Young Hong Kong social entrepreneur brings solar-powered computers to developing world
Reporter: Cherry Ge Qingqing
It is 40 degrees Celsius under the scorching African sun and a group of Ghanaian villagers are busy installing solar panels onto the tin roof of a crude adobe house. Among them, it is easy to spot a lanky young white man with a voltmeter in his hand, checking that the solar panels are working.
He looks like a typical American teen – with his closely-cropped brown hair, plain white t-shirt and baggy khaki pants. But 20-year-old Charles Watson has experienced life quite differently from his peers. Born in London, Watson moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was 10.
He attended the Hong Kong International School, and it was a project for a school assignment that set Watson on a course that has seen him travelling around the world for the past two years. It has taken him to Ghana, Nepal, the Philippines and other developing countries, installing solar-powered computers.
His efforts mean students living in these areas have been able to use computers for the first time, despite the lack of a reliable electricity source. By the end of 2010, Watson had installed more than 100 computers.
Watson leads a busy life on the road, dealing with installations, giving workshops and raising funds. Varsity caught up with him via internet video while he was working on his project in India. It was just after 7 p.m., and Watson’s face was pale after a full day’s work, but he said there was still a ton of work awaiting him. Speaking fast, Watson recounted his story over the webcam.
It all started in 2009 with his senior high school project. Watson had always been a computer fan, his interest stemming from video games. He was also concerned that students in poor areas were unable to use computers because they lacked money and a stable electricity supply. So he thought of developing a computer that could run on low power and operate on a car battery charged by solar power.
“There are a number of problems with current programmes that offer computers to people in poor areas,” explained Watson. “For example the One Laptop per Child programme uses custom hardware, so it’s not as available as a computer like this which is built using mass-produced hardware that anyone can buy.”
He developed his prototype with a solar panel left over from a previous project and computer parts bought online. With the help of his family driver, who was an electrical expert, Watson was able to build a 31-watt computer that could last for seven hours. A regular computer runs on 126 watts. It had all the basic computer functions and could even play high definition video. It also cost around HK$4,000 to build.
From there, a teacher recommended he take the technology to Nepal. Acting on the suggestion, Watson decided he would take a gap year before he entered university. At the time, Watson wanted to study photography and the trip promised to combine his three passions in life – computers, travelling and photography.
“It seemed like a mix of real world experience, a test of my abilities, and even a chance for fun. I’ve always been a bit of a techie ‘computer geek’, so it’s great for me to combine my interest in computers with something that really benefits students in rural areas.”