In 1993, Englishman Trevor Baylis designed a windup radio that does not need electricity. He hoped his invention would help spread information about AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa’s rural areas. But when he approached manufacturers, they rejected his invention, questioning its commercial value. Eventually, he got the radio into production in South Africa, where a local investment firm decided to fund it.
At that time, Baylis was one of the few entrepreneurs developing technologies intended to address health, energy and other problems of the world’s poor. The inventors often became frustrated by the lack of interest from manufacturers, official aid agencies and the public, as well as the dearth of financing. Piet Hendrikse, who, in the early 1990s with his brother Hans, designed the Q Drum, a rolling water container, said he was several times close to giving up on the project. “But then you realize that there is such a tremendous need for that product that you carry on,” he said.
A lot has changed since he and other pioneers faced so much indifference. The United Nations has established its Millennium Development Goals, targets in eight key areas such as education and health to be achieved by 2015; official aid agencies have focused on health care, food security, and other essentials; and multinational corporations have embraced social responsibility.
In the most radical departure from the earlier era, professional and development groups, as well as young entrepreneurs, have entered a field previously occupied only by lone inventors acting on their charitable impulses. Technology and entrepreneurship programs at major U.S. universities, such as Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability at Stanford University, bring together students and faculty from different departments with outside partners to work on low-cost, simple devices. Most programs go over the entire process, from identifying the needs in developing countries to designing appropriate devices, testing them in the field, and developing appropriate business models to distribute the products.
“We’re doing magical things in these classes,” said Joel Sadler, co-founder of re:motion designs.
Some of the “magical” ideas lead to startups intended to bring devices to those who need them. Re:motion designs, for example, markets in India the JaipurKnee, an inexpensive leg prosthetic for amputees, which was developed by a student team in a Stanford University biodesign program.
Other ideas get support from groups such as Compatible Technology International, which has 150 volunteer designers and selects the most promising food-processing innovations from student-innovators.
U.S. and international students and graduates working on technologies for the poor are usually driven by the desire to help them or, as Amit Chugh puts it, “give back to the society and feel good about it in the process.” In 2005, Chugh started a company in India, Cosmos Ignite Innovations, to market a multifunctional solar lamp developed by a student team as a replacement for hazardous kerosene lanterns.
Sadler, a mechanical engineer, likes working on technologies for the developing world because the field is not as crowded as high-tech and gives him an opportunity “to see the impact of what I do growing.”
Promoters of the low-tech approach want to push the concept further and make members of poor communities the creators of technologies.
Local inventors are “better able to solve problems that arise or issues that they face in their daily lives,” said Amy Smith in a YouTube video. She leads the D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The D-Lab runs training programs for potential inventors in developing countries and organizes an annual design event that brings together people from those countries with the goal of producing practical solutions.
However, when such inventors return to their home communities they find an environment that is often radically different from the one U.S. student-inventors work in.
Joseph Nganga, an entrepreneur in Kenya, said the lack of an entrepreneurial ecosystem — expertise, capital, infrastructure and regulatory incentives — makes it difficult for potential African inventors and entrepreneurs to innovate and then to take their inventions to the market. Nganga’s firm, Solantern, markets solar lanterns for households without electricity.
Mohammed Bah Abba, however, proved that inventiveness can pay off in Africa if one can make the best of difficult circumstances. In 1995, Abba invented a clay-pot cooler that helps subsistence farmers with no access to electricity keep fruits and vegetables fresh for weeks. He has been able to distribute more than 100,000 of these desert refrigerators in his native Nigeria because they are based on a traditional technique and can be produced by local pot-makers.