SOCCKET energy-generating soccer ball powers up poor villages

Uncharted Play has designed a soccer ball called the SOCCKET, which generates electricity for an LED light. One minute of kicking produces around six minutes of light to read, do homework, or help illuminate a home.

David Longstreath/AP/File
Thai school children hold soccer balls in Bangkok, Thailand. A special soccer ball for use in developing countries called the SOCCKET contains a generator and lamp inside for use in areas without electricity.

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. So why not harness its power for good?

That’s exactly what a start-up based in New York City is doing — literally.

The company, Uncharted Play, has designed a fully functional soccer ball called the SOCCKET which can power an LED light. One minute of kicking around this portable generator produces around six minutes of light. Children in developing countries without reliable sources of electricity can play their favorite game and then plug in the light to read, do homework, and help illuminate their homes.

“We designed the SOCCKET for children and families who could not only use the light, but were in the most dire need of a sense of hope — of having a product that addresses an issue in their lives in a positive way,” Jessica Matthews, CEO and co-founder of Uncharted Play, tells Latitude News.

More than a billion families around the world use kerosene lamps as their primary source of light because electricity is either unavailable or too expensive. But as well as being a serious fire risk, kerosene lamps also endanger the health of those who breathe their fumes. The World Bank says living in an enclosed space with kerosene lamps is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day — that’s probably why, in the developing world, an incredible two-thirds of women with lung cancer are nonsmokers, according to the BBC.

The SOCCKET is one innovative alternative to kerosene. Matthews explains that the ball contains a pendulum, or gyroscope-like device, inside it.

“As the ball rolls, the mechanism also rolls, harnessing kinetic energy and then storing it inside a simple battery,” she says.

The SOCCKET is currently being used in poor communities in 10 nations around Latin America and West Africa, including Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, and, most recently, Haiti. Uncharted Play works with larger corporate partners like State Farm and Western Union, which pay for the balls, and NGO’s like Promundo and Children International, which distribute them. Bill Clinton endorsed the project in a speech at George Washington University last March, and high-profile musicians like Linkin Park and K’naan have also pitched the SOCCKET at their concerts.

Promundo, a Brazilian charity, held a trial workshop with the SOCCKET in Brazil in June. Eighty children participated in a soccer tournament that doubled as a conversation on sustainability. Tatiana Moura, executive director of Promundo, says the event was “quite successful” and that the lights worked well. The kids who participated in the pilot will each receive a ball when Promundo begins distributing them later in the year.

Matthews estimates Uncharted Play has produced 15,000 balls since she and Chief Social Officer Julia Silverman founded the company in May of 2011. They’re working on a model with a USB port so people can charge their cell phones too.

The SOCCKET started as a group project at a class at Harvard College in 2008. The assignment? Find a real world problem and solve it. Matthews, Silverman, and two other women chose the lack of electricity in developing countries.

“We weren’t trying to change the world,” says Matthews. “By no means where we trying to do anything beyond not failing the class.”

And Matthews — who believes many entrepreneurs start out with lofty goals that end up putting too much pressure on their fragile enterprises — says changing the world isn’t her mission right now either. After all, there are a variety of solar lamps and wood-burning stoves that would be more effective in eliminating kerosene use in poor countries on a grand scale.

But Matthews, a social psychology and economics major, believes the SOCCKET can also be effective as a teaching tool. She hopes children who use it will be inspired to think creatively about problems in their own lives and communities.

“The impact of a product never stops with its pure utility,” she argues. “Part of what we’re trying to do is promote the idea of empowering the person who’s using the product, getting that person to start thinking in a different way. The challenge is: can we create inventors and innovators everywhere we go?”

Matthews is certainly an innovator herself, but no engineer. She says her team struggled at first to come up with a suitable design.

The most difficult part of the process was finding the right material for the outside of the SOCCKET. Early versions didn’t play like a normal soccer ball. And creating a product capable of withstanding tough conditions in the developing world was much more challenging than designing the generator and battery. After seven different models, Uncharted Play has settled on a recyclable, light-weight foam that’s difficult to puncture and keeps the ball inflated without air being pumped inside.

“Some of the most mundane features of a product are the usually the hardest to actually get right,” she says.

Matthews was born in the US, but her parents are Nigerian, and she’s a dual citizen. She travels there frequently. Her life abroad has raised her awareness of problems in the developing world, but she’s wary of describing herself as a “social entrepreneur,” a popular term for businesspeople who balance profit and charity in their work.

“For me personally,” she says, “it’s just entrepreneurship — providing a solution for a problem people have in a way that’s worthwhile or useful enough that they’re willing to spend something or offer something in return.”

Matthews is currently an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School, and Uncharted Play is a business, not an NGO. And she says its important for young entrepreneurs to look beyond the US for new ideas.

“It’s hard to do something new in America because we already have so much,” she continues. “Here, the next big thing is usually an app that tells you what kind of superhero you’re most like. But it’s a lot easier to do something meaningful in places where providing clean water or electricity or even self-confidence is a big deal.”

Uncharted Play is now working on the “Ludo” (Latin for “I play”), a smart ball with a chip inside it that tracks how long you play with it. You earn points for each minute of play and can “spend” them on real-world items for charitable projects.

“It’s purposeful, fun, and trying to use ‘play’ to make a difference in the world,” Matthews says. “We’re trying to share the online world with the offline world in a cool, new way.”

Uncharted Play expects to do a full US release of the Ludo — which will be marketed to consumers in the developed world — in August 2013. You can watch a video about the ball here.

This article originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world.

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