Residents spin energy at tech launch

Farai Mudi tries out an electricity-generating bicycle to charge his phone.

The handover of a pilot alternative energy project in Masiphumelele was interesting not so much for its technology but for how it highlighted a cross-section of attitudes – from those brimming with enthusiasm wanting to do good, to those grumpily wanting to know what was in it for themselves, to those who saw it as an opportunity to learn more.

Brimming with enthusiasm were project leaders Yasmina Moreau Sabatini and Immo Böhning. They put together the Cycle Your Power pilot project, one of the projects resulting from the partnership signed between the City of Cape Town and the German city of Aachen in 2001 and funded by the State Chancellery of Nordrhein-Westfalen.

The focus of their enthusiasm, at the launch of the project at Masiphumelele library on Thursday June 2, was a stationary wooden “bicycle” which generated electricity.

Yasmina and Immo, French and German respectively, said they had been looking for an alternative energy idea to implement in South Africa, one that could also help with a whole heap of worthy objectives such as community upgrading, empowerment of women and sustainable development, including education and spreading the message of alternative energy.

It was when Yasmina was in Paris and saw energy-producing stationary bicycles in public places that she knew this was what they had to bring to South Africa. Two years later, Masiphumelele library is one of three places in Cape Town the project is being tested. For Masiphumelele, the emphasis was on a bicycle which would offer some exercise as well as generating electricity.

Immo said that this prototype, made of wood, was developed at the research university Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hoch-schule Aachen, where he is a student of chemical and energy engineering.

Like all electricity generators, the spinning motion of the generator – its magnets and wires – produces electricity and here the spinning is caused by someone cycling. The electricity is converted into the correct voltage and there is a plug on the axle of the “bicycle” on which a cellphone or laptop – or even a kettle, but that would not be a quick cycle – is plugged and is charged.

Charging his phone was Farai Mudi.

“It’s good gym,” he commented.

The two electricity-generating bicycles are part of a larger system of alternative energy for the library, with a solar panel installed by the team as well.

The presentation turned into a lively debate.

One thoughtful participant was disappointed that he could not see the internal workings of the bicycle so that he could see how the generator works and wondered whether it could be made by people at home.

“We hope to raise enough interest so that we can subsidise the bicycle and install it in different environments,” said Yasmina, still looking enthusiastic although apologetic that they had to enclose the workings of the bicycle to protect the intellectual property rights of the manufacturer.

“Our hope is that this bicycle will be come cheap enough and resilent,” she said.

An appropriate point. Just before the presentation started, the pedalling mechanism of one bicycle broke after being used by a too enthusiastic user, before Yasmina could put up the laminated signs saying that steady pedalling was the way to go, not to pedal as fast as possible.

But this is what pilot projects are all about. The two Europeans fly back home now, handing their project over to a local Cycle Your Power team, who will no doubt navigate the rocky terrain of attitudes and appropriate technology.