A “Revolutionary” Innovation for African Children from an LDS Missionary to Ghana

Today I had the privilege of speaking with Ben Markham, a retired chemical engineer who recently served an LDS mission with his wife in Ghana. Ben has created an invention that is bringing light and delight to hundreds of children in Africa through his charitable organization, Empower Playgrounds. The invention is a merry-go-round connected to a special gearbox and power generator for charging LED lamps that can provide light in schools and in students homes so they can study more effectively. This non-profit adventure is just getting started and I’m sure Ben would welcome your assistance. I’m hoping some of my readers with deep pockets are reading tonight.

“I’m doing this for no other reason than to help the children in Africa,” Brother Markham told me. What a wonderful motivation for innovation.

In Africa, Ben noticed that very few schools had electrical power, and that many buildings were just dark cement shells without lights and without many windows. He also learned that many students aren’t able to graduate from school, partly because they have to do work on the family farm when they are home and there is light. By the time they have finished their work with the farm, it’s dark. Without electrical lighting, even the brightest student will have trouble completing homework and studying at night. We can hardly imagine that being a barrier here, but millions are held back by the lack of lighting.

Ben also noticed that few children in Western Africa had toys or equipment to play with. In fact, the initial motivation for Ben’s invention was a desire to add some kind of playground equipment to schools. He wondered if a rotating device he saw used for wells could be converted into a merry-go-round, a novelty in his part of the world. But further discussion and thinking took him a step further to power generation, and then to rechargeable lighting.

He worked with BYU-Provo and BYU-Idaho in solving some of the challenges in making these systems safe, reliable, and effective. The result has been highly successful. The kids love the special merry-go-round, and the power management issues have been worked out to provide effective charging when the equipment is revolved at typical speeds. And the kids love it. The merry-go-rounds draw a lot of attention and large crowds.

Ben is pursuing additional innovation, working to develop swings with clever couplings for power generation and other playground devices that can help provide useful electrical power. His goal is to have entire sets of playground equipment that will allow him to provide power for larger schools. Right now they are focusing on small schools of about 100 to 150 children that can benefit from the power of a merry-go-round.

There is much more to do. Ben could use your help.

Here is a recent story: “Merry-go-round makes electricity” from the Daily Herald. Includes an awesome video.

The organization’s Website is EmpowerPlaygrounds.org.

Why not make a donation?


Author: Jeff Lindsay

15 thoughts on “A “Revolutionary” Innovation for African Children from an LDS Missionary to Ghana

  1. How absolutely clever is THAT??
    I think it’s one of the best and most innovative things I’ve ever heard of! I’m letting everyone know about this one! Talk about thinking “out of the box”! And what a great purpose– gotta love it! Thanks for letting us know Jeff– this is truly something people should know about!!

  2. Thanks. Please get the word out! A donation of any size to this cause may do a lot more good for the world than a donation to political parties or any imagined other lesser evil. This one is clearly a greater good.

  3. That’s awesome. Someone seriously needs to encourage them to post this Daily Herald video on YouTube with a link for how to donate to the cause. I can see it going viral and inspiring hope.

  4. OK…gotta throw in the intelligentsia’s schtik (if only to preempt them)…


    Honestly, brilliant idea. I love our people sometimes.

  5. Wow, this is amazing. It’s one of those “I wish I had thought of it” inventions, the implications of which could serve more than just school kids in Africa.

    As for getting the word out, this is the sort of story that Glenn Beck loves to cover on his TV show on CNN. I wouldn’t know the first thing about getting a hold of his producers, but someone with some clout (regardless of your political persuasion or your like/dislike of Beck) ought to make The Glenn Beck Program aware. I know he would be an able to spread the word far and wide.

  6. Great idea! I just sent a note to Glenn and his executive producer about the story, with contact info for Ben Markham. I hope they do something with the lead.

    I’m not ashamed to say I’m a big fan of Glenn Beck. One of the few TV personalities who talk intelligently about the really serious issues neglected by the mainstream media.

  7. I think it is great and a wonderful model but I question the wisdom in creating another NGO and reinventing the wheel, quite literally in this case. PlayPumps International ‘invented’ this model almost 15 years ago and has incredible momentum and an impressive list of partnerships. Is it the best use of resources to help these BYU students reinvent the wheel? Why not franchise PlayPumps and learn from their 15 years of experience and efficiencies of scale? Is it pride? Is it a culture of isolation?

    In general I think this is a common phenomenon, Mormons love to create their own nonprofits instead of engaging in the wider world of philanthropy. I personally think the Mormon community has an incredible pool of skills and human resources to contribute in the social sector but I think as a community they are not having the impact they could have, nor the recognition and PR that they could have, if they were to engage in the mainstream circles of philanthropy.

  8. David, what wheel is being reinvented here? I don’t think this model was invented by PlayPumps at all. PlayPumps offers a device for pumping water. Goal is to get cleaner water into communities. Empower Playgrounds is about helping kids graduate from school by generating power for portable LED lamps so they can do homework and have light in the otherwise fairly dark school. This involves novel technology and a novel business model based on screening and incentivizing local schools to manage the hardware and its allocation (numerous lamps and the electrical generators based on playground equipment). They are also extending their suite of inventions to cover swings, zip-lines, and other playground equipment to be able to generate enough power for larger schools.

    The fact that merry-go-rounds can be used for pumping water doesn’t make the educational model of Empower Playgrounds obvious or anticipated. But there could be opportunity for collaboration if the other group is willing to take on a completely different approach for a different objective. Personally, I think this needed to be its own start-up to get it off the ground.

  9. I’m not trying to discourage innovation, nor discourage the efforts of Ben Markham. I was just using this as an example of how I observe Mormons interacting in the wider world of philanthropy.

    There definitely is enough need and space for the borrowing of ideas, building off of the models of others, etc and the beautiful thing about the social sector is that people absolutely want others to replicate and innovate on their original model. I do think there is a natural connection between Empower Playgrounds and PlayPumps International that it would be wise for EP to try to forge a partnership, as well as with other great organizations in education, such as Room to Read or Better World Books. My point being that If they want to reach scale and impact they need to engage in the wider world of philanthropy and not be satisfied as an isolated Utah-based NGO.

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