Elizabethtown students solving Gambian cellphone problem

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.

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