When I was on a National Geographic crew shooting in the Congo several years ago, batteries were my gods --each one a tiny little idol of power, allowing our cameras to run and our hard drives to spin -- and because we spent most of our time nowhere near any kind of outlet, I feared and revered my batteries in equal measure. Oh that I had a Fenix universal battery charger in those days -- instead of worrying whether I had the right adapter plug, I could just clamp the sucker right onto the battery's metal contacts.
Mike Lin, CEO of Fenix, says his rugged little device "was inspired by mobile phone charging entrepreneurs in Africa," who typically charge up their batteries at kiosks for a small fee. "Having the correct charging cable can be a challenge," Lin tells Co.Design. "Also, now that a mobile phone is your Rolodex, digital wallet, datebook, and diary all rolled up into one device, you might be reluctant to let it out of your sight."
Fenix's universal battery charger is based on similar designs that Lin and his team saw being used in these developing markets -- but where those ones were designed to tap into the local grid or a nearby car battery through the cigarette lighter, Fenix's has been outfitted with a clever USB interface that you can slip into a computer in an Internet cafe, or connect to Fenix's ReadySet, a bricklike mega-battery that can be charged up by anything from solar panels to pedaling a bike. But even without attaching the charger to a power source, simply clamping it into the battery contacts causes an indicator light on the charger to flash green, letting you know that the charger has a good connection.
If that sounds like a use-case confined to the Third World, think again. "We see 'Frontier Markets' in Africa and other developing regions as both a great business opportunity as well as a great inspiration for creating new products that are relevant in the U.S., Europe, and Japan," Lin says. "We aspire to be the next great example of 'trickle up' or 'reverse innovation.'" The clamp-charger won't work on your iStuff -- obviously it requires a removable battery in order to work. But for Android phones and point-and-shoot cameras whose batteries tend to conk out at the worst possible time, the tiny universal battery charger sure beats stuffing your laptop bag with cords and adapters for every gadget you own. That makes sense no matter what hemisphere you live in.
[Top image by Chris Jordan]