Wednesday, April 23, 2008


This put a smile on my face (and I'm still in Monsters INC mode), so I thought I'd share it with you. And its technology being used in developing countries.

An ingenious cameraman, mounted cameras on elephants to see how they viewed the world. The pictures he got have been amazing. Check them out here.

Greened Out

Its the day after Earth Day. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm officially "greened-out." I got so bombarded with green posts, emails, lectures, magazines and billboards about saving water and food and animals and the earth, that I decided to save my own sanity (and yours) and not post much. I had originally composed two posts on water conservation, but I hope you already know that you should not waste water. If not, let me just say...please conserve water.

Another by-product of this green-out is that I am depressed...I saw so many pictures (even a hip hop video) of how depressing the world is that I had to escape.

I had to do something un-green and get my adrenaline pumping. So I went into my backyard and killed all the green weeds I could find, and then watched Monsters Inc (which has a lot of blue monsters, if you ignore Mike Wazowski). I feel much better this morning.

I still love earth. And so I leave you with some Colbert:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Food supply comparisons around the world

Some pictures speak a thousand words. In light of the food crisis, I saw one of the most interesting picture posts that compared a week's worth of food supplies for an average semi-middle-class family (I say "semi" because some countries lack a middle class) in different countries around the world: Italy, Germany, USA, Mexico, Poland, Egypt, Ecuador, Bhutan, and Chad. I've visited quite a few of these countries for extended periods of time; they are (unfortunately, in some cases) quite representative of the typical meals you'll find when you visit.

(In addition, for some reason I'm trying to figure out where GDP, health, and/or happiness fit into these pictures. Any thoughts??)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

On that Food note again

Right, I'll be quiet after this one (I think). Here's a great site about sustainable food and cooking and all (this is all a result of watching King Corn!).

Here's one of their stories about a guy who envisioned a sustainable restaurant:

Food Technology: Plumpynut

An extremely malnourished child is fed PlumpyNut (source: CBS 60 mins)

Once in a moment of desperation, I was trying to figure out how to become rich in the developing world - help people and get rich at the same time. So I got together a group of international development folks from different backgrounds and they all agreed that the best way was to start a Plumpy'Nut factory in Africa. The only problem is that Plumpy'Nut is patented and I don't have their formula. And I think my riches would be gone if I stole their recipe and they sued me.

Plumpy'nut has revolutionized malnutrition management in the developing world. Like ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts) it has brought people back almost from the brink of death. Considering the food crisis and the topic of the day, I thought I'd just highlight this technology.

Technology Name: PLUMPY'NUT

Plumpy'Nut is a high nutrition paste that combines fortified peanut butter, milk, and vegetable oils in a foil packet.

Plumpy'Nut Specs:
Inventor: Michel Lascanne and Andre Briend, Food Scientists and Nutritionists
HQ: Nutriset (founded by Lascanne)
Year of invention: 1997
Franchisees: 4 (Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger, Ethiopia, with one set to open soon in the Dominican Republic)
Calories per packet: 500 kCal (usually 1 packet = 1 meal)
Cost per packet: $5

My review:
I heard about Plumpy'Nut from aid worker colleagues when I was taking nutrition classes a year ago. I was so fascinated by the product that I went straight back and did a bunch of research on it. Then CBS 60 Minutes and Anderson Cooper did a whole thing on it and that got the world talking. I recommend watching it.

The good:
Plumpy'Nut does not require dilution and can be eaten as is. This is really critical, because for a long time powdered mixes didn't work because clean water in disaster zones could never be guaranteed. Plumpy'Nut takes that major concern away. It can also be used by babies from 6 months up (most babies cannot have food other than milk before).

Plumpy'Nut is amazing and a lifesaver. I can't say more.

The what:
The main complaint from aid workers is the cost. US$5 per meal may not seem like much to you and me, but in a country where an entire family can eat sumptuously on that money, it seems ridiculous. After all, milk, peanuts and oil are ubiquitous in Africa and should be able to be combined locally to make this product. So why is it so expensive??

