Image courtesy of Salima Visram Image by: Image courtesy of Salima Visram
Social entrepreneur Salima Visram created the Soular Backpack, developed to help Kenyan children do their schoolwork.
Born into a wealthy family in Kenya, Salima Visram went to boarding school in Wales and then attended McGill University in Montreal. Despite living in North America (with its sometimes consumerist culture), she didn't spend her time going on fancy vacations or enjoying a luxurious lifestyle. Instead, the Kenyan native had plans that were deeply rooted in the poverty she had witnessed while growing up in Africa.
"Since I was four or five, there has always been something inside me, a realization that I've been lucky to never go a day without food or water—a stark contrast to my neighbours," says Visram. Her parents made sure she and her siblings understood the impact poverty had on people, and Visram dedicated her childhood to charitable projects such as packing food and stationery bags for other children. A child herself, she didn't understand how there could be so much disparity in the lives of children who seemed so similar to her, yet so different in their fortune.
A bright idea
When Visram enrolled in international development studies at McGill in 2011 she took a social entrepreneurship class that inspired her to combat social issues in Kenya through business. "The intersection between business and development is where change can happen," she says. Combining her desire to reduce poverty with her educational insights, Visram developed the Soular Backpack. The knapsack includes a solar panel on the outside, an attached battery pack on the inside (it's half the size of an iPhone) and an LED lamp.
"In Kenya, kids usually spend an average of two hours walking to and from school," says Visram. "They could charge their backpacks on the walk and when they returned home at night, they could simply plug the LED lamp into the battery pack and have light to read." This would reduce the need to use kerosene lamps, which can cause health issues such as skin and eye irritation, and also reduce expenses. "The cost of kerosene is completely unsustainable for families living on less than $1.25 a day," she says.
Many families can't afford kerosene every day, which means children can't study every night. "Homework was a big part of my learning, and reading is really emphasized in early childhood development," she says. "The fact that kids can't do that without proper lighting really affects their long-term education."
Inspired by soccer
The idea for a solar project came to Visram last summer during the FIFA World Cup. She was sitting in a café, using a pen with a FIFA soccer ball sitting on its top. She thought to herself, Why can't this pen be a solar-powered light? Her epiphany spurred a "solar" coaster ride that lasted for several months. She contacted numerous engineers, solar social entrepreneurs and mentors to help develop her vision, then campaigned tirelessly for funds. Her Indiegogo campaign, which closed in January 2015, reached an amazing 125 percent of its goal within two months.
Nearly one year after the birth of Visram's idea, the final Soular Backpack prototype is in her hands and she's poised to launch the pilot project. The plan is to distribute 2,000 backpacks in Kikambala, a Kenyan village near where she grew up, before the school year begins in August 2015. Visram passionately believes in her project. With so much potential, the Soular Backpack is bound to light the way toward an improved life for many young Kenyans.