Wednesday, September 17, 2008

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Tworque is going on hold for a bit

Tworque is going on hold for a bit. Work is getting extremely busy and it needs my full attention. Please bear with me for the next few months.

In the meantime, I would humbly encourage you to move over to my work blog, where I write regularly on the same topics and information that I do here. In some ways it is far more engaging, interesting, and global in its reach. It will be wonderful to have you involved there as well!

See you at

Thank you for your continued interest and support, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Building a composting tumbler

On the composting piece, here's a great video about how to build your own composting tumbler. I'm fairly certain you can use the same (assuming that you put enough biomass and ash/sawdust) for composting humanure.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Getting the real deal behind Matt's amazing video

Remember Matt Harding's amazingly cool video about dancing around the world?? (if not, see below); well, travelblog Gadling got a great informative interview with him. Check it out here. You can also see a more indepth interview with Payscale blogger where he talks about his career plans and goals.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The importance of intelligent rap

Here's some intelligent Rap.

I've been thinking for a long time about why we don't hire more people to just rap some sensible stuff (like how to do math and tables, and science concepts and stuff) rather than all the crap that seems to infiltrate everywhere - about degrading women and children and themselves; and about the greatness of drugs and alcohol.

No where was this idea more evident than when I was in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. People couldn't speak a word of English or read or write properly in Portuguese, but they could rap some version of 50 Cent particularly complete with every English cuss word you can think of. Now what if 50 ended up rapping about something intelligent - about hygiene, and going to school, or even just rapped in good English?? I think that would go a long way...don't you??

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Finally a safe technology for demining??

Will Aimee's technology help make demining easier?? (photo courtesy: Davethelimey)

Every year, the critically acclaimed nerd magazine Technology Review (from MIT) profiles the Top 35 Inventors Under 35 (aka TR35) who are making a difference. This year, Aimee Rose has won the "Humanitarian of the Year" award for designing ultra sensitive explosive sniffers that could potentially save hundreds of lives. The device is mostly being looked into for soldiers and by security companies on airlines and transportation hubs, but I wonder what the impact of something like this could be in the world of landmines, where TOO many innocent lives and limbs have been lost...often years after wars have ended. Now that could be amazing.

Demining landmines is a huge hazard for many reasons. The devices are hidden in areas that few people know of and are triggered by changes in pressure. Many different types of technologies and methodologies have been used, with varying levels of success; but it continues to be a dangerous and sizable issue.

More Info on demining:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What's your Water Footprint??

What is your water footprint?? (photo courtesy: ~FreebirD~)

Al Gore has done phenomenal education of the public (atleast in the United States...which is huge!). He's made "carbon footprint" a regular term.

Now let's talk about water footprint. What's your water footprint?? Water is turning into the world's single most contentious issue, particularly in the developing world. Water is trying to raise public awareness around the issue. Calculate your water footprint here. Warning...its a slow website and not the best designed. But it gets the point across.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

BoP Barriers to Innovation

Thanks to Africa Unchained, I came an article on the Barriers to Innovation focusing on biotech development in Africa. Fascinating read that's a working paper at the United Nations University. Here's the abstract:

Translating R&D and inventive efforts into a market product is characterized by significant financial skills, and the ability to overcome technical and institutional barriers. Research into and translation of new technologies such as biotechnology products to the market requires even greater resources. This paper aims to understand the key factors that foster or hinder the complex process of translating R&D efforts into innovative products. Different pathways exist in developed countries such as firm-level efforts, the use of IPs, the spin-off of new firms that develop new products, or a mixture of these. Developing countries differ substantially in the kinds of instruments they use because of their considerably weaker institutional environment and for this reason our framework takes a systemic and institutional perspective. The paper comtributes to this issue by examining systemic institutional barriers to commercializing biotechnology in a develping context within a systems of innovation framework. [get the rest here]

Monday, September 8, 2008

$100 Incubator

An IDDS participant works hard on building the incubator. (photo courtesy: IDDS blog)

If you are a regular reader of NEXT BILLION or any of the other big global development blogs, you might have come across the amazing press generated by MIT whiz, Amy Smith's, worldchanging IDDS (International Development and Design Summit). One of the many things that have come out of the IDDS Summit and her classes is the $100 incubator.

Recently NPR did an interview profiling the incubator and the team behind it. check it out here:

Friday, September 5, 2008

BoP consumer behavior

Do the BoP spend in the same way that upper and middle classes do?? (photo courtesy: matthew winterburn)

I recently read an excellent article on BoP entrepreneurialism by Niti Bhan and Dave Tait talks about "Design for the Next Billion Customers." It highlights consumer patterns of the BoP in Sub Saharan Africa. I've been following Niti's excellent blog for sometime now, where she talks about research of the BoP with regard to the wireless market. She has extensive insight into the consumer patterns of the BoP.

A couple of years back, I did an extensive case-study analysis of two entrepreneurs in India working in the lighting sector (not published). The entrepreneurs who did well in BoP areas (regardless of whether they were BoP themselves or not) understood their customer consumption behavior well. What few people understand is that the BoP is almost exactly like the middle or upper classes in their desires, but because they have limited capital, they spend differently. Understanding their consumer behavior is key to success in the field. What I found interesting (yet probably not so surprising) is that African BoP consumers are similar to Indian BoP consumers, which means that there is greater uniformity than I had previously thought. It also means that simply by studying their behavior, they can reach and tap into larger markets easier...allowing them to be better innovators and entrepreneurs.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is a computer a good substitute for a teacher??

