Photo Credit: Jennifer Collins

Ball Generates Electricity for Poor Kids…Until It Breaks

I’m so happy to bring you our first story produced by an outside contributor. Reporter Jennifer Collins’ investigation was made possible by the generosity of Tiny Spark’s Kickstarter backers.


It’s a story about a pair of young Harvard graduates who said it was possible to harness the world’s love for soccer to generate electricity for poor kids.  They called their product the Soccket, formed a for-profit company, and began selling it to corporations and foundations in the U.S. and around the world. Co-founder Jessica Matthews launched the Soccket back in 2008, saying she had helped develop a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into power. Just a half hour of play would generate three hours of light.

The idea captured the imagination of the media and influential leaders alike. Matthews’ company, Uncharted Play, was among Inc. Magazine’s 25 Most Audacious Companies.  Bill Clinton described it as “extraordinary” and hailed the ball as “an off-grid solution that gives us a way to bring power and improved quality of life.” Last year, during a trip to Tanzania, Barack Obama tried the Soccket out. “You can imagine this in villages all across the continent,” he was quoted as saying.

Soccket co-founder, Jessica Matthews, right, shows off the Soccket with President Obama in Tanzania.

Soccket co-founder, Jessica Matthews, right, shows off the Soccket with President Obama in Tanzania, July 2013.

But we wanted to know: what do kids think of this toy that’s meant to improve their lives? And a year after they were distributed in Mexico, how has the celebrated product held up for children who need a safe and reliable source of light?

Collins_in_field2

Jennifer Collins is based in Mexico City.

We sent Mexico-based freelance reporter Jennifer Collins to follow up with children who had received the Soccket. She traveled seven hours outside of Mexico City to Cuetzalan, in the state of Puebla, where two-thirds of the population live in poverty.

Collins interviewed ten families who had received the Soccket. One of those she met was 12-year-old Celina Martinez Lopez. She lives in a two-room shack with six other people. The family has no electricity. Celina told Collins she was excited when she received the Soccket a year ago because she would have a source of light for doing her homework at night. The Soccket worked the first couple of days after she got it. “The third day, the light went out,” she said.

Celina wasn’t alone. Eight of the ten families Collins visited said their Socckets lasted anywhere from just a couple of days to a few months. An Uncharted Play spec sheet said the balls would last for three years.

One of the broken Socckets discovered by reporter Jennifer Collins.

One of the broken Socckets discovered by Collins. [Photo Credit: Jennifer Collins]

Collins asked Soccket co-founder Jessica Matthews about the broken products. “Things may not always go right,” Matthews acknowledged. “But we are always, always, always, always, always, always trying to do our best and doing it for the bigger picture,” she said.

Children in Mexico haven’t been the only recipients let down by the Soccket. Last year, Uncharted Play launched a Kickstarter campaign as a way to fund mass production of the Soccket. Saying “we finally have a version of the SOCCKET that we’re happy with,” the company raised more than $90,000 through the crowdfunding website. Uncharted Play began sending Socckets to its Kickstarter backers in January. Some of those who received them have been complaining of chipping paint  and report that the electric component is not working:

 

Matthews responded to the complaints, posting an update on Kickstarter that said “We became aware of the durability issues with the ball, resulting in scratches or material damage after limited amounts of play.” She promises backers that a new, improved Soccket is shipping soon.

A representative from Uncharted Play told Collins that they are continuing to tweak the product and have plans to distribute 50,000 Socckets a year all across the globe.

UPDATE: Uncharted Play, the company that produces the Soccket, issued a press release on April 23, 2014. “I was surprised and heartbroken when I learned of the quality issues with the SOCCKET,” says Jessica O. Matthews, CEO and Co- Founder of Uncharted Play. “But as soon as we found out about the durability issues, we reacted swiftly, and have been working diligently to address the issues internally and with our overseas partners. We know that our product has a profound impact, and now we know what it takes to make a great product. I not only look forward to continuing our mission, but sharing with other social inventors and entrepreneurs the lessons we’ve learned.” Uncharted Play says it is “launching an open online platform, where we can share regular updates on the production and manufacturing of our products.” The full text of the press release is available here.

This story was brought to you in conjunction with our partners at PRI’s The World.

14 Comments

  1. philrem

    You might also look up the book “Customers Included” which also profiles the failures of PlayPump, which was a similar waste of donor money with more devastating effects. This poorly designed system was sometimes replacing well working pumps with a fundamentally flawed idea, executed badly.

