Keying into solar power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 April, 2011, 12:00am

Many students have dreams about making a difference in the world. But Charles Watson is one of those rare few who have actually turned such dreams into reality.

Watson was a student at Hong Kong International School until his graduation in 2009. His final-year project was about harnessing solar technology for computers.

'I wanted to develop a computer which could run on solar power using the least amount of electricity,' Watson, now 20, explains.

Even after he graduated, he continued working on the idea. His teacher Richard Friedericks told Watson to put it to the test in Nepal, a developing country with regular shortages of electricity. So he went to the Himalayan nation.

'During the three months I spent there, I visited schools and lived with a local family,' Watson says. 'I could see the problems of power shortages locals faced every day. The lights would go out so frequently that it was hard to read or do anything at night.'

Watson hooked five computers up to a generator in a village school in Nangi. 'This way, the computers could run even when the electricity went out,' he says.

He paid for it out of his own pocket, but thanks to donations from individuals, he set up 30 more computers for the school.

Shortly after this trip, Watson learned about rural schools in Ghana with no electricity. So he went to Africa to continue his project. As a result, a total of 24 solar-powered computers were installed in five schools.

'According to the International Energy Agency, the number of people living without electricity in the world today is 1.4 billion, nearly a quarter of the world's population,' he says.

After the two trips, Watson realised that his school project really could change people's lives. In October 2009, he launched a charitable organisation called SolarLEAP to design and make low-cost, low-energy-consumption computers for places with no electricity or unreliable power supply.

Fortunately he found some companies looking for meaningful ways to contribute to society. With their assistance, SolarLEAP set up 140 solar-powered computers in more than 20 schools in Nepal, Ghana, Ethiopia, India and the Philippines.

Watson has seen how technology changes the lives of not only school children, but also villagers. 'One girl I met in a school learned to play chess on the internet, others are learning how to type in English, or are e-mailing family overseas,' he says.

'Farmers are also able to check prices on the internet before selling their products.'

Watson's next step is to manufacture 1,000 to 1,500 solar-powered computers and get them installed in places which need them.

To do that, he needs to raise US$300,000.

'It's a challenge. But I can overcome it,' he says.

To learn about Watson's project, visit


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Keying into solar power

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