Nigerian kids get a taste of the OLPC laptop. Can these types of technologies substitute well for real teachers??
(photo courtesy:

Nicholas Negroponte has an amazing vision. During his tenure at MIT's famed Media Lab, his team came up with the $100 laptop (granted it has since doubled in production cost, so it should be called the $200 laptop!), and proceeded to start the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. His idea was to use computers to engage and help educate the poor kids of the world. He talks about his vision in great detail at a TED conference in 2006. (Regardless of what other people say about the program or him, Negroponte is a visionary and he deserves tremendous credit for trying and testing out an idea that people have long thought about but never gone forth with.)

But the question technology a good substitute for a human teacher??

To answer this, I'd refer to two different write-ups: one a paper (you can also read a summary here) that's come out of the well-respected Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) at MIT; and a piece on education published in the New York Times (NYT) on August 17, 2008.

The JPAL paper publishes a study on randomized trials in India that compared learning rates between computer-assisted learning and those without. The NYT piece covers computer assisted learning in the United States and UK.

I would highly recommend reading both pieces. In general though, I found that the two highlight two very specific ideas:
  • Computer assisted learning works best when learning in class (with a human teacher) is complemented with technology. Technology by itself isn't a substitute for a teacher. Having been through all three combinations (teachers only, computers only, and computer assisted learning) , I couldn't agree more.
  • Probably a BIG caveat to any of this is that different students respond differently. This is NOT a one-size-fits-all idea. This is why having a teacher around REALLY matters. Teachers can customize their teaching; computers can't. This is the key. This is why technology is a poor substitute for real human teachers.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Do you work in the same field as your degree??

Consumerism Commentary, a blog on personal finances, did a twitter poll asking if people work in the same field as their degrees.

The answer is it here. As for me, I started out in environmental engineering (wat/san)...wasn't sure it was for me and spent three years doing everything but, then had an epiphany and came back to it. Essentially, the path isn't clear, people. You can do whatever you want, and how lucky are you to be able to do that!!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

When do you say "enough"??

When do you stop what you started?? When is it enough?? (photo courtesy: Compound Eye)

There is a controversial article that appeared in Time Magazine on Aug 6, 2008, titled "Why Africa is still Starving." Largely it blames food aid coming into countries like Ethiopia and Niger (the poster famine countries) for creating dependency and messing up food markets.

I think food aid and the starvation epidemic is part of a much larger problem with aid. Aid is increasingly geared towards "giving fish to people" rather than "teaching them to fish." Its an easier way to deal with the situation...feel bad for people, then give them food and money. I must unfortunately put some of the blame on books like Jeffrey Sachs' famous "The End of Poverty," which proclaims aid as the only way! Lots of people will argue with me about this, but from what I've seen over the years, its only getting worse.

In 2005, I really hit my angriest point with aid. I was in Mozambique on a WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) project working with an outstanding team of experts. Most NGOs could only dream of getting a team like this together...because they rarely are in one place at any given time or because it might cost an arm-and-a-leg; but we had lucked out. However, from the minute we got on site, we felt like we were being fleeced. I've never had to deal with this level of blatant begging. Our Mozambiquan counterparts would blatantly ask for money, "give us the money...we'll take care of everything. You can go back. No worries," or they'd say, "you pay for these [meals/rides/pieces of clothing/you-name-it] because you have money." Hands came forward to take accessories, t-shirts, hats, clothes, toiletries I had...they wanted everything ("you give me gift!"). Mozambique, by the way, is the World Bank's poster child for aid. So much aid money and loans have flooded their country in a short period of time, that I'm not surprised to see this level of entitlement from the people.

It was at this point that I wondered if we were doing any good by being there. As a child, I remember what it was like learning how to ride my bike. First my dad ran after me. Then he stopped and waited. The first time I fell down, I hurt myself knees bruised badly and were bleeding, and I started to cry. My dad just stood by. From a distance, he encouraged me to get up and get on with it. He didn't budge. I did get up. I continued to fall, and my knees still hurt. But I fell better the each time, and also rode better. Soon I was fine. I know it was hard for my dad to see me falter and hurt, but he knew that it was better in the longterm.

So my question is, when's the time to just back off and let these countries falter and make their own mistakes, and learn?? It hurts us to see them suffering...but maybe its best for them in the long run...(???)

Friday, August 29, 2008

What inspires you??

What music inspires you to make the world better?? (photo courtesy: FadderUri)

Echoing Green's Anthony is trying to figure out what music really inspires you to make the world a better place.

Submit your list and win a prize!

Here's what you need to do:

Prepare a list of your songs (artist and title) OR a digital mix tape of your favorite “Bold Songs.” Your mix should contain eight to ten tracks that motivate you to make the world a better place. We recommend that you make your mix using either of the following free services:

  • – Upload your songs in mp3 format or browse their network to stream your mix tape. We love this new site - we hope you check it out. If you use, please start the title of your mix with the words "Bold Songs." Here's a great screencast to get you started.
  • iTunes iMix – Create a downloadable mix tape using Apples iTunes software. For help, see this excellent tutorial.

I’ve prepared a sample entry in the comments below. We can’t wait to listen to what you come up with!

The rules:

Submit your mix by September 12nd at 5pm EST by leaving a comment on this blog post (below) with a link to your digital mix tape OR simply leave a comment containing a list of your songs (artist and title). Your comment must also contain a short statement about why you chose these songs. Additionally, entries with profanity or hate speech will be disqualified. All entries that meet these criteria will be entered into a contest for a 4GB iPod nano. Entries will be judged on their creativity and theme by a panel of Echoing Green staffers. The winner will be announced on September 15th at 5pm EST. The winner will have thirty days to claim their iPod prize. The contest is open to anyone except for Echoing Green staff and our beloved family members (and former staff/interns and their family members, etc). Questions? Email me at

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What Water crisis?

