Across the globe, even in impoverished communities where families can’t afford electric light, there is something you will almost always see: children kicking balls. What if you could harness that youthful energy to generate electricity?
That is the inspiration behind an American invention called the Soccket. It looks like a soccer ball, but it contains a mechanism inside that converts kinetic energy into electric power.
According to its inventors, the ball stores enough energy after just thirty minutes of play to run an LED lamp for three hours, so a child can read at night. Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Ashton Kutcher and other celebrities and philanthropists have endorsed the Soccket as a fun product that can promote learning in developing countries.
The idea was dreamed up in 2008 as part of a class project at Harvard University. A couple of students then formed a for-profit company called Uncharted Play and started manufacturing the Soccket. They sell the balls to charities and major corporations that distribute them to impoverished kids.
One of the first large-scale distributions took place in March 2013 in the Mexican state of Puebla. Mexico's biggest TV network, Televisa, gave out around 150 of the balls in a ceremony.
“I'm very happy to be part of this wonderful adventure that is the Soccket,” said Mexican soap opera star Sachi Tamashiro. “These balls ... bring electricity to children so they can do their homework, so they can have light in their houses.”
Asking the children
I wanted to see how things had turned out since then. Did the Soccket balls actually improve the lives of the children who received them? I traveled to Puebla to find out.
The region is hilly and lush. Villagers grow bananas, coffee and vanilla. In the small towns, everyone knows everyone else, so I started asking around to find children who had received Socckets.
Within minutes, I found 12-year-old Celina Martinez Lopez. Her family lives in a shack with a concrete floor and corrugated roof. Seven people share just two rooms and two beds.
The family lights the house with three homemade oil lamps. The amber hue from the lamps is pretty, but it is not a good light source for reading.
So Celina said when she was given a Soccket, she was thrilled — “because it would light up, so we could do homework.”
She brought the ball home the first night and played with it. She then plugged in the lamp, and it lit up, as promised.
She did it again the second night.
“[But] the third day, the light went out," she said. “The ball had a tiny little plug. It got disconnected,” she explained. “Because of that, the lamp stopped working.”
I visited another house, where I met 6-year-old Eduardo Tamaniz Diego. He, too, was excited when he got his Soccket. “I liked it,” he said. “I played with it and it lit up.” But his ball didn’t last long either — just a couple of months.
Eduardo said something inside the ball had broken, and he showed me how the outside of the ball had come apart, too, along one of the seams.
From house to house, I heard similar stories — of balls broken and discarded — so I was excited when I came across the Domingo Diego family. Concepcion, 15, said she still uses her Soccket, and she brought it out to show it off.
Concepcion plugged it in, and the light came on — for a split second. Then it went out. Then it came on again. Then it went out.
“There are times when it flickers and other times when it works well,” she said.
Of course, all electronics fail at some point, and the Soccket is a new product that might be expected to have bugs. But of the ten families I met that had received Soccket balls, eight said the product had failed in a matter of days or months. Two organizations involved in the Soccket distribution in Puebla found a 30 percent failure rate after a few months.
According to a 2012 spec sheet from Uncharted Play, the company that makes the Soccket, the ball is supposed to have a three-year lifespan.
Challenges of production
I called Uncharted Play and described what I saw in Puebla.
“We're going to make sure we get them the improved product,” said Jessica Matthews, the 26-year-old Harvard graduate who co-founded the company. “And we're going to make sure we really test and make sure we get them something good.”
Matthews thanked me for telling her about the balls that had stopped working in Mexico. She explained that her company is a small start-up based in the United States, and it can be hard to know what is happening on the ground thousands of miles away.
“We're not Nike. We're not Walmart,” she said. “We're a group of eight people in an apartment in New York City.”
She said turning the Soccket into a reliable, mass-produced product has not been easy. The company has redesigned the product several times, and it has moved manufacturing to its own facility in New York State after encountering quality control problems at a subcontractor overseas.
“Things may not always go right, but we are always, always, always, always, always, always trying to do our best and doing it for the bigger picture,” she said. The company eventually plans to distribute 50,000 Socckets a year, all across the globe.
But questions remain about the quality and durability of the product. Last year, the company raised more than $92,000 through the fundraising website Kickstarter. Contributors were promised Socckets in return for their backing, but some who received the product in just the last few weeks have complained about shoddy workmanship and flickering light bulbs. [On April 1, Matthews responded in a letter to her company’s Kickstarter backers: “Currently, we are working closely with our overseas vendors and manufacturing partners to improve the durability of the ball…”]
When I asked Matthews about these continuing problems, she grew defensive.
"This seems a little bit like a general attack on young adults trying to do something good,” she said. “It seems really sad that this is something that you'd want to do."
Intentions versus results
But the goal of my investigation was not to determine if the developers of the Soccket were trying to do something good; it was to find out if they had achieved something good.
I wanted to understand the challenges social entrepreneurs face when turning ideas into action, so I contacted Jackie Stenson. She studies technologies that are designed to help the poor, and she co-founded Essmart, which distributes products in the developing world.
Stenson said flashy new gadgets like the Soccket are often scaled up and distributed too quickly because wealthy foundations — not poor people — are excited about the technology.
“When the donors are ultimately your customers [and] they're the ones who are paying you to push a product out there, it's very easy to rush through some of that initial, really small-stage testing and to try to just get as many thousands of products out there as possible,” she said. “And oftentimes, that's where some of the challenges happen.”
Stenson said when new products are rushed onto the market in developing countries, they often fall apart and there are no plans for how to fix or replace them.
In the case of the Soccket, Uncharted Play’s vice president of marketing, Nicole Brown, said her company has chosen “to halt or slow down distribution each time we learned of a needed improvement.” Yet the company has already committed to delivering around 15,000 of the balls to charities and corporations that plan to distribute them in 11 countries.
Televisa, which funded the distribution in Puebla, said it is considering holding workshops to teach families how to repair their malfunctioning Socckets, but the company representative in charge of the product's roll-out in Mexico said no such workshops have been scheduled.
Jackie Stenson of Essmart raised another question about the Soccket and other high-tech products promoted to help the poor. Even if the products can be made reliable, do they really serve the needs of the communities that receive them? “We [in developed countries] often end up pushing products on people that they don't actually want and that they don't actually value,” she explained.
Stenson said she finds the Soccket a potentially "cool" concept, but she wondered: Did anyone ask the families in rural Mexico if they needed a soccer ball that could power a lamp?
No one asked the families I spoke with.
Margarita Mendez Arroyo is a grandmother in Puebla whose family received a Soccket that quickly broke. When I asked her what she really needed, she said, “If they wanted to help people like us, they should have provided help with a connection to electricity.”
You see, in her village, there is electric power. Mendez Arroyo just can't afford it.
For the $60 it cost a charity to provide her family with one Soccket ball, she said she could have had her home hooked up to the electric grid, and that could have provided light for her whole family for years to come.
This story was co-produced by the podcast Tiny Spark.