  2. A good bit of reporting here by Ms. Collins. But even if they do somehow solve their durability issues, the more lasting and more serious issue is their overhyped claims of social impact. Eric (first commenter) noted that “a free soccer ball ain’t chopped liver!” but these aren’t free. They cost $90 (up from $60), and donors are being asked to foot the bill to have these balls go out to poor villages. Its been almost two years since I first wrote my critique of Uncharted Play and their wild claims about the Soccket’s potential to change lives (http://stayingfortea.org/2012/06/23/deflating-the-soccket-ball) and each issue I raised there remains relevant today. Jennifer Collins and I spoke as she was working on this article, but decided to focus on the durability issues. But, I would like to see them address these other issues. Durability can solved – that’s a technical problem. But a social enterprise should not be allowed to continue to be so wildly deceptive about their social value proposition. I’ve even had a former director at the Unchartered Play contact me and tell me that the issues I raised were part of the reasons she felt she could no longer work there and quit.

    • Amy

      You raise excellent points and concerns in your blog post, Aaron. The Soccket’s durability is an important issue; the social value proposition is – as you point out – another important aspect to explore. You’ve done a great job of that in your post!

      Thanks for taking the time to write and to listen to our story.

  3. With solar recharging lanterns down to about $10 in price, no one could ever think the soccket is a practical solution to energy poverty. It has value, perhaps, as an educational device – educating people in the affluent world about energy poverty. Not at alleviating it.

    • Amy

      Yes, Betsy, it’s true that the Soccket is a relatively expensive product if you want to simply bring light to people without it. There are likely many cheaper and more durable items available…but perhaps they are not as captivating as the Soccket.

  4. Skipotaris

    Good story. Predictably we see another generation of idealistic and naive young capitalists trying to sell a technology concept before it’s proven. In these types of rural areas what’s most needed is technology that’s bulletproof and *repairable* by locals, not new and untested next-gen tech that dies and is left to rot because no one around can fix it.

    • Amy

      I have yet to meet anyone in this sector who is not well-intentioned. But translating seemingly good ideas into initiatives that work well and fulfill real needs is difficult work indeed. I’d argue success in this space is almost impossible if not pursued in close partnership with the very communities we’re trying to help.

  5. Amy – loved this podcast. Wrote a Fast Company article with a similar-ish angle about Soccket – http://www.fastcoexist.com/3026537/hip-gadgets-arent-going-to-solve-global-poverty-stop-making-them

    • Amy

      Excellent article, Hugh. You make some very good points about the difficulty and cost of getting products to market in much of the developing world.

      Your conclusion really resonated with me: “Inventing a sexy, new product is not enough. It needs to also be something poor people would buy with their hard earned money. It needs to actually get to them. It needs to get repaired when it inevitably breaks.”

      Keep up the important work!

  6. Brad

    Very well done story! My new favourite podcast! Seems to be another example of not going to the source to find out what is necessary, which seems to be a trend with some of the stories you’ve done so far (TOMS, and in some ways, the Haiti story).

    Do you see charity/aid trending that way in the coming years, with companies and organizations doing more in the realm of ‘pat-on-the-back’, trendy aid instead of more useful, less glamorous aid?

    • Amy

      Thanks for listening to my stories and for taking the time to write, Brad.

      I definitely don’t think ‘pat-on-the-back’ aid is going to be a trend in the future. We are learning more each year about appropriate ways to respond to perceived needs across the globe.

      The way we deliver aid and the way we implement social innovations will only improve in the years ahead – especially as we begin to listen more to beneficiaries and work side-by-side with them, rather than making assumptions about what “they” need and presuming “we” know best how to deliver it.

      Once we begin to engage with beneficiaries as true partners, we will be on the road to having more lasting impact with our well-intentioned programs and innovative ideas.

  7. rup

    Great follow up investigation!

    I always to see what happend to the OLPC program here in México, it was distruibited by Telmex in 2007… and presented us a great way to improve the lifes of remote under priviliged kids.

    Would love to see a follow up.

    http://clase.org.mx/2010/?p=1258

    http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/mexico/olpc_mexico_carlos_slim_xo_laptops.html

  8. nice story – good work

    too bad about the durability/dependability of the socckets, though. however, a free soccer ball ain’t chopped liver!

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