We are in the middle of a water crisis. But what does that mean?? (photo courtesy: misteriddles)

I've been curious about what the "water crisis" means. Everyone's talking about it, but no one's actually quantified the problem. Is it a water supply problem? Is it lack of accessibility to water? Is it lack of technology development? Is it increasing pollution??

One might say all (though I would like to argue that tech development is not one of them). But what's the biggest one??

sat Aguanomics blogger and water economist David Zetland down to sort out the same issue. Check out the interview here (portion follows...)

We’re in a water crisis.

Before I talked to economist and creator of Aguanomics David Zetland, those two words–water + crisis—made me scratch my head.

I’ve visited developing countries with water problems in the past. In many of those places, water trucks refill tanks located on the tops of buildings, and consumers have to haul their daily dihydrogen monoxide home in buckets. Here in the States, however, there’s plenty of water flowing from our taps. All the time.

According to Zetland, that illusion of plenty–endless water flowing from our taps–is part of the problem.

Business Pundit interviewed Zetland, who was recently been featured in Forbes and on Fox Business News, to get a primer on the water crisis—and how to solve it. Below are notes from the interview.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Composting Toilets

But for the sign, would you know that this was a composting toilet?? (photo courtesy:

Having covered waterless urinals, its time to talk about Composting Toilets. If animals can make manure, why can't we??

Actually we can. Make did a great write up on the subject, including several resources about human manure.

Like waterless urinals, it would be great to incorporate composting toilets. But the reality of the situation is that it probably won't happen. This is a classic case of sociological issues rather than technology issues. There are just TOO many psychological issues to contend with. I can't get friends of mine to stop drinking bottled water in the United States (where tap water quality is excellent), because they are worried about germs in the tap water...I have no hopes with the composting toilets. And these are all people with college degrees from good schools!!

But maybe it'll have to become like the Darfuri solar cookstoves, where there are strong negative incentives that force people to use the technology. If things got so bad in the U.S, maybe we'd start using solar cookstoves, or composting toilets to save the planet (well, more like save ourselves).

How a composting toilet works
Build a composting toilet for $25
Is Humanure safe?

Profile of one of the many composting toilet designs (photo:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


An Indian Schoolbus (photo courtesy: Only in India, Oddee)

Check out Oddee, a blog that highlights interesting things from around the world in pictures...things like:

World's most worthless money (I've used two of those currencies and its ridiculous to be carrying around so much in your pocket. On one hand you feel really rich, and on the other, you feel really ripped off!)

Only in India (I laughed so hard; but ironically too true!)

10 Crazy Japanese Ideas
(They even have a word for useless Japanese inventions. It escapes me...but there is a book about it. Here's more to keep you going!)

World's Funniest Fortune Cookies Ever (I've always wondered who these people are who sit around writing the fortunes all day)

10 Most Bizarre Scientific Papers (seriously, PhD's are overrated!)

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Water Problem

This is a debate that could take ages to figure out - what do we do about our water and who is responsible?? A controversial documentary "Flow" is on its way out. See the trailer below. Also see Water Economist David Zetland's response. He blogs on it twice.

I am torn between the two points of view.

(I am a regular reader of David's blog and have tremendous respect for his opinions. But, like every economist, he needs a bit of practicality to his theories. I honestly think that if he worked with an engineer and urban planner (who added practicality to his points of view), we could get some seriously robust water infrastructure churned out...rather than it just being a bunch of talk. Get out there David!!)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Power of Do-it-Yourself

I'm a HUGE fan of DIY (do it yourself) sites. And there's a ton of them out there. One of the biggest things missing for the poor is the lack of access to information. Its not only that they aren't educated, but they can't read, and there is no place to fix it - no libraries, no schools for adults, no videos to learn from. They are stymied on several levels.

I often feel like Encyclopedia Brittanica when I'm "in the field." Frankly I should carry a set of them into the field (I would if I didn't have a ton of other things to take!). People assume that because I know a little bit about something, that I know everything. Sometimes I get the randomest questions ("why is the moon white?" or "why do Asians have slanty eyes??"). I honestly tell them that I don't know. But that's never a good enough answer. When I was a kid and people told me that, I'd keep asking the same question over and over until I got smacked or my question was answered. (I still do, only I get smacked around in a different way) So even now, I try to look their questions up and find an answer...if I can.

There are a range of new DIY sites out that can easily fix this problem. Want to learn to make a plough?? Here... OR Want to make biodiesel?? Here... And the best part is that you don't need to know how to read. You can listen and understand and watch and learn. Nothing like trying something out yourself and learning.

Forbes recently did a piece on the new DIY generation. It profiles all the names behind the best DIY sites out.

Make magazine and Instructables are my favorites. You oughta check them out. Here's an example of "Make Biodiesel." Pretty cool stuff.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Emeka Okafor and good blogs on Africa

Emeka Okafor at the TED Global conference

I've done some research on TED Africa. Turns out that Emeka Okafor is the brains behind this amazing conference. He also has a major presence in the African blogosphere. Check out his excellent blogs Africa Unchained, and Timbuktu Chronicles. They are some of the best I've come across and he leads you to a million others...Africans writing about Africa.

Emeka has his hands in several African ventures, including Caranda Fine Foods, that sources gourmet teas and coffees from around Sub Saharan Africa. Caranda products can be found in most Whole Foods stores.

