The village of Neema Nguuni, also known as the Three Hills, is located in the Kenyan district of Nguu Tatu, an hour's drive north of the city of Mombasa. It has few of the advantages that many in the developed world take for granted, but is benefitting from the work of a small UK-based charity, the Three Hills Action Trust.
Launched in 2010, the Trust is dedicated to improving the health, education and welfare of all the village's residents. And Freeplay Energy, the world's leading manufacturer and supplier of wind-up and solar powered products designed for use by communities with no access to regular power supplies, has been working closely with the Trust to help it achieve its aims.
As Neema Nguuni has no access to electricity, Freeplay's dynamo/solar powered Encore Primary and Assist radios are providing access to vital information, such as weather forecasts, adult literacy programmes and school lessons broadcast from Mombasa. In addition, Indigo Plus and Energy Centre solar-powered lighting systems are allowing children to do homework or read books well into the evening, and adults to undertake revenue earning, such as sewing and other tasks, at night.
But Freeplay's products are also having some unanticipated, positive effects on the lives of some of the villagers.
Three Hills Action Trust's Operations Director, Jim Ewen, regularly visits Neema Nguuni and also stays in touch by phone. He says:
"I called one family in May to see how they were and to find out how much help their Freeplay radio was giving them. There was a lot of background noise and it turned out that the whole family was gathered round the radio, listening to the Chelsea-Bayern Munich Championship League match. It was amazing and showed that the radio could not only provide practical, day-to-day information, but also a link to the world beyond the village and beyond Kenya."
However, the radios also play a more central role in village life. The village school, rebuilt by the Trust and providing basic education before pupils move into the state system, uses two Freeplay radios to access lessons broadcast by a local radio station. These lessons help to give the pupils the grounding they need in literacy and other essential skills, listen to stories and build skills not only in their own language, but also in English.
Adults, too, use Freeplay radios to improve their literacy skills, as well as to access vital information that has a direct bearing on their everyday lives. Weather forecasts and agricultural updates help Neema Nguuni's residents to get the best out of the maize crops they grow and depend on, whilst healthcare advice plays an important role in an area where medical services are distant and difficult to access.
To date, Neema Nguuni has received 12 Freeplay radios, eight of which are from Freeplay's latest Encore range, with the school being the first beneficiary. Lots were drawn for the remaining radios, with the winning families taking ownership, but sharing them with their neighbours.
And that approach to sharing and co-operation underpins the growing success of one of Freeplay's prototype products, a solar-powered hanging light with a built-in mobile phone charger. Not only does the light provide better illumination than the traditionally-used paraffin lamps, but the phone charger has proved incredibly useful.
Jim Ewen says:
"Mobile phone use is incredibly widespread in Kenya, with refurbished phones being sold cheaply and top-up phone cards available for very modest amounts. The phones offer previously unthinkable ease of communication, but charging them in villages with no mains electricity can easily mean a ten mile walk and being charged a budget-stretching fee. The charger that is integrated into Freeplay's Encore range of radios, and into its prototype light, allows phones to be charged for free and the chargers at Neema Nguuni are shared freely around the village. A small amount of effort turning the charger's handle saves an awful lot of time, energy and money."
Viv Jenkins, Freeplay's Aid and Development Sales Manager, adds:
"The work of the Three Hills Action Trust is making a huge difference to the lives of the people of Neema Nguuni and we are delighted that Freeplay's products are playing a part in this. Our products are designed to empower individuals and communities living in 'off-grid' areas by offering access to light, power, information and communication and the experiences of Neema Nguuni's residents, who are delighted with Freeplay's radios, illustrate what a large impact a small number of products can have."
"The impact of the phone charger is particularly noticeable and we will soon be increasing the village's supply of our latest Encore radios, which have both chargers and lights built into their tough, lightweight casing."
"We look forward to working with the Three Hills Action Trust and the villagers of Neema Nguuni for a long time to come."