Conventional education philosophy probably doesn't usually call for more merry-go-rounds as a way of upping high school graduation rates, but for certain impoverished African villages, the key to more diplomas might just be the playground.

Three years ago, Spanish Fork High School graduate Ben Markham hatched a pie-in-the-sky nonprofit company called Empower Playgrounds, Inc., with the idea that a little first-world technology could go a long way in a third-world setting -- specifically, Ghana, Africa.

Working with Brigham Young University students (both of Provo and Idaho), Markham helped develop a merry-go-round that could harness enough energy to power special lanterns, by which students could study at night -- a lone source of power among villages located outside Ghana's spotty electrical grid.

Now EPI has 10 functioning merry-go-rounds in place, and has another 25 in its sights for 2010. It has also developed and installed an electricity-generating swing set, and a zip-line is in the works.

"If you want a peaceful Earth, you have got to get rid of the differences," Markham said. "You can't have some countries with high technology and other countries still not have light at night. Help the lower end catch up, and you're setting a foundation to change the world."

Markham, an Exxon-Mobile retiree and BYU chemical engineering graduate, got the idea for the merry-go-round while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Western Africa. He left his mission scratching out preliminary calculations on the backs of envelopes.

"I sat in these buildings, saw how dark they were, and saw the lack of supplies; I'd shake my head and wonder how kids ever learned anything," he said, referring to the rudimentary concrete-block school houses in Ghana's poorer areas.

Near the equator, Ghana only gets 12 hours of sunlight, so a young student with daytime chores, such as farming, has no chance for after-school studies without artificial light. Considering only a fraction of Ghanaian students do well enough on the countrywide standardized tests to make it into high school, the ability to do homework is a huge advantage.

"If you give someone access to light at night, they can be more productive, and have a greater chance to become self-educated," Woodland Hills electronics expert Dave Smith said. "Education and light go hand in hand." Smith's SuReAl Group invented in 2008 the battery/converter box used in EPI's merry-go-round.

Like many alternative energy projects, Markham's plan was commonly thought to be fool's gold at the outset.

"We're taking rocket science and applying it in little hunter-gatherer villages in the jungle in Africa," Markham said, noting the cutting-edge, rare-earth magnets found in Smith's box as an example of modern advances that have made these merry-go-rounds only recently feasible.

The merry-go-rounds are actually just a piece of the grand scheme. EPI's mission, Markham said, is educational, and the best way to carry it out is to provide schools with recreational equipment, adequate science projects and labs (magnets, calorimeters, etc.), and light for reading and writing in the home.

"Some people think that if you introduce light to a village, they'll do more of what we do in light," Markham said. "What you have to realize is these villages have had 100 generations of ancestors that have worked with 12 hours of light. Once they get light, they won't just say, 'I'm going to subscribe to a magazine now.' We also introduce ideas."

With the help of a few local engineers, rotating college interns and a lone stateside employee, Markham hand-picks ideal Ghanaian villages, invites them to apply for the program, and then selects a handful for whom EPI will provide the merry-go-round and lanterns for free. Once it's installed, the kids play for power, and of their own volition; after all, only one third of the kinetic energy is converted (two-thirds keep it spinning), so the toy stays a toy, not a work machine.

The schools tap certain students, called "lantern leaders," to bring the lanterns home and hold study groups for four to five classmates. When the lantern battery is depleted, the lantern leader returns it to school and plugs it back into the merry-go-round.

EPI's current merry-go-round model calls for an Energizer LED camping lantern that has to be specially modified to take and hold the kinetic energy charge that comes from the children playing. After learning of EPI's mission, Energizer developed, on its own dime, a new rechargeable lantern, specifically designed for the merry-go-round. The new model includes a rechargeable battery pack and smart circuitry for longer battery life (35 hours at full-power, 70 hours at half-power). Markham is in the process of purchasing 1,000 such units, some of which will be used to retrofit existing merry-go-rounds.

For now, EPI's scope is limited to Ghana.

"It's a safe place, politically," EPI executive director Sarah Hall said. "I don't see [EPI] expanding any time soon, but I hope that it will expand eventually. There are so many schools in Ghana, it would waste a lot of resources to try and move it somewhere else anytime soon."

The behind-the-scenes red tape, such as the yearlong battle to get the supplies into Ghana duty-free, also prevents expansion, Hall said, but hopefully as donations grow, so will EPI's influence.

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Matt Reichman can be reached at (801) 344-2907 or

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