An interview with Emeka by The African Executive
Another interview with WhiteAfrican

Thursday, August 21, 2008

George Ayittey, and TED Africa

Following up on my Africa rant from yesterday, I thought I'd let someone else (more qualified) take over: George Ayittey. Here is his fiery talk from TED Africa:

I would also encourage to look at other videos on the site. SO encouraging and heartwarming and impassioned. I've heard nothing but praise on the blogosphere about this conference. People have even claimed it to be the launching point for the revival of Sub Saharan Africa!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Evidence of Ancient African Societies

Paul Sereno and Elena Garcea excavate adjacent burials at Gobero, the largest graveyard discovered to date in the Sahara. (photo courtesy: New York Times)

Sadly, very little is known about ancient African societies. I got into a long discussion with a good West African friend of mine about this. I kept asking him for books about ancient African societies (outside of the Egyptians). Surely they must have had civilizations; but where's the information about it?? He voiced equal amounts of frustration. There were a few; but hardly any had the information we were looking for. As a student in Africa, so little of your history lessons are focused on your own country or continent. Most of it is focused on the world, and is extremely euro-centric (stunner!). But more frustrating than anything else is the fact that only a miniscule percentage of Africans even seem to care! Most of you might say...well, they are struggling for survival, so they don't have time! Well, I've seen evidence enough of well-fed Africans running around who have the time and money, but don't care...

In one of the (possibly) biggest archaeological stories of the century, the NY Times reported on a set of graves from the pre-Stone Age period that have been found in the Saharan desert. Pictures and history are slowly making their way out of there. How wonderful. Apparently the desert used to be lush and green. There's so much to learn from our past, so we don't make the same mistakes again. Hopefully more stories like this will make their way out. And hopefully it'll be Africans uncovering their biggest stories in the future!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A design competition for the homeless

The Homeless Utility Vehicle (source:

Homeless guy writes about a great design competition taking place for homeless people. He writes:
There is at least one serious design competition for designers, architects, and engineers which focuses on customized shopping carts for homeless people. The results are quite varied. From time to time, people ask me for advice on their designs.

There is a place for such considerations as improving the conditions of homelessness, for the reality is, there is no cure for homelessness. Still, we should give equal time and attention towards ending homelessness, so that such contraptions are no longer necessary.

Design Boom
Student Design

education, olympics, water, and aid effectiveness

1. On the education theme, a NYT piece on rebuilding schools the better way, thanks to Katrina.

2. On the Olympic theme, Why India has so few Olympic medals, by Tyler Cowen. Don't miss the discussion comments at the end. Great discussion!

3. On the water theme, aguanomics takes on the World Bank's advising policies.

4. A GREAT write-up on aid effectiveness by Maurice.

5. Treehugger on how Bangladesh is capitalizing on its PET trash.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Pervez Musharraf

Photo courtesy: Financial Times

I often wonder about military dictatorships in the developing world. These work quite well sometimes (eg. General Park's influence on South Korea; and arguably Fidel Castro's effect on Cuba, and all the kingdoms of yore that had good kings); but generally the end result is quite the opposite (too numerous to mention). I'm torn about dictatorships. My own theory is that benevolent dictatorship is the best way out of the instability of war or poor governance that afflicts so many countries in the developing world. Democracy doesn't work so well because of the time it takes to bring consensus, and because the consensus is so corrupt (votes are bought from the uneducated masses).

Sadly, benevolent dictatorships rarely happen. Its TOO easy to get drunk with the power and wealth that come with the position. And while many start with good intentions, they are quickly seduced by the "fringe benefits" and the country does far worse very quickly.

Musharraf started off similarly. He took over Pakistan in a bloodless coup, and replaced a truly useless politician (Nawaz Sharif). People were only too happy to support the change. But then Musharraf was quickly seduced, as everyone else is. I can't say that he's done much for anyone but himself in the past few years. And now he's "stepping down" and being replaced by another lacking politician. I wonder...when will Pakistan be finally able to be something truly great??

Watch this great Time photoessay on the "Rise and Fall of Pervez Musharraf." Also read this past post about my thoughts on Pakistan - a country with tremendous potential, suffering under mediocre leadership!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Twitter's a dud in Africa...and more...

1. Read WhiteAfrican's great post on why Twitter's low penetration in Africa matters

2. The Importance of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, by Tactical Philanthropy

3. PSFK's find: Camera for the Blind. I think more technologies for the disabled should be developed.

4. NY Times does an amazing graphic visual on Olympic game dominance by country, over the years. Its simply fascinating to see the evolution!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Getting Kids Involved in the Poverty Dialogue

Get kids involved in the dialogue early! (photo courtesy: Josh Hough)

BOPreneur blogger, Paul Hudnut has written an excellent blog entry about getting kids engaged in the poverty dialogue. He provides 6 ideas for moving forward:

It is that time of year... students are coming back on campus, faculty are scrambling to finalize syllabi. Sustainable design, social entrepreneurship, and and international development are hot topics on campus. If you are a teacher planning coursework in these areas (or at their "intersection"), or if you are a student that wants to do a project in one of your classes, check out these resources [...]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What defines a BoP business??

As BoP markets are being studied better, more standardized terminology is entering the business. Here NextBillion guestblogger Monica Touesnard blogs about what defines a BoP business.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Waterless Urinals

Kohler's line of waterless urinals (photo courtesy:

You are probably cringing as I write this. I did too. Men's bathrooms smell bad enough with running water...imagine how bad it could be without water!

One of my biggest annoyances when I'm traveling through developing countries is the presence of the ubiquitous man-facing-the-wall-and-peeing-wherever-he-feels-like-it. Many guys suggest that my irritation comes from not being anatomically endowed to do it myself. I disagree. My irritation comes from the sheer inconsiderate and unsanitary nature of this behavior. Many developing countries have enough waste and sanitation problems without having to deal with issues like this.

But there are water problems and the smell from many urinals is often unbearable, so can waterless urinals really work?? Apparently so.

How do they work??

