Thanks to a young college student, solar-paneled school bags can channel energy from the sun to power reading lamps.

 Staying up all night to do homework might not sound appealing to the majority of grade school kids, but for many children in developing countries, it simply isn’t an option. When the sun goes down, study time is over.

Only 19 percent of Kenya’s population has electricity. That means 34 million people in the East African country rely kerosene for light. Not only is kerosene expensive and highly flammable, it causes a myriad of health problems from skin irritation to nausea and can even result in fatalities from respiratory complications. One innovative college student wanted to eliminate the toxic fuel that children study by nightly while simultaneously furthering their education. The solution: Use Kenya’s sunny weather to bring light into homes.

Photo courtesy of Salima Visram

Photo courtesy of Salima Visram

Meet 22-year-old college student Salima Visram. She’s created what she calls the Soular Backpack — and it’s exactly what it sounds like. The backpack looks like a typical canvas school bag with plenty of room for textbooks, but has a specialized solar panel on the front. As children walk miles beneath the hot sun to school each day, the solar panel charges a battery. When the sun goes down, the children can connect that battery to its accompanying LED reading light. Three to four hours of sun exposure translates to a battery that lasts seven to eight hours, allowing students to study to their hearts’ content.

The battery is specifically designed to work with the book light lamp only. Visram wanted to make sure parents wouldn’t hijack the batteries for their own personal use. Commitment to studying in primary school is particularly important, as secondary schools require minimum grades for entry. And the consequences for ending education at an early age can be dire.

“Out of the 80 students graduating from primary school [in Kikambala, Kenya], the majority of them were not able to go to secondary school, especially girls,” Visram said. “This means that a lot of girls go into child prostitution after that because it’s the only — and easiest — way for a family to earn income.” Child prostitution is all too common in Kenya, with tourists and locals alike preying on girls as young as 12-years-old, according to BBC News.

Photo courtesy of Salima Visram

Photo courtesy of Salima Visram

The Soular Backpack’s ability to curb human trafficking is twofold: increased study time will allow young girls to earn the necessary grades to be eligible for secondary school and saving on kerosene costs will ease the burden of school fees.

“My goal is to use the money parents spend on kerosene, because it’s 25 percent of their income every month, and put that money into a secondary education fund,” Visram explained.

So far, Visram has developed the first prototype of the bag with plans to present 2,000 backpacks to children at the primary school in the Kikambala village, where 22,000 residents live in poverty. She recently surpassed her goal of raising 40,000 Canadian dollars by an additional 10,000 Canadian dollars from her Indiegogo campaign. With all of the admirable projects on sites like Indiegogo, we asked Visram why she thought her project received so much funding. Visram can’t be certain, but she believes her project gained support because donors could see that the cause is “close to [her] heart.”

And it is. Visram grew up near the village in Mombasa, Kenya. Her family owns a local resort and while she has never struggled financially, helping those less fortunate has long been a priority of Visram and her family. Her Indiegogo campaign recounts sweet stories of a childhood spent donating birthday money to sponsor school lunches and working with local artists to sell handcrafted jewelry.

22-year-old Salima Visram, the inventor of the Soular Backpack. (Photo courtesy of Salima Visram)

22-year-old Salima Visram, the inventor of the Soular Backpack. (Photo courtesy of Salima Visram)

Visram graduates from McGill University in the spring of this year. But she won’t be giving up on the Soular Backpack anytime soon. Visram mentioned how pleased she is by the media attention surrounding her lofty aspiration, but she still needs to make sure the backpacks go to good use and that the business is sustainable. She is considering a one-for-one model — think TOMS Shoes — in which a backpack purchased in the U.S. or Canada can sustain the needs of those in Kenya. While the bags currently cost $20 each, she’s hoping to subsidize them for just 10 cents.

She also hopes to establish “micro-franchises in small villages where people can go for repairs or buy the backpacks secondhand.”

“This will also generate employment for more people in the villages across Kenya,” Visram explained.

And the need doesn’t end in her home country. Approximately 1.2 billion people do not have electricity, according to the World Bank. Visram would like to expand her product into other Kenyan villages and throughout all of Africa.

“There’s a lot of to be done,” Visram said. “This is just the first step.”

Top photo courtesy of Salima Visram