Cellphones have become a social and business necessity not just in the United States, but around the world.
But what if you had no electricity and couldn't find a place to charge your phone for miles? That necessity becomes a paperweight.
It's the problem facing residents of developing nations, including Gambia on the west coast of Africa, where half of the country's 1.7 million residents live in remote villages without easy access to electricity. While that's been a mere inconvenience for years, it's left the community of mostly farmers without a reliable means of cellphone communication.
A professor and a group of students at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County are trying to fix that. They designed and developed an inexpensive, solar-powered cellphone charger that will be manufactured, marketed and sold in the country, providing jobs and that all-important cellphone service.
The charger would sell in Gambia for about $10 American, or about 381 Gambian dalasis, its national currency, according to Kurt M. DeGoede, the engineering professor leading the group.
The project germinated when DeGoede spent the 2010-11 school year teaching at the University of the Gambia. He learned of the cellphone issue while he was there and decided his students back in the states could help while garnering real-world experience.
A team of four engineering students started the process during the 2012-13 school year. This year's team of Anthony Fraccica, 22, of Easton; Josh Frey, 22, of Kimberton; Tuen Le, 21, of Lawndale, Calif.; and Courtney Warlick, 21, of Baltimore, finished the job.
Another group of Elizabethtown international business students is working on the business plan for the charger, and a contingent of the entire group will travel to the country in January to gather information for its final production.
The group meets each week to discuss the project, and each individual has certain responsibilities, Fraccica said.
The trip is partially funded by the college, but the group is mostly paying its own way. The students are trying to raise money to offset the cost of the trip through crowdfunding site Launcht. As of early this week, they had raised $220 of the $6,000 goal.
As for the charger itself, the parts necessary to make the prototype are funded in the college's budget, and the students are not being paid.
The plan is to have the product — now fully functioning — ready to be sent into the country's market in early 2015. The design will be given to a nonprofit group in Gambia, which will then produce and market the charger to the people who need them the most.
"Maybe that's a naive, optimistic goal," DeGoede said, "considering we don't necessarily know where we'd be going if we launched today. But it's what we're shooting for."
DeGoede said a farmer with no electricity could be under-selling his crop because he can't find out what the current sale rate is — something that happens at remote Gambian farms, he said.
Without the chargers, he said, villagers are forced to travel miles to gas stations or to anyone who might have electricity. When they find that spot, they are often charged to power up their phones, making it not just a time inconvenience, but a financial one as well.
"There is only power on the (Atlantic Ocean) coast, and everyone else in Gambia is kind of stuck," Frey said.
The device currently will charge only older cellphones that are in common use in Gambia. If the project progresses, a new team of Elizabethtown students may try to upgrade the device so it could be used to charge more sophisticated phones.
In addition to providing a solution to the phone-charging issue, the project hopes to establish good-paying jobs in Gambia from the marketing and manufacture of the product through a business incubator in the country.
"The whole idea is to provide a sustainable social business in West Africa," DeGoede said. "We can do that with this product."