How a waterless urinal works (photo courtesy:

Fascinating stuff. Apparently they require little maintenance, and no water; and still are odorless and sanitary. This makes it perfect for the developing Falcon Waterfree Technologies has already shown by installing their line in the men's bathrooms at the Taj Mahal in India.

Here are some posts about waterless urinals:
No Flush Urinal
Waterless Urinal

Waterless Urinals already being used in Japanese Train Stations

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympians turned Entrepreneurs

1992 Olympian Mary Mazzio on the set of "Apple Pie" (photo courtesy: Spoiler Alert Radio)

So on my Olympics binge today, I discovered this great article about Olympian Entrepreneurs. I've always wondered what happens to these amazing athletes. Lornah's story is just one (there is a similar story about India's famed runner P.T Usha, who went on to start her own girl's sports academy). But what about the rest...particularly those with access to better resources??

Check out the Forbes article. Probably the coolest of the outlined bunch is Mary Mazzio, U.S rower extraordinaire from the 1992 Olympics, who went on to get a J.D and a film degree after the Olympics and finally founded her own film company, 50 eggs. The company mostly produces award-winning documentaries about stories that others overlook - working moms, moms of athletes, moms of entrepreneurs. BusinessPundit wrote a great profile on Mary, and I agree with her...we need more of her out there.

BTW, Mary didn't win a medal in the Olympics (nor did P.T Usha for that matter). But really does it matter??

Stuck in a warzone

You've probably been following the ridiculous david-vs-goliath war going on between Georgia and Russia. I think war is dumb and should be used as an absolutely last resort. And stupid men should not rule countries, because they go into war so its a G.I Joe game.

I just read a particularly touching note on a blog somewhere. A Georgian actress wrote this journal entry appeal that ended up on a blog. Its very raw and real. She, like many other innocent people, is stuck in the middle of this war that she had nothing to do with (like all stupid wars).

Run Lornah Run

Lornah Kiplagat, Kenyan (now Dutch) long-distance runner (photo courtesy: PBS/Frontline)

The Olympics are on right now, much to my own delight. I love watching and getting into the Olympic spirit. I always get annoyed with the U.S media's obsession with their own athletes and how many medals they win, but atleast they show the Olympics! I remember being on assignment in South Asia during the 2006 winter olympics, and I was furious that I couldn't catch the opening ceremony. Ten channels were dedicated to cricket highlights (a most useless game, in my opinion), without a single allusion to the world's greatest sport show!

For me the greatest thing is seeing female athletes from developing countries. Women aren't encouraged to play sports or compete in many of these cultures. In fact, they are often discouraged. As I have been told many times myself, "what's the point of girls playing sports...they only get married and work in the kitchen! Sports are for boys only." I still don't get that logic...but whatever! If women end up becoming sports legends, its often because they did it on their own or with the help of a small (1-3 people) supportive group, against the wishes of a vast majority of the people around them. So even to be on a world stage, without medaling, is a HUGE deal! I wish more media stories captured these struggles and celebrated these women.

Back in 2004, PBS profiled one such amazing athlete, a Kenyan athlete by the name of Lornah. After competing successfully in a series of long distance events, she took her money back home to invest in developing the next generation of female Kenyan runners. Its a beautiful story! Watch it here (

Monday, August 11, 2008

Imitating Photosynthesis, a breakthrough in Storage technology

Nature's most efficient energy producer and storage device: the green leaf (photo courtesy: Luca5)

Nature's most efficient energy maker?? The green leaf. In a process called photosynthesis, the leaf, uses chlorophyll to capture solar energy, water and carbon dioxide, and efficiently converts it into oxygen, water and starch/sugar. The leaf distributes the sugar/starch within the plant system, releases the oxygen for the world to breathe, and either keeps or discharges the water.

Oxygen is that thing that we breathe in and need to survive, and it is a great fuel source.

For years, scientists have tried unsuccessfully to mimic the green leaf. Then last week, renowned MIT Professor of Chemistry, Dan Nocera, announced a breakthrough. He had finally found a way to artificially mimic the leaf. I think he deserves (and frankly, he just might get it!) a Nobel Prize for this research. Its THAT big!

Why?? Free energy for the world...

To quote PSFK:

Scientists at MIT have developed what may be the holy grail of of solar power. In the past, the problem with solar was keeping the electricity flowing at night. Storing excess energy for use after sundown has traditionally been really expensive and highly inefficient. Now, by mimicking the way plants store energy MIT has created a way to store solar power in fuel cells that can keep power running around the clock.

MIT News reports:

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

Solar Cookers in Darfur

Different versions of Solar cookers

Time Magazine did a great photoessay on solar cookers being disseminated in Darfur.

The photoessay proves a very important point...that all technology has its place.

While solar cookers are environmentally friendly and convenient in many ways (less labor/time intensive than gathering wood), they've never quite caught on in the developing world. I've never been to a village where solar cookers were being used, even in areas of extensive sun/heat where firewood was scarce! I even came across a couple of villages where the cookers were given away for free as part of some program. The women/families would pull it out when guests came and do a short demo. But for everyday use, they still preferred firewood and its smokiness.

The reasons were mainly:
  • most women cooked early in the morning and later in the evening, before the family had awoken, when sun light/heat is at its lowest. During the day, they were out collecting wood for light, heat, and cooking (which solar cookers can't compensate for) and doing other income generating activities.
  • the last thing any of these women wanted to do was sit out in the hot sun and cook (its the same reason why smoky cookstoves are placed inside the house rather than outside)
  • flies and bugs are ubiquitous outside (inside too, but they are minimal compared to the outside). Cooking out in the open is simply less comfortable and sanitary. This is another reason for why women prefer to inhale smoke rather than cook outside.
  • the cookers rarely come with instructions/training and aren't have a problem and who do you go to for help??
  • Finally, depending on the culture, women aren't allowed or don't feel safe sitting exposed outside the house for extended periods of time when their husbands aren't around. Cooking outside means being more exposed, less safety, or even asking for trouble. Granted hunting for firewood is dangerous, but its more socially acceptable and there are other women around with you when you are doing your search.

