Sorry, Obama, Soccer Balls Won’t Bring Progress to Africa

Sorry, Obama, Soccer Balls Won’t Bring Progress to Africa

President Barack Obama generated a feel-good photo-op on Tuesday in Tanzania when he took a few moments to play with the Soccket, an ingenious soccer ball that can power an LED light for three hours after you kick it around for 30 minutes. Simply play with the ball, and then plug the light into the Soccket’s socket.

After some good-natured showboating (he headed the ball), Obama explained, “The Soccket turns one of the most popular games in Africa into a source of electricity and progress. You can imagine this in villages all across the continent.”

But we have some bad news for the president: It’s pretty difficult to imagine Socckets electrifying every village once you learn the price tag: $99 per ball. As Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur write in the latest issue of Foreign Policy:

It really is a neat trick that a soccer ball only 2 ounces heavier than regulation weight can enclose a battery and technology pack that generates power from rolling. Then again, you can get a solar-powered lamp for $10. It isn’t clear why anyone would pay 10 times that for a light whose power source you have to kick around for half an hour to get less illumination.

The authors’ larger point is that seemingly ingenious solutions to poverty often fail in real life because they get funding “on the basis of their appeal to donors and philanthropists in the West rather than consumers in Africa.” The idea of kicking a ball to make electricity sounds cool, but if you’re a mom, say, how fun is it to plead with your kids to “play” with a ball for 30 minutes so you can get some light?

The only real way to know, as Kenny and Sandefur suggest, is the market test: Consumers buy a product if they like it and can afford it; if not, the product flops. But many poverty-alleviating innovations don’t face much of a market test. The end users aren’t the ones buying the product; the donors are. Thus users can’t provide direct market feedback so producers know whether their innovation works or not. (Case in point: PlayPumps.)

Perhaps one day the two young, inspiring women who invented the Soccket while studying at Harvard University will refine the ball so it’s more affordable and better-tailored to the needs of African consumers. (A $10 Soccket 3.0 has been “coming soon!” since July 6, 2011.) Until then, it’s worth considering the question Bill Gates tweeted today in response to Kenny and Sandefur’s article: “Can we encourage the market to create new tech that the poor can’t create on their own?”