Being introduced to the FLAP bag project

Around five months ago, some people came together to create a messenger-style bag for the masses. Beyond just being a bag, it was to be designed with solar panels, a battery and all the circuitry to make it possible to have light at night and charge other items such as a mobile phones. Thus FLAP was born which stands for Flexible Light And Power.

The Instigators

Several groups have come together to make this project happen. The first is Portable Light who work to bring light and energy to people in developing nations in a sustainable and affordable manner. The second is Pop!Tech who put on a conference event each year in Massachusetts revolving around technology. The third is Timbuk2 who are based where I currently live in San Francisco and are most famous for being the makers of messenger bags as well as luggage. Lastly, there is Erik Hersman and AfriGadget. Erik was given a number of prototype bags which he took with him on his most recent trip around Africa. You can read the country specific coverage about the FLAPs here.

Maneno’s Involvement

Erik was brought in to the fold early on because he has lived and traveled a good portion of his life in Africa. He knows the African tech scene there, covers it very well, and has great contacts. Naturally he was a great fit to show the bags to Africans and have them pick apart the good and the bad of this future product.
It was in Ghana at Maker Faire Africa where I actually saw this analysis in action. Erik had been running around Accra showing the bags to mechanics and tailors as well as some electrical engineers. While I had seen a mention of the bag on AfriGadget, it hadn’t really sunk in how the whole project was shaping up. Once I saw it in person, I was intrigued.
While we at Maneno aren’t able to travel around Africa as much as Erik right now, it just happened that Elia was heading own to Highway Africa where she is right now. The technology and production side of the bags had been covered very well with Erik’s travels, so why not get the opinion of 700 African journalists who are at the conference? They are people who are quite mobile and depend on having their phones powered everywhere they go. After some a trip to Timbuk2 and a tutorial, Elia and a new bag were off to South Africa.

How it Works

I have to say that I’m a rather large fan of Timbuk2. I think I have four or so of their bags which serve various purposes. They’re extremely well designed bags for running around and my main one has been to three continents over four years and still looks pretty much brand new (seen here in Belgrade, Serbia.)
But here’s the thing, these FLAP bags are not your typical Timbuk2 bag.
Flap panel and adjustment
As you can see in the above image the flap where the solar panels are is actual detachable and can be swapped out for a non-solar flap. If you can see it in that shot, the bag is a different shape than a standard Timbuk2 messenger bag as well without the flared bottom.
Internal electronics
The bags are outfitted with a large dose of circuitry. In the above shot you can see the board that houses the power processor as well as the battery. AfriGadget has it from the other side. The large red button is for turning the LED for the lantern portion on and off.
Lantern
And that is the lantern portion. This is the reason that the flap detaches so that you can hang it from something in order to have a proper light to work or read by at night.
Jordan and Lizzy
And these folks are Jordan and Lizzy who helped us get up to speed on the bag and gave us a tour around the factory in the Mission District of San Francisco which admittedly looks a great deal different than when seeing it during their 20th anniversary party.

Impressions

So keep in mind that I am not the target market for this bag. In fact initially, no one in the US or Europe is seen as the target market. It’s being designed for people where electricity and light are an issue. This struck me as a bit strange. Given the large green movements in both these regions, I would think that there would be any number of people who would be happy to have the ability to charge their phone or whatever else on-the-go. Also, the light option is something that could be quite handy during camping or again, if you wanted to be green and use a light at night that was charged by the sun. I suppose we’ll see where things go with this, but given the fact that all the electronics are currently made in the US, I would gladly buy one of these if they kept this up because I am a big fan of buying locally. Of course this premium apparently makes the cost production $60 more and they’re looking to produce the electronics in Asia eventually in order to get to the target price of $30 or so.
Otherwise, the bag is impressive in how simple it is. I would suggest making it even simpler though. Getting rid of the other flap and permanently attaching the solar flap to the bag would go a long way to reduce cost as well as the complication of pulling the lantern out and setting it up for use, which is a lot of steps. I would say that having a way to stand up the reflective portion of the flap up and setting it somewhere would be a lot more convenient.
The solar panels are quite cool. As you might notice when looking at the AfriGadget bags versus the one we got, there are two panels instead of the one in order to produce more power. You would think that this adds to the stiffness and overall inflexibility to the bag, but it doesn’t. The panels bend a great deal and are able to curve with the bag quite well.
As for the electronics, I’m not sure if it’s a matter of how this prototype was put up (they are still working on heavy design iterations for these) but the board was very tricky to get in and out of the pouch. It would be nice to see that easier to work with as I’m sure replacing the board or the battery somewhere along the course of ownership will happen.
Also as it currently sits, you can only use the USB charging port if you have the bag in the sun and are powering the panels. This is done to maintain the battery so that there is power for the LED light at night. While this is okay, I don’t feel that it’s ideal because if an owner of the bag wants to drain the battery to power their mobile then that’s their business. In fact, a lot of mobiles already have a light built in to them so people end up using that as a “lantern” at night. This is just me talking though. I’m not sure how this plays out for those who don’t have light at night.
I think the only thing that really, really is a big problem currently is bag closure. All of my other Timbuk2 bags have a set of velcro straps as well as buckles on the flap allowing you to really latch it down. This prototype had neither and while the solar panels bend, they still are somewhat rigid and so the flap would stick straight out, begging any would be thieves to have a look at the contents making charging a mobile phone in there a non-issue as you won’t have it anymore. The workaround for now was to use a carabiner to snap two loops together on the flap and the body. Seems to have done the trick.

Conclusions

It’s going to be interesting to see where this project goes and I was happy to get a glimpse of it at this stage. I believe it will also be making an appearance at Pop!Tech as well in a more finished form. Also, keep an eye on AfriGadget as well as Elia’s blog to read more updates and super cool African redesigns of the bag like these.
Being introduced to the FLAP bag project