Co.Design

A Universal Battery Charger Inspired By Africa's Wireless Entrepreneurs

Fenix's "universal battery charger" clamps right onto the battery, no adapter plugs necessary.

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.

Cellphones

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.

battery-Fenix

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]

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5 Comments

  • Charles Wiederhold

    I think the leapfrog in technology in Africa is truly inspirational. I was in Northwestern Tanzania a month ago and was encouraged by all of these charging stations as well as use of solar power. It will be exciting to see what else will be done with contemporary technological advances.

  • kriemer

    A better solution would be to require all portable electronic devices to use standardized USB chargers/charging cable design.  As it stands some companies short between USB leads (or similar) to differentiate their devices from competitors generating a need to buy OEM specific devices. 

  • mass_producer

    Many handset manufacturers are using the microUSB form factor. But in Africa (among other parts of the world), many phones are purchased second hand and can be quite old by western user standards. A mandate for a standard connector (who said it had to be USB?) would not address the needs of today. There is room for both a Universal charger and a universal connector - neither solution is necessarily better at addressing phone charging needs.

    Some companies do differentiate by doing things to the data pins (generally it's a resistor or voltage divider). This is to tell the phone what is a safe amount of current to sink from the charger (fast charger versus standard charger, for example) without using a different connector. The only handset I've come across that requires this is the iPhone - at least among modern handsets. Nokia requires silly things too, but they require more than USB voltage to charge.

  • Renee

    True, and I'd love to see that (looking at you Apple) but that's only part of the problem.

    Having a universal way of attaching something to get electricity in is one thing, the properties of that electricity are another.

    If you don't supply the correct voltage or current, or if that fluctuates at all you can either not charge a battery or blow it up. You can't just hook a solar panel to a li-po battery and expect it to charge.

    I'm really hoping that part of what makes this product great is that it has some sort of integrated rectifying/smoothing/overvoltage protection built in.

    If not, this is a potentially dangerous device.