Yet I do believe that the solar cookers in Darfur have a lot of things in their favor:

a. They come in a kit, which means that they are standardized, and they are buildable (which increases ownership!), and they are transportable. Some enterprising person can even take the same kit apart and make their own.

b. They used fairly locally available materials...again some enterprising person can build their own.

c. They come with specialized training. Most women I had met with the free solar cookers didn't quite know how to use them and didn't have the time to invest in sitting idly for three hours cooking food.

d. MOST importantly, the security situation is so bad, that there is a STRONG negative incentive for them to use the cookers. In some ways, they have no other choice but to use the cookers. They probably also spend a lot of day-time in their homes (it being a refugee camp), to allow day-time cooking rather than taking part in income generating activities as you would in a safer/regular part of the world.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Spotlight: Terracycle

Terracycle Gardening Products (source: Terracycle)

I love Terracycle. Its great for many reasons:
  1. it takes waste and makes money on it
  2. its eco-friendly
  3. (a critical piece that few talk about) it shows us what our trash looks like.
Terracycle is a great model for developing countries that have long been the dumping grounds of the wealthier countries trying to push off their trash problems (eg. U.S.A). Often the ones left to bear the brunt of this dumping are the poorest of the poor. But if the BoP can "embrace the trash," see the value in it as Terracycle does, they could turn their biggest enemy into a cash mine. Here's where outsourcing could actually work extremely well (i.e. Terracycle outsourcing to countries like India, China, and name very few).

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Another model aid story?? -- Defining a metric of success

photo source: Candace Thecoco

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells the story of Beatrice Biira who credits her against-the-odds life story to a goat appropriately named Luck.

Beatrice’s story helps address two of the most commonly asked questions about foreign assistance: “Does aid work?” and “What can I do?”

The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born and raised. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents were peasants who couldn’t afford to send her to school. [...]

If I'm trying to extract the lessons from this extremely brief story (I'm still not sure how the dots connect, i.e. how the book helped get Beatrice into a prep school and then college), it would revolve around defining the success of "aid." What is a reliable measurable metric of success, particularly in aid??

I once asked a group of inner-city school teachers how they kept themselves motivated. Surrounded by children in drug and crime infested neighborhoods, and goaded down by disruptive, delinquent parents, I wondered how these women and men stayed positive. They said it started with redefining their metrics of success. Many of them admitted that they had started their jobs with idealistic viewpoints - they would "save" all their students from the streets. This soon downsized to half a class, then to a dozen students, then to two, and one... "and just as you are about to give up, one makes it through...he/she becomes your beacon of hope, your reason for being, your success metric...and you go on until the next one happens." This must be exhausting, I reasoned. " get used to it...its all about how you define your success metric. Success to me is just getting a kid to start thinking of a future that doesn't involve this life [of drugs and crime]. If even for a second they can experience that freedom, I know I've succeeded!"

In Heifer's million donations, there have been only a few Beatrices...just as there have been only a few seconds of freedom for the students in this particular inner-city school district. So do we just focus on these few success stories?? Can more be done?? Do you think we are being too hard on "aid"? Should we downsize our metrics of success??

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A model aid story

Does "aid" work? I don't know.

This question often makes me want to define "aid." What is "aid"? Is it charity? Does it mean giving away large sums of money, or materials, or time?? I don't know. I don't think so. I think that's a really narrow definition of the word "aid." And within that definition, I know LOTS of "aid" projects that don't work. "What works" has rarely been studied. So I do my own studies. When I come across a good story, I run over it several times and try to come up with my own conclusions of what made something work.

This morning, I came across this story on TED. And I'd define it as a model "aid" story. There is giving, there is receiving, there is development. There is even the white man's burden portion of the "west" giving to the "east." Better still is that there is success, happiness, joy, humility, beauty, lessons on both sides, and a great story.

There shouldn't be one "aid" model. Not everyone can go out and do work in the field. Not everyone can give millions of dollars. The best "aid" stories are organic, and are customized around the giver and the receiver (hence the success of the Secret Millionaire). The receiver gets what he/she most needs; the giver gives exactly what the receiver needs (ideally suited to the giver's strengths); and ultimately both the giver and receiver exchange roles. Both learn, both are connected, both are humbled.

Watch this. Tell me what you think.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spotlight: The Secret Millionaire

Photo credit: Strevo

I never thought about this, but giving away money is just as hard as applying for it. The Freakonomics blog was the first to bring this to my attention, when sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh asked readers What would you do with $70 Million?? I don't think I'd ever considered that it was hard to give away money. Excess funds have never been an issue for me, rather its been the latter.

On a recent flight through the UK, I stumbled upon a program called The Secret Millionaire. The show follows undercover millionaires as they search for worthy people and programs to distribute their money amongst (rumor has it that an American version will soon debut in these parts). I'd honestly never seen philanthropy from their point-of-view---the difficulties of figuring out who to trust, who would most benefit, and how to take a social investment furthest. At the end of each episode (I saw two), the millionaire finds several worthy causes and is humbled by the act of giving, and the recipients are most grateful and humbled by the act of receiving. Both describe it as life-changing. I wish most philanthropy was this personalized, and this gratifying.

There are many lessons to learn from this program. The viewer gets to see several points-of-view including that of the donor and that of ordinary people who are potential recipients. You also get exposed to the complexity of charitable giving or receiving. Even midway through my first episode, I found myself deep in thought. If you get a chance, I would urge you to check the show out (you can see episodes online, though I haven't figured out how!)