Well, Plumpy'Nut is patented and they won't sell their formula to anyone. You can only buy the product from one of their franchisees, and the only people who can afford it are the aid agencies and the military.

Lascanne insists that he is not profiting from the sales of Plumpy'Nut, only fueling the money back into R&D (Research and Development) of other products and for salaries. They won't reveal how high salaries are. I believe him, but I also think there needs to be a way around this cost (atleast its not $90 for a plastic drum, like with Hippo Roller!). Maybe the WHO can subsidize Nutriset's R&D and operating costs, and let the products be priced at cost, so that more people can access and afford it (rather than having to come to a refugee camp or aid clinic).

I must say that it is testament to Lascanne that no one has taken the sample and studied it to come up with their own competitive formula (I'm sure any food scientist could do this).

Variations I would suggest:
None. But the cost is a very frustrating component. Maybe competition would be good in this field.

Other reviews/information:
The official Plumpynut Page
Wikipedia: Plumpynut

Nutriset's page
CBS 60 mins: PlumpyNut
There were quite a few articles from 2005 that were excellent but that I can't find links online to. If I could upload a pdf here, this would help!
Thurow, R. (2005), In Battling Hunger, A New Advance: Peanut-Butter Paste. 12 April 2005,
The Wall Street Journal.

King Corn (on the subject of the food crisis)

The King Corn guys: showing us the life cycle of corn from field to dinner plate. (source:

I don't watch TV so much to begin with. For one our only TV from 1982 has a regular set of scraggly lines across it that make me cross-eyed and cranky; it makes me fat, and finally, probably as a result, we have no cable (but really, except for Comedy Central, Nat Geo, and Discovery, there isn't anything on!).

So I was lucky on thurs night when I turned on PBS to see a hugely entertaining, but powerful documentary film featured on their Independent Lens show called King Corn. King Corn follows two recent college grads as they unravel America's corn obsession. The two rent an acre of land in Iowa to farm the corn, perform all their farming duties, and spend whatever time they have (which seems like a lot) following the corn from the farm to the dinner plate...

Against the backdrop of our food crisis, King Corn provides fascinating (and humorous) insight into American food policy, our own health crisis of obesity and diabetes, and the larger world food crisis.

The Food Crisis Debate: What are the causes??

I think we are all aware of the major food crisis we are finding ourselves in. It may not seem like such a big issue in the United States, where food still abounds (and I see plenty of wastage) and the prices have increased by a relatively small margin. But in other parts of the world, where 20 cents is the daily income of a majority of the workers, this has sparked famine and riots.

On wednesday, April 13, NPR (National Public Radio) did an excellent interview with four influential international policy thinkers who debated the causes of the food crisis: was it a lack of technology? was it climate change? or was it poor policy decisions (like bio-fuels, etc)??

(note: Diane Rehm who conducts the interview, is actually an excellent journalist. Most first timers can get frustrated by her achingly slow interviewing process, but keep in mind that it is because of a neurological condition that she is battling. So just hang in there...the debate is worth it!)Publish Post

Friday, April 18, 2008

Water Technology: The Hippo Roller

Women in South Africa use the Hippo Roller to transport and store water (photo: Hippo

Technology Name: HIPPO ROLLER

In a nutshell, the Hippo Roller (HR) is a water transporter and storage unit, designed in South Africa.

The HR organizational website has an extensive description about their technology. I'll just paraphrase it for everyone's benefit:

HR is a 20 gallon (90L) polyethylene water drum designed to roll on the ground rather than being carried on the head. The polyethylene is UV stabilized and sturdy enough to withstand every kind of rural condition. To aid input and output of the liquid, as well as cleaning of the drum, there is a large screw-on cap. A clip-on steel handle is used to push the drum around.

