door to forge the final alliance we would need to make the project work.
After dozens of meetings, presentations, field studies and technical assessments, AES-SONEL finally validated the street lighting project for Buea and authorized deployment of Bisou units in January 2012.
24 Hour Action
On the 15th and 16th of December, the 1% Club is hosting their annual 24 Hour Action and the Bisou team at ActivSpaces is a participating action group. For our launch, we are inviting the whole community to ActivSpaces to donate to the street lighting effort, record their own audio messages and hear them played across the streets of Buea when we deploy our solution with AES-SONEL in January.
This blog is a resource for news, project updates, member profiles and community events at ActivSpaces, an open collaboration space, innovation hub and startup incubator for African techies. Based in Buea, Cameroon.