Here's a sample:

Writeup on Terry George


And an interview with Terry after:

Pioneer Profile: Amy Smith

Amy Smith is the real deal. She shot to prominence in 2004, when she won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award for her work in appropriate technology design.

Smith's greatest contributions, I believe, are in the world of education. An MIT student genius, Amy got her greatest technical challenges and lessons during her four-year Peace Corps assignment in Botswana. She brought her passion back to MIT and has since dedicated her life to educating and involving bright, young students in design for the poorest in the world. That is and will be her greatest legacy. D-Lab, her popular appropriate technology design class has spawned similar programs in other universities; and alums have gone on to spawn social innovation companies and/or become respected thinkers in their own right. What is greatest about her alums is that they have learned to consider the poorest person in the world when making any decision. They consider the impact their everyday decisions or technology designs have on those we least consider. Imagine what a different world this would be if every engineer, scientist, sociologist and politician considered and designed for the least of us all. Below, I've included Amy Smith's TED talk...where she talks about one of the appropriate technologies that have spawned out of D-Lab.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Catching up and a Tworque Beta update

I'm back, and its time to catch up.

Here's the promised update on Tworque Beta:

My original concept was put on hold to address more important related issues that happened to be closer to the professor's heart. We agreed that so little was known about what really works in the field; and that this was a direct result of the lack of documentation of field projects. Our goal, therefore, was to develop some sort of a tool to aid and incentivize documentation. In fact, I learned that this is the key step required to develop better technologies. If you want better designed, sustainable, and implementable technologies, then find out what has already been developed, where the pitfalls are, and what needs to be changed.

We spent a week intensively brainstorming and finetuning our new concept. This was presented at an educator's retreat last week, where educators/academics sought ideas and feedback from their peers on ideas such as these. Feedback was extremely good and encouraging. Everyone agreed that we were onto something critical that could change the world of "aid" if it worked.

Unfortunately on return, I heard that the project had run out of funding; and so this project has been put on hold until further funds can be collected. Ah, the fickle world of "aid"!

To celebrate being back and having a bit more time to blog, I wanted to share my favorite video. It plainly and simply identifies what works for when you want to connect with people, regardless of where you are in the world...ENJOY! (and if you've seen it before, try it always puts a smile on my face!)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

photo credit: Jek in the Box

Today I came across a great site called I thought it was the best introductory tool for people going into the field for the first time. (they should make a site for Finally you'll know how the BoP think, with practical units that work best for them. They could care less about metric, british, or any other system. So you better learn how they think and measure. This is important for communication.

For example, BoP milestones are measured by events. This is important for survey development. The question "How old are you?" quite often gets a response of "I don't know." Instead, you should know to ask..."were you born before or after the 'Great Flood'?"...and " How many years before/after?" you can then guesstimate a person's age.

The BoP measures the worth of something in terms of barter. For example, to the very popular question "how much does a ticket to the U.S cost?" I sometimes say that it is the equivalent of trading 'n#' of cows or goats, and lest they think that I am loaded with cash I quickly add that in the U.S there are many cows, so the price is not that much there but its very much in Kenya (say)! Somehow, they get the point...

You'll also understand why when they say "that village is five minutes away in that direction" or "the bus is coming in five minutes," you end up walking or waiting two or three hours.

My point: Try to find a way to communicate in their language. It will take you far.

Apologies, thanks, and what's happening...

Many apologies for my long silence. I was on vacation until June 1. Vacation is my cut-off time. I try to disconnect from my regular life, rarely using a computer, television, telephone, or other technology that keeps me connected to the world in any way. Instead I retreat into my thoughts and the landscape I am around.

Upon return on June 2, I flew headlong into a new assignment. And here's something for any other visionary hopefuls out there who don't believe that lightening can strike... A prominent university professor heard about Tworque, and contacted me asking to set up a beta version. Turns out she's had the same idea for a few years now, but didn't have the time to implement it. So three weeks later, I'm in Boston working to churn out a tangible concept. Our goal is to use Tworque within a teaching environment, and maybe tweak it into working condition, at which point it will just market itself.

This week has and will continue to involve brainstorming and setting up the "ghost" Tworque (a precursor to Beta). Next week, I will present the ghost version at an educator's retreat. The goal will be to get feedback, and possibly even interest in incorporating Tworque Beta into their curriculums.

Tworque Beta will hopefully launch in the fall, for exclusive use in an MBA International Development (ID) class in the Fall. I'll let you know what happens. But wish me lots of luck, because I need it!

Thanks, as always, for your continuing support. Special thanks to those of you who wrote asking me to continue posting. I will do my best to keep you updated.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recycling posts

In his post this morning, Chris Blattman hit on something that I agree with. There's just a lot of information recycling. Read about something somewhere and then put it in your own post. I plead guilty to that. And I'm sorry.

I'm new to this blogging thing, and I'm not writing about myself or things in my life that are changing. Its been a year since I was last out in the field, where the action is. So I have less first hand information to give, making my posts less vibrant.

Unless I have an original spin on something or it cannot fit into a tweet, I'll do my best to keep it out. My posts will be less frequent, but hopefully when they come around, they'll be fresh.

Also, things are getting a little hectic at the moment. I will be traveling a lot starting this friday through the end of June, and I'm not sure how regular my internet access will be.

As always, thanks for bearing with me. I appreciate your patience and input at every stage.

Interesting aid Tweets

A couple of links I liked:

1. A sweet, yet sad look at how resourceful street children carve out a life in India. I often wonder how well these kids would do if they were adopted and looked after in some circumstance. Imagine if every middle class family took on one of these kids, paid them to do chores, sponsored their education, and gave them a place to sleep and eat, what a different world India would be!