HR Specifications:
Year of design: 1996 (I think)
Distribution: 25,000 have been distributed as of May, 2007 (almost all donated)
Size: 20 gallon (90L) drum
Material: UV stabilized, sturdy polyethylene
Features: Steel clip-on handle, Large screw cap (135mm/5.3" diameter)
Cost: US$90 manufacturing + US$10 delivery (the drum is produced in South Africa; delivery costs are in-country as well)

Apparently, the design allows five times the regular amount of water to be carried with a ninth of the force, when compared with the traditional method of carrying water on the head. (If you really want the technical version, the earth balances out a large part of the water+drum weight, leaving only a fraction of the weight and friction for the pusher).

HR also comes with a Hippo Food Security System in place aimed at an average sized family of six. It includes:
  • A 210 liter drum for the irrigation system and a 90 liter Hippo Water Roller used for topping up the reservoir.
  • 8 x 6 meter drip lines are also included which cover up to 50 square meters of land.
  • Tools and instructions and a starter pack of seeds for both the summer and the winter.
  • Further training is available if needed.
At the moment, HR is made only in one size.

The Hippo Drum, a closer look (photo source: Project H Design)

My review:
I was browsing through Project H Design's website recently and saw this technology being featured. The H team ended up funding a large project in South Africa in March 2008, which is covered here.

The good:
I've carried my share of water and I can tell you that it is a real pain in the neck (no pun intended). So HR is addressing a real and very important problem.

The concept is simple, replicable, and it works for the processes that it was built for, i.e. storage and transport. The drum has a sturdy construction that can go over all kinds of terrain. It really takes pressure off the women, and she can carry an entire day's water needs in one visit...very efficient!

The what:
I don't think the pushing mechanism works so well if the drum is anything less than full. I've had to roll around half empty barrels on flat earth and uphill (downhill isn't so bad), and the darn thing kept sloshing around. Sometimes going uphill became a battle because the momentum from the sloshing worked against me, and my toes were sore from acting as stoppers!

I'm also not clear on how you fill water from a shallow pool, like if the depth of the pool is less than the diameter of the drum. I guess you have to carry a mug or cup of some sort and scoop the water in. That's the disadvantage of having a big drum as opposed to a 20L jerry can that can be flipped about conveniently.

Another down-side of the mechanism (though not that big a downside) is that sedimentation is slowed down in this case. If you have particularly turbid (muddy) water, then shaking it around just makes the problem worse (carrying water on the head aids sedimentation, making it easy to decant the sample as soon as the bearer gets home).

And what is with the cost?? $90 for a drum?? I understand that things are far more expensive to produce in-country and that there is a social cost to this (hire local unskilled workers, train them, build an industry from scratch, etc). But come on!! You'll be relying on donations for the rest of your life!! (actually is this what is possibly happening with Playpump as well??) I mean...I can clean out one of the ubiquitous steel drums that they have there, have a welder fix me a clip-on (or even permanent) steel handle and sell that for $5 (which is still an unearthly sum, but more consumable and scalable!!). In fact, if I was in South Africa, I'd find a smart, enterprising fellow and invest in him to do this. Trust me, he'd outsell HR and build up a slew of copycats.

Actually this has got me started on a major pet-peeve. Social technology organizations NEED to start thinking about the bottom line. The main goal of ANY organization is to make people's lives easier, so if your technology is really helpful but is not reaching the most number of people it can, you HAVE to ask why and how you can change that. It HAS TO BE SCALABLE. HR is an easily scalable technology, but what is holding it back is the cost. So do what you can to bring down the cost, then use the profits to improve the product (or increase your product line-up) and your marketing model. Don't start with an overpriced technology, you are killing your own success.

