The iPhone and its smart phone competitors are making a big splash in areas of the world where cell and Internet connectivity are fairly reliable and people can afford to plunk down hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the latest technology. But in the vast regions of the world beset by harsh environmental, economic and political conditions, analog radio is still the most effective means of receiving and disseminating information.

This is particularly true of Africa, where less than 5 percent of the continent's inhabitants have access to the Internet, and cell phone usage still doesn't have nearly the reach as analog radio communication, says Kristine Pearson, executive director of South Africa's Freeplay Foundation, a group formed nearly a decade ago to promote access to radio broadcasting primarily in remote pockets of Africa.

For the past several years, the foundation has been working with African nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government ministries, international organizations and broadcasters to distribute Lifeline and Scout self-powered radios built by Freeplay Energy, PLC, to residents in a number of African countries to provide them access to news and educational programs. Pearson estimates that the foundation, which was created by Freeplay Energy and spun off as a separate entity in 1998, has distributed some 150,000 Lifeline radios since 2003, serving an estimated six million people; another 100,000 smaller, less rugged Scout radios have been handed out in southern Sudan.

Working with Freeplay Energy, the foundation identified several key design components necessary for the shoebox-size Lifeline to function properly in areas of extreme temperatures, rain, moisture, dust, sand and humidity: The radio's antenna is an ordinary piece of wire that can easily be replaced if broken. The Lifeline has four-band coverage, including AM, FM and two shortwave bands, and its speaker is loud enough to be heard by groups of as many as 40 people.

The environmentally friendly Lifeline features a spring-loaded, winding handle on its back that can be turned in either direction to charge the radio. Fully charged, a Lifeline can play for up to 24 hours. The radio also has a solar panel that is housed in a detachable waterproof casing on a 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) lead with magnetized clips on top to hold it in place. The panel is detachable so that it can be placed in sunlight while the listener rests in the shade. "In full sunlight, you can both listen to the radio and charge the internal battery, so that when you listen at night, you've still got a residual charge," says John Hutchinson, Freeplay Energy's director of technology. The Lifeline provides two hours of operation for each hour it is charged, while the Scout offers one hour of operation for each hour it is charged.

The Lifeline has apertures in the bottom of the radio to let sand, debris and water fall out should it be caught in a sand or rain storm. "There's no lubrication whatsoever, so there's no grease or oil for the dust to attach itself to," Hutchinson says. "If it gets wet, the water will drip out. And the gears have very big profiles so they can take in debris without being slowed."

Design aesthetics were also important. The Lifeline has a rainbow-shaped dial color coded with large print designed to be easy to read by all, including those with visual impairments. In addition, Freeplay can alter the dial's colors to make sure they're not mistaken as representing or endorsing any local political parties. The Lifeline's current basic blue color scored best in field tests.

Freeplay designers expected the radio to be used primarily by women and children, so they sculpted a slim handle with that in mind. The crank action also needed to be firm enough to generate energy but easy enough for a child to wind. "Many women and children in Africa live under traumatized circumstances," Hutchinson says, adding that aid workers sometimes encounter households headed by children, because their parents have died from AIDS or political violence.

"When the original, spring-based Lifelines were distributed to orphans in the sub-Saharan nation of Rwanda, nearly all of these children began using the radios to listen to the news," says Pearson, who was born in the U.S. but has lived in South Africa for the past 20 years. "They wanted to know what was happening at their borders, and radio was the voice of authority for them." Radio also has the power to assist in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, abuse and unwanted pregnancy, she adds. Pearson is hoping to initiate by next year a program of using radio and other means of communication to teach Africans in remote regions about financial matters.

In addition to radios, Freeplay also distributes light balls that residents in Rwanda and Zambia can buy or rent to deliver illumination regardless of a region's ability to produce electricity, Pearson says, noting that only about 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. The balls are recharged using Freeplay's portable Weza generator.

Freeplay is also designing light-emitting diode (LED) lanterns powered by a winding handle that will be available as early as next month in India. The foundation hopes to eventually distribute the lanterns throughout Africa as a replacement for kerosene lamps. Each light tower–shaped lantern has four LEDs for 360-degree lighting, plus a fifth LED that shines down and can be used as a reading light. Once Freeplay observes how the lanterns are used in India, it will tailor them to meet the needs of African residents, who are more likely to use them in rural huts or in refugee camps.