When MIT engineering professor Amy B. Smith spoke with community leaders of a rural African village about their development needs, she thought they might request help with water pumps, agriculture or a medical clinic. But what they said they needed most were musical instruments.
Smith, the most recent Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Leadership Award Winner, told a panel audience that the elders explained to her that the community used to gather together to play music, then they would hold a meeting to discuss problems and solutions. Since all their instruments had come under disrepair, the community no longer met. But with new instruments, the people could begin to collectively chart a new path toward greater self-reliance and prosperity.
Sometimes the best solution to a problem isn't obvious to people who want to help from half a world away. Sometimes a 13-year old child immediately has an answer to something that had vexed a team of MIT engineers for a long time.
In that case, engineers had been baffled by the fact that pouring water on their high-tech charcoal caused it to fall apart -- while that's the process people in developing countries commonly use to put the heat out, so they can save the precious remains for warming their next meal (many developing world families spend 25% of their budget on heating fuel). While Smith was demonstrating the charcoal in a village, a woman asked what would happen if she poured water on it. A young boy piped up that the fire should be extinguished with sand instead.
At the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Conference panel on design for the developing world, Smith and other winners discussed some of today's enormous challenges, as well as innovative, elegant solutions.
Invented by Procter & Gamble (with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Pur powder pulls contaminants out of drinking water in 30 minutes. Flocculants cause suspended solids, heavy metals and parasites to clump together, where they can be filtered out by a cotton cloth. Time-released chlorine kills bacteria and viruses. One teaspoon of the powder can treat 2.5 gallons of water. Allgood says P&G sells packets of the powder for 3.5 cents each to aid agencies, and that many developing world stores also stock them, boosting their income opportunities.
"Purchasing Pur packets to use for one year costs the same as one health clinic visit in Ethiopia," said Allgood. He added that the product has great potential in helping those with HIV, who are particularly susceptible to pathogens. The fact that treated water looks remarkably clear and clean has helped the product's adoption.
"When we educated kids in Malawi about the Pur powder, school absenteeism dropped 50%, since kids were no longer getting sick" added Allgood. "We found that kids are great changemakers."
P&G will soon be selling the product in the developed world, with the goal of raising funds to support increased deployment abroad, and to provide a handy aid to campers, emergency workers and those who want to prepare for disasters.
The panel focused on how far so-called appropriate technology has come, something Smith said was spurred in the 1970s by E.F. Shumacher's pioneering books and lectures. Appropriate technology is about helping people solve problems at the grassroots level, instead of by large, multi-million dollar development efforts, which can sometimes make matters worse downstream. Smith says appropriate technology places much emphasis on affordability, usability, cultural relevance, ease of local maintenance, and reliance on renewable energy and local materials and labor.
The process is really more about co-designing with communities, instead of designing something back in a sterile lab. Smith added that it's not dissimilar from the focus groups, surveys and other tools developed world companies already use every day. "In the past development was based on external solutions, but now we are listening to what people want," explained Smith.
Four Caltech sustainable engineering students did just that, and received a Breakthrough award recognizing their success. Students Rudy Roy, Ben Sexson, Daniel Oliver and Charles Pyott discovered that disabled people in Guatemala face a number of problems due to the relatively high price of wheelchairs, rough surfaces and the lack of qualified repair shops. So they came up with an inexpensive, rugged wheelchair design based on disassembled mountain bikes. The chairs work great and can be serviced in any bike shop.
The young men recently finished school and started a nonprofit, Intelligent Mobility International, which is working with Transitions, a Guatemalan charity that mainly employs wheelchair-bound workers, to build their chair and get them to those who need them most. They're currently working on a lower-cost version 2.
Daniel Oliver told the panel audience that part of the group's goal had been to provide jobs in Guatemala. "People can also use the wheelchairs to get back into the workforce, to provide for their families," he added.
Smith pointed out that one of the lessons she has learned about appropriate technology is that even if a product can't yet be made in a targeted region, the receiving area can still benefit from economic opportunities in distribution, marketing, repair and so on. That's the case with award winners Potenco, whose PCG1 pull-cord generator creates electricity with far greater efficiency than hand-cranked devices.
The fact that a pull cord uses more muscles means it is much easier to operate than a crank, much like how it's easier to spin a top with a string than to twist it with your fingers. The PCG1 weighs 14 ounces, has an internal NiMh battery and a mini-USB output jack and can convert two minutes of effort into 40 minutes of cellphone talk time.
Potenco's Mike Lin told the panel that the device was constructed to be rugged, and to last at least five years. He said they made it as easy to repair as possible, and as affordable as possible. Lin said the device will soon be offered to U.S. consumers at a retail price point around $100. It's easy to see how it might be useful for those on the go or for emergency preparedness kits. In the developing world, Lin said prices vary with import tariffs, but the company is trying to make it as accessible as possible.
"We're into user-centered design, meeting real needs," explained Lin. "In many areas electrification could take 50 or 100 years. In Kenya we learned people share car batteries for power, then send it back for charging. We're trying to plug into that existing knowledge." Lin also pointed out that the possibility to power lighting could reduce the need for kerosene, which is flammable, expensive and terrible for air quality. Lighting can also improve security and safety.
"While it's not feasible to make the devices in, say, Ghana now, they can be repaired there. Then maybe eventually we could do some assembly there, then down the line they'll be able to make their own chips. It's much more valuable to get this product out there now, rather than to let it die in the lab," said Lin.
Responding to a question from TDG, the panelists concluded that those who wish to secure support for future appropriate technology projects would do well to focus donor and investor attention on the sustainability of the endeavor (both in terms of the environment and in helping people become more self-sufficient), as well as the human angle. Instead of giving out fish, it's about giving hungry people a better -- and greener -- fishing pole.
Popular Mechanics and The Daily Green are both owned by Hearst Corporation.
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