And here's another, related pet-peeve...let the poor buy their stuff. STOP giving this away to them for free. It limits scalability and kills the sense of ownership of the owner, which is REALLY important. I have spent considerable time researching the best practices of social entrepreneurs, and I was surprised by how much charity killed the sense of ownership and pride that the consumers had for a particular product. Generally, a technology that required some investment got more respect, was more valued, cared for and gave the owner a great sense of pride. Charity is necessary sometimes, but if you can help it, let the consumer have some pride.

Variations I would suggest:

1. Reduce the cost. $90 is really insane for a plastic drum with a handle. Go for a more affordable, simpler design, and upgrade to the better design as you make profits (which will come with mass production).

2. Each drum has valuable advertising space (even for social messages) that isn't being used. Maybe each woman can sell this space and get her drum entirely subsidized.

3. why not incorporate a simple cloth filter and chlorination mechanism. The water will get basic filtration and be thoroughly disinfected (thanks to the mixing) by the time it reaches home.

4. If you expand the opening and add an extra contraption, the rolling mechanism can make for a spectacular washing machine.

5. HR can also be used as cement/concrete mixer or a leveller (making pathways level). Maybe these women can make extra money by working on a construction site.

6. A kind of line that keeps the lid attached to the drum (rather than it floating away in the river!) would be nice.

7. Another clip on can be using the rotational motion to grind mill flower or just storing the energy as electricity in a battery (but that has its own implications!).

Other reviews/information:

Water Exercise: Water-Use Calculator

Calculating your water usage is an important step to increasing the availability of water for others. (photo source: Sneske@gastronomic Fight Club)

Unilever and have teamed up to come up with a one-minute water calculator. Answer a few questions and you'll know how much water a year you are using per year. You can also see what activities are your biggest "water guzzlers" and what to do about them.

I almost highlighted this as a technology, as I think that the only way to increase availability of water resources in other parts is to decrease their use in water guzzling nations like the United States, Canada, and Europe. And anything that makes us aware of our wastage works for me.

What few people realize is that there is only a finite amount of water (and drinking water) on this earth. With our continuous wastage and pollution, this precious resource is slowly ebbing away. Our hogging of water is taking away water from other areas, ones that are far more desperate than us, and where a liter of water means the difference between life and death.

Also, once you are done calculating your water usage, keep in mind that the World Health Organization (WHO) mandates a minimum of 20L (5.29 gal) of water per person per day, which means about 7300L (1931 gallons) per person per year. The reality at the moment is that most of the poor in the developing world live on far less than that.

Read this: The Thirsty Palmetto (and The Road to the Horizon)

(author's note: I edited this post and added a second blog after getting a comment from Alanna to the original below. The original post highlighted only the first)

Thanks to Alanna Shaikh (Blood and Milk blog), I've come across two wonderful blogs to follow called The Thirsty Palmetto and The Road to the Horizon. They are aid workers' diary blogs about life in the field (both have very different styles). Puts life in perspective!

Here's a sample from her post on April 17 from The Thirsty Palmetto (note: she is terrified of cows):

Evil cows...or the pesky 23 year civil war

Yet another reason why cows are evil – last week a young boy near one of our program sites was herding his families cows by throwing small stones at them (as kids do here, they’re clearly insane). One of the stones bounced off the cow, hit a landmine and blew, taking off his arm and, I believe, part of his leg.

Clearly all the cow's fault.

And here's one from The Road to the Horizon:

The Perfect Balance

Finding the right balance in life is so difficult to achieve that some people choose it as their sole undertaking in life. A common mistake made by many, though, is to think that the perfect balance is an absolute concept. It is not. The perfect balance is a moving target. That goal differs depending on where you live, what you do,.. Working in a remote location in South Sudan, today was one of those days where I felt that target was further away for me than ever.

Here is the deal: I am in charge of a humanitarian operation that covers an area in South Sudan which is five times the size of Denmark. The country is amazingly challenging with little or no infrastructure, and plenty of insecurity. Luckily, things only turn real bad during the rainy season. Unfortunately, the rainy season lasts an average of eight months a year. [...]

