Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Of Batteries and Brothers: Bright Lights, No City

I started out looking for a little battery powered USB charger for my phone and my Kindle, some way to keep these devices charged up while I'm out on my bike tours. I actually found two interesting chargers and one hell of a good story.

I've written previously of solar charging and most of the time I use the solar panel to charge a couple of AA NiMH batteries during the day and used those charged cells in an "emergency" cell phone charger to charge the phone or the Kindle. The problem was the little AA cell phone charger I was using had a flaky connection and not enough juice running NiMH cells to reliably charge my devices, so I went questing for something better.

Of course "questing" these days mostly means using Google and Amazon, clicking links and reading reviews. This process led me to the Burro Mobile Charger, a small bright green device with a very low price and (at the time) nothing but good reviews.  It runs on 4 AA cells, it is priced at ten bucks(!) and as you can see below, it charges my Kindle:


Clicking around I also found that Burro has a smart AC charger for AA or AAA batteries. Various devices these days, including a lot of nice LED headlamps and bike lights, use 3 batteries and a lot of chargers (even some so-called "smart" chargers) only charge 2 or 4 batteries. The Burro charger can charge up to 4 batteries but has smart charging for each battery and works fine charging an odd number of cells. This AC charger was only fifteen bucks so wound up adding it to my Amazon order as well.


Burro's product descriptions mentioned their work in Africa and a few more clicks on Amazon led me to Max Alexander's book Bright Lights, No City. Max is the brother of Whit Alexander, an ex-Microsoft guy who went on to be the co-creator of the board game Cranium. Whit's current project is Burro, a company founded to sell affordable goods and services to low-income villagers in Ghana, West Africa. Whit is one hell of a businessman and Max is one hell of a story teller.

The story of Burro is not one of charity, although the folks at Burro are clearly doing good work. It is a story making the world better through business, of working hard, being honest and making a difference. The book also happens to be very, very funny. Whit's big brother Max is a keen observer and he tells the tale with warmth, honesty and humor.

If you have the slightest interest in business, you should read this book. This is the opposite of a dry business tome, it is a real human story with real people solving real problems. Max notes:

Nothing in Africa gets thrown away, because there is no money to buy new, so Africans have learned how to repair just about anything. Ghana’s manufacturing sector may be sadly underdeveloped, but its knowledge base on how stuff works, based on the country’s vibrant repair business, is profound. The console television that Ray the Repairman serviced in our living room was made in America. It seems reasonable to observe a correlation, and perhaps causality, between a society’s ability to fix things and its ability to make things. Could it be mere coincidence that our throwaway culture parallels the demise of our manufacturing sector?

What success Burro achieves comes not from imposing outside solutions, but in learning the ways of the land and the locals. Africa is not America, something that becomes obvious to Max on one of his first Ghanaian car trips with Whit:

“You gotta get the horn thing down,” demonstrating with a short blast while swinging wide around a man on a wobbly bicycle balancing a large piece of lumber on his head. “You know, to a bicyclist there’s nothing worse than jerks who honk when they pass,” I said. “You think a guy on a bike doesn’t know a car is coming?” “Not the point. It’s a conversation,” he said, flipping his thumbs across the horn buttons in a staccato rhythm. The conversation. It has been observed that in Africa the car horn takes the place of the brake, but I think it is more than that. The horn is more like the muse of the African driver. Honking, which Ghanaians call hooting, in the British manner, constitutes a tribal language of its own, with grammatical rules.

Over the course of a few hundred pages Max profiles not just his brother and his business, but various Ghanaians from all walks of life. This is a book filled with fascinating people.

I started out looking for a gadget and I found not just one, but two that I like. Both the little green boxes I bought from Burro do exactly what they should and I'm happy with them. While I'm happy with the gadgets, I really love the book. I learned a lot of things I didn't know about another part of the world and the story is really inspirational. As one Amazon reviewer wrote, "The problem with this book is that it so made me want to go back to Africa!" I think Max's vivid descriptions of some of the difficulties encountered there will keep me from jumping on a plane, but this is a book that will make you think hard about just what you can do to make the world a better place. As Max writes near the end of the book:

"With Burro growing rapidly, Whit can’t yet envision the day when he can spend less time coaxing a green truck through red mud, and more time in Seattle sipping lattes. Burro has taught all of us that while there is a business to be made serving the world’s poor, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not for people who wither in the heat, worship Wi-Fi, and like their food cooked just so. It’s not for me, in short—but I admire my crazy kid brother for making it his."

3 comments:

Doug Mayer said...

"Could it be mere coincidence that our throwaway culture parallels the demise of our manufacturing sector?"

Very poignant. Great post!

The Disabled Cyclist said...

Book added to wish list,sounds like a good and interesting read,thanks for the tip :) Also,thanks for the idears on charging the Kindle (I recently bought my first one),it'd be nice to carry a library with me instead of one book :)

The DC

MzunguEriki said...

I think you should look at dynamo, charge cotroller, battery system for lighting and charging devices. Maybe on your last trip you would of charged most everything up during the day. Today I forgot to turn off the light riding to work and only realized after getting to work with two lights. I cant feel the drag. I now charge my phone riding into work, and have lights without messing with batteries going home.