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.”
It was then that he was confronted with the first problem – funding. “People were not willing to donate their money to a project which had no results, no impact up until that point,” said Watson. So he decided to take a summer job to raise funds for his expenses. Watson said his summer job remains one of the most interesting things he has ever done, even after the many experiences he has had on the computer project.
“I was operating heavy machinery for a private road construction project in the United States. But about half way through, my job description changed to reclaiming land from a dilapidated house. This included knocking down the house with an excavator, which is pretty much any late teenager’s dream!” he recalled.
His summer job earned him enough to buy a plane ticket from Hong Kong to Nepal, a three-month entry visa, and five computers which he brought in his suitcase.
It was in Nepal where the charitable side of the project found its footing. Watson regularly updated his blog and posted photos, and the positive results of the project made people more willing to support him through donations. “Any doubts they may have had two years ago have been erased,” Watson said. His parents, who work in the investment management industry in Hong Kong and were hesitant about his project at first, also became more supportive. Watson’s father even visited him in both Nepal and Ghana.
The unreliable electricity in the places he worked was a great inconvenience. Watson said he would be working one moment and the lights would be out the next. He said it was incredibly frustrating to clone a drive, which takes five hours, only to have the power shut off in the last hour. “It was a real pain to teach for a few hours with the computers, arrive home, switch on the fan and then realize, ‘oh right, the power’s out’.”
Through his work, Watson realised that technology would bring further positive change to people in the developing world, especially students. However, Watson also saw that a lot of government policies in the developing world hurt individuals trying to make a difference.
“I could afford the 20 per cent taxation in Nepal because I had budgeted it into the cost of computers, but what of an entrepreneurial Nepali who has a great idea for this or that, only to be stopped by his own government? It’s especially frustrating in areas where change is only going to come from the small-scale, local, grassroots’ efforts.” Watson added that a lot of people in these areas were paying for policies that would not in any way benefit them.
He decided to take an additional gap year to further build up the project. In 2010, he registered himself as a non-profit-making organisation called SolarLEAP, which means he can claim tax exemptions and campaign for funds from larger donors.
Even two years into the project, Watson is constantly confronted with various problems. “I don’t think I’ve ever, ever had something go according to plan,” he said. But his love for problem-solving makes it all an exciting challenge.
Watson is also continuously attempting to improve his computers to make them more efficient. The current design of his computers features power consumption as low as 20 watts, with a 17.3-inch screen, a fast processor and a 250GB hard drive. Each of the computers is loaded with an operating system such as Microsoft Windows or Ubuntu, and also contains a digital library with textbooks and other books, as well as free resources from various universities’ educational projects.
Of course, such dedication on his part has reaped Watson many valuable rewards. He was able to take many pictures of the local scenery and culture, which he hopes someday to make into a photo book. He was also able to witness concrete changes in the places his project has reached. For instance, returning to a school in the Philippines three months after he installed computers there, he saw that school attendance was up, students were proficient in computer usage, and they were even using computers to practise for a chess tournament. He also had the opportunity to modify computer games, incorporating educational elements that would help users master double-clicking and touch typing.
He has even experienced being beaten by a bunch of near-professional Ghanaians footballers in a heated match, and being made to dance in front of everybody at a funeral.
Watson believes his most precious reward is being able to understand that everywhere in the world, people are people. “People all around the world are telling jokes, talking to friends, striving for a better education, striving for a better job – it’s really shattered a lot of the common depictions I see on television about what poverty means. If you are looking to benefit someone’s life, you have to first view them as a person.”
Despite having been away from home for two years, Watson does not mind his current “lone-wolf status”. He is never far from an internet connection, and a combination of blogging, Facebook and email makes him feel that he is never far from home. He can keep up with what is happening in the rest of the world. “Some would say that I wasn’t even raised in Hong Kong, that I was raised on the internet,” he laughed. “Plus, I get to enjoy bragging rights.”
Watson’s gap year taught him how little he really knows in the field of computer science, and he hopes to go to university to further enrich his knowledge after his second gap year.
These are the footprints of the self-described “world’s luckiest geek”. He walks into less developed regions, introduces his invention and laughs along with the local people. He walks into various offices, asking for donations. With a mission to bring technology to the less privileged, this geek is sure to go far.