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Water Technology: The Playpump

Children ride around on a Playpump in South Africa that provides water to their school! (photo: project H Design)

Technology Name: PLAYPUMP

In a nutshell, the Playpump is quite simply a pump. It uses energy from a merry-go-round to pump groundwater into an overhead water tank.

Playpump is the brainchild of Trevor Field, a former marketing/advertising exec. He says he saw children playing around one day in South Africa and wondered if he could harness that energy to pump water. Now children are encouraged to play so that they can bring water into the school!

The playpump really works that simply. Rotational movement from the merry-go-round(1) goes to pump clean water(2) from the ground into an overhead tank(4). Water from the tank then operates on gravity and is collected by tap in some convenient locations(6). The traditional ubiquitous tubewell (see photo) also operates on the same mechanism, only it uses an up-and-down motion rather than a circular motion. (photo source: Playpumps International)

Playpump won the World Bank Development Marketplace (DM) prize in 2000, and has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Trevor registered his organization as Playpumps International. You can visit their website here.

Here's how it works:

And here is National Geographic's recent piece on it:

My review:

I came across Playpumps International (PI) in 2005, when I got very involved with the Development Marketplace (DM) challenge. At that point I was consulting with some of the finalists to help make improve their business plans for the competition. I was struck by the simplicity and large impact that PI could potentially have. Essentially I was hooked.

The good:
Well, what's not to like about this?? Its a clean, simple concept that addresses a desperate need, and it really works.

I also love PI's total sustainable business concept. All parts are manufactured locally. They hire and train local help, and they generate revenues from advertising on their water tanks. They go a step further as well, in that all their advertising must include HIV/AIDS prevention messages or other such health-related messages. That's a really sustainable

The what:
To be honest, I don't know if there is a "what" for this project. I can't quite see a flaw in the technology. I've heard complaints from some organizations that the concept isn't working as well as PI advertises, but how true that is or why that is, I'm not sure. I'm hoping some reader can shed light on this.

I'll be honest though, I'm not crazy about their merry-go-round design. I think that can definitely be done better, and they can probably set up an entire playground while they are at it. But that's a different story.

Variations I would suggest:
Not much. I just think the merry-go-rounds can be better designed. But more importantly:

1. How about getting solar panels on there and making some energy for electricity (and also using the kids leftover energy for the same!) in the school...

Other reviews/information:
World Bank DM Press: Playpump
PBS Frontline/World's story on Playpumps International

Case Foundation's Writeup on PI

What would you do if you had $70 Million??

(photo source: Tracey Olson)

So here's a premise that made me realize that giving away money is about as hard as getting it. You can weigh in on this debate yourself here. Still, here's a gist:
What would you do if you had $70 million??

This is the dilemma faced by Michael, a 31-year-old who will soon inherit a large sum of money.

For reasons that the truly wealthy will immediately understand, Michael has been advised to set up a foundation. “I have to donate about $70 million over the next decade,” he laughs. “Or maybe it’s $50 million. I can never remember.” [...]

So here's what happened:
[...] If he followed the traditional path, Michael would set up a charity, and then donate about 3 to 10 percent of his endowment each year. But, he says he wants to exercise his charity in a slightly different way:

1) I want to give it all away in ten years.
2) I want to give it away only in the U.S. — I can’t stand these people who give money overseas when we need it at home.
3) I won’t give a penny to schools. I think its unconscionable that Gates is paying for schools; that’s the government’s job.
4) I don’t want to give anything less than $1 million at a time. Meaning, no small grants.

So what says you?? Give your input here.

Continuing on with work advice...this time from Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett is an amazing human being. Inspite of being one of the richest men in the world, he still drives the car he did for years, lives in a modest house with modest means, and gave the bulk of his wealth to the Gates Foundation. And he always makes time to answer the questions of students eager to learn from him. Here are some fun tidbits from his latest interview in Fortune magazine.

I know you had a paper route. Was that your first job?

