Ben Markham, Founder, Empower Playgrounds
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What are Empower Playgrounds?
Many areas in rural Ghana do not have access to electricity. Among the other problems this causes, lack of electricity means that children are unable to study in the evening after it gets dark. Most students spend daylight hours at school and then assist with family chores in the afternoon, so the evening is often their only time to study.
Students must take a competitive entrance exam to be admitted into secondary school, which would give them the opportunity to further their education. Children in rural areas without electricity are at a disadvantage when preparing for this next step. This causes many children's education to be cut short, perpetuating the poverty cycle.
After retiring from ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, Ben Markham moved to Ghana to volunteer. In rural villages, Ben observed the darkness of homes and school classrooms. He also saw the scarcity of play equipment in schoolyards. In collaboration with a local engineer in Ghana and a US university engineering program, Ben created Empower Playgrounds, based the concept of generating off-the-grid power through merry-go-rounds. This initial idea has since been expanded to bring electricty to rural communities through solar power as well.
After conducting a needs assessment at schools in Ghana, Empower Playgrounds decided to have the system charge lanterns instead of installing permanent lights at the school. Lanterns provide portable light that students can use to learn wherever they need to study, at school or at home.
To avoid theft and promote teamwork, lanterns are given a to group of students who live close together. Each group has a leader who is responsible for assembling the group every evening and returning the lantern to charge after they have finished studying. This role rotates among the students. Teachers and communities are educated to encourage them to support the program. A local electrical engineer is on-call in case of any major malfunctions, but teachers and community leaders are trained in basic maintenance.
In addition to the electricity-generating play equipment, the schools involved benefit from a custom science education kit. This helps to enhance the education that rural students receive by using the play equipment as a living lab, teaching students hands-on engineering and technology skills.
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The innovativeness is in harnessing the energy of children to power light sources that they can use to further their own education. The merry-go-rounds themselves can also be used to teach technology and engineering skills. Children can see the motor inside the merry-go-round through a glass window.Impact
Schools with Empower Playgrounds see an average increase in enrolment of 20%. The playgrounds have facilitated 3.5 million hours of light generation used by 15,000 children. This has resulted in a significant increase in learning retention as children can review work and continue learning at home.Scalability
Empower Playgrounds are installed in over 50 schools across Ghana, West Africa and Mali. The merry-go-rounds are more difficult to scale as they require engineering skills to manage, but the simpler solar version is easily scalable.