2. A has done an excellent two-part write-up on the differences between the work/impact of Relief and Development Aid agencies. It gives a fairly clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this process, as well as outlines holes and inefficiencies. I see good dialogue happening from this topic.

3. Another potentially great debate will be stimulated by this post about How True is your Altruism? The author muses about altruistic people get tired of giving? and how genuine are their feelings of giving? Do political affiliations, for example play a role?

4. Manuel Borego blogs about stimulating BoP markets in disaster areas as a means to Relief. I think its easier said than done. BoPs are the first hit in disaster zones; they worry first about survival, and coping with the tragedies in their lives. Stimulating a market that has had its coping mechanisms ripped apart takes time and dedication, which relief organizations don't foray into. Essentially, great idea...but not so practical.

5. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) has put out a great report on Women and Entrepreneurship. Turns out that women entrepreneurs significantly contribute to economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. It also says that women with strong social networks are more successful...this is not surprising considering that word-of-mouth plays a significant role in market consumption. Finally, all those neighborly housecalls and gossip have paid off well :-)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pangea Day Film Archive

What do you see?? Check out the Pangea Day Film archive.

For those of you who missed the live broadcast of Pangea Day yesterday (which was amazing...I'm still bummed that I couldn't score tickets to the main event in Los Angeles), the films are archived here. I urge you to check them out. Some of them were outstanding, and very thought provoking. Probably the best part was seeing the world through the eyes of people from around the world including Ghana, S. Africa, India, Paraguay, Colombia, and much more...

Pioneer Profiles: The Elders

The Elders, a council of 12 globally-respected elders and humanitarians, set up to provide advice in the world's time of need. (source: Peter

In his 2005 autobiography, Richard Branson talks about a heartbreaking moment when his last minute intervention to stop the U.S-Iraq war is just too late.

When Branson gets word of the impending tension between the U.S and Iraq, he appeals to Nelson Mandela, and Kofi Annan to intervene. They quickly hatch a plan to find an amicable agreement that would prevent war between the two from fighting. But just as Nelson Mandela is set to fly out to Baghdad, the first bomb is dropped. Branson is heartbroken, and describes his early inaction as the biggest regret of his life.

What I learned from the experience, Branson writes, is that the world needs a group of elders who can step in on behalf of the world community in situations like 'elders' to deliver a voice to the people of the world.

I love this idea. In times of moral dilemma, we don't go to political, financial or strategic advisors. We go to people who have strong moral compasses, and great personal wisdom, who guide us with the depths of their beings. So why not provide the same thing for the world. Globally respected elders available for the world's times of need??

And the joy of it is that Branson went on to create exactly that concept. The Elders was launched in July 2007, with a group of 12 world-respected elders. Lets hope they put their powerful punch to the test soon!

For those interested, there is a great profile of the Elders and Virgin Unite in this BusinessWeek article.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pangea Day in Half an Hour

PEOPLE, its time for Pangea Day. View it on your mobile phone or TV or computer. Check it out here.

Help Burma Links

Wanna help Burma? Here are some resources:

1. Arabella Advisors
, financial advisors who specialize in philanthropic strategy, is holding a free advisory teleconference for donors interested in helping the Burmese on Monday, May 12th at 3PM ET. RSVPs are encouraged. Details are here.

2. Chris Blattman and Alanna Shaikh blog their picks here, here, and here. Alanna is an aid worker, so I'd give her picks some thought.

3. The New York Times has put together a well-thought out list of resources here.

4. For those on the hunt for more permanent action, ReliefWeb has a list of positions here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Disaster Relief Efficiency: And then there's the governments...

I've spent the past week reading Richard Branson's engaging autobiography Losing My Virginity. Its a great lesson in entrepreneurship and life, and a fascinating read.

Branson is quite an adventurer, and in describing one of his round-the-world ballooning expeditions talks about something that rings through today. After three sleepless days in a hot air balloon capsule, he writes the following in his journal:
Day 3, 20 December 1998
I haven't slept since I last wrote my diary 24 hours ago, with good reason. [While] I wish you could be up here with us...there were some moments...I would not wish on you.
Let me first explain the challenge that It is not just the elements, or the technological challenge. Sadly, it also involves people and politics. As always in life, it is not the ordinary people who get in the way.. Its a handful of politicians at the top who selfishly make their country and this world a sadder place to live. After all...this is a mission flown in peace.
He goes on to describe how much a hot-air balloon is at the mercy of the weather elements, with wind as the only propulsion system. The balloon goes where the wind takes it. You can't demand that the wind go south of Russia, Iraq, China and North Korea. It goes where it wants and takes you with it. And although he had cleared this with many of the governments before starting his journey, some (China) revoked their permission just as he was about to enter their airspace, while others he expected to be downright difficult (N. Korea) were absolutely civil.

What is so sad and poignant about this situation is reflected in Burma's situation today. With relief teams and supplies ready to help the people of Burma, you have a few idiotic politicians on the top who are selfishly standing in the way of helping their innocent people.
In this case, it isn't a lack of technology or human resources or management, its the government and its stupid policy that comes in the way.

What can be done?? Well, its a watch-and-wait game. Relief and other philanthropic organizations need to think of this extra time as a blessing. Use it to practice, prepare and coordinate, so that when the regime does let them in, they can be efficient. OCHA (the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs)...are you listening?? The Regime can't hold us off forever. They have to let us in.

In the meantime, can we please bring up our kids better?? Because some kid somewhere grew up to be the nutcase(s) who run(s) Burma now. Maybe if he had had a couple of knocks on his head, maybe he would have turned out better...