Well, I worked for my grandfather, which was really tough, in the [family] grocery store. But if you gave me the choice of being CEO of General Electric or IBM or General Motors, you name it, or delivering papers, I would deliver papers. I would. I enjoyed doing that. I can think about what I want to think. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. It might be wonderful to be head of GE, and Jeff Immelt is a friend of mine. And he's a great guy. But think of all the things he has to do whether he wants to do them or not.

How do you get your ideas?

I just read. I read all day. I mean, we put $500 million in PetroChina. All I did was read the annual report. [Editor's note: Berkshire purchased the shares five years ago and sold them in 2007 for $4 billion.]

From a Q&A session with Darthmouth's Tuck Business School students:
What is your career advice?

If you want to make a lot of money go to Wall Street. More importantly though, do what you would do for free, having passion for what you do is the most important thing. I love what I do; I’m not even that busy . . . A few months ago I was talking to another MBA student, a very talented man, about 30 years old from a great school with a great resume. I asked him what he wanted to do for his career, and he replied that he wanted to go into a particular field, but thought he should work for McKinsey for a few years first to add to his resume. To me that’s like saving sex for your old age. It makes no sense.

Buffett generally advocates three things to youth:

1. Be true to yourself...make all your decisions by referring to your "inner scorecard" (i.e. use your own gut rather than relying on what other people think to make a decision).

2. Love what you do...follow your passion. Pick a job that you would have done for free.

3. Read. Apparently Buffett spends 80% of his workday reading.

I keep emphasizing the "do what you love part" because this is particularly important in the development field. For the most part, international development doesn't pay well; and those of you who spend time in the field will attest to the fact that it is far from glamorous. It is frustrating, and can even get mind numbingly boring. The best people I've worked with in the field, were people who loved their work. What I loved about them is that even in the most difficult circumstances, they smiled. And they smiled because they still loved what they did.

If you want to go out into the field and get a job doing international development, then just get out there. If you love what you do and are good, people will hire you soon enough.

GDP and Happiness

Does happiness have anything to do with wealth (photo source: Gerard Boragay)

There is a fascinating discussion going on about the relationship between GDP and Happiness on the New York Times Freakonomics blog. I highly encourage everyone to follow it, particularly if you are interested in whether material wealth really increases happiness. So here's the basic gist:

Arguably the most important finding from the emerging economics of happiness has been the Easterlin Paradox.

What is this paradox? It is the juxtaposition of three observations:

1) Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
2) But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
3) As countries get richer, they do not get happier.

But then the author presents his own research and what his outcomes suggest. Apparently...

There is no Easterlin Paradox.

The facts about income and happiness turn out to be much simpler than first realized:

1) Rich people are happier than poor people.
2) Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
3) As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.

Moreover, each of these facts seems to suggest a roughly similar relationship between income and happiness.

What explains these new findings? [read the rest...]
Of course he goes on to explain that most of it has to do with the flawed data set and resulting analysis.

Personally, I believe in some way that rich people are happier than poor people, but not for reasons that have anything to do with wealth. A significant number of the richest people in the world today (eg. Gates, Mittal, Buffett, Oprah, the google guys, etc) made their own wealth. Most of them came from average, if not lower than average circumstances and went on to make millions. The key to their wealth has been that they all LOVE their jobs. They all LOVE what they do. Their jobs got them wealth and they worked more (though I am pretty sure that if you took their wealth away or paid them nothing, they'd still do their jobs...the google guys are perfect examples). This has created a reinforcing loop of happiness and wealth. But more importantly, because they love what they do, they live more fulfilled lives and are happier. I can't say the same of the poor, who often take the jobs for the financial incentives or provide the best security. It doesn't matter how hard they work, but life continues to be an endlessly unfufilling struggle.

My point in this opinion piece is (and this goes with all the stuff about finding a job), do what you love (make enough to survive, but try to do what you love). Even in the worst case scenario, you might be poor...but a side of you will feel fulfilled, rich, and happy. This I say from multiple years of experience.

Take a lesson from the babe!

Field Jobs: How to get a job in International Development

Ian Howard today blogged about an interview he did with some names in International Development at University of Toronto. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I'm particularly quoting the last couple of Q&A's because they have the most relevance to a previous post (Why getting hired by an International NGO is so hard):
Q: Your thoughts on the developing trends in the field of International Development?

[IH] I will talk about two things: what I think you should know and what you want to know.

First, in my opinion you should read at least these books if you are interested in this field:
  1. Prahalad – The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
  2. De Soto – The Mystery of Capital
  3. Sachs – The End of Poverty
  4. Easterly – The White Man's Burden
  5. Collier – The Bottom Billion
  6. Stiglitz – Globalization and its Discontents
  7. you should also listen to the CBC Massey lectures by Steven Lewis on AIDs
Second, now how to get work in this field. This is the classic chicken and the egg problem. You need experience to get the job and you need the job to get experience. Fortunately there are many groups that are there to give you the egg, if you give them your time. Here in Canada we have CUSO, NetCorps, CIDA, IDRC...
type “volunteer international development” and the first link is to CIDA – they have a great page about how to get this experience. Go, be brave spend some time over there. What you will learn will be invaluable so don't worry about not making money it will pay off in time, whether you work in development or not.

Q: Where you see the greatest impacts happening?

[IH] In my opinion the greatest impacts are made when people make long term concerted efforts. Groups like PaM who commit to people for the long haul. These are the stories we don't hear as much about because their work is slow and incremental and is hard to fit into a sound bite or a quick clip.

Q: What advice you would give someone who is just beginning their career in the field now?

[IH] I will share what a wise old man in a dusty rural town in South Western Mali told me, “you come here thinking that you can teach Africa, but in the end it is Africa that teaches you” he was quite right. Do not forget that you have much to learn and that one of the best things that you will do for Africa is to educate your family and friends about it and to take care of your adopted family who you will meet there when you come home.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Water Technology: The Rainpod

The Rainpod! (photo:

Technology Name: RAINPOD

In a nutshell, the Rainpod is a rainwater collection, storage and distribution unit, all in one.

On, Designer David L'Hôte says
"People usually water their plants and garden with tapwater although rainwater is free...Rainpod is a standalone rain collector. Its three legs are made of local wood trunks which makes each unit unique and reduces transportation impact. Its high placed tank delivers rainwater under pressure for easy watering, thanks to gravity."
It comes in various sizes and layouts like below (source: Mocoloco).

It works simply. The pod-like structure is the water storage unit, and incorporates little drain areas to let collected water filter in. The catchment area on top can be opened or closed as you need. The little hose on the bottom is exactly drains water from the storage unit using gravity.

The pod stands taller than the average adult and consequently uses gravity to move the water.

My review:
I came across the UFO-like Rainpod a few days back when browsing around the internet. In the beginning, I didn't get what it was. But as I thought about it more, I really liked the idea. It looked like it would work really well in a developing country. Why?

The good:
Well, it is cute or atleast cuter than the typical rainwater system currently in use. It might generate buzz and encourage use of the system (maybe 3-4 villagers can buy a larger system and share it between them). But aesthetics are never the number one point for buying something, particularly in the BoP population. So let's put that aside.

I like the size variability, which gives a poorer customer options of size and payments. I love the all-in-one design, which makes it possible for someone to even start a rental business with these pods (want some water?? Rent a pod!). Its essentially transportable, mobile, and easy to set up...all of which expand the possibilities of who, where, and when the Rainpod can be used. It can be used on urban rooftops and in rural areas. Its a complete system!

I really like the folding mechanism of the catchment. During the rainy season it takes more space; after it takes much less. But more importantly, because the catchment is easily folded in, it stays protected and relatively clean, while adding to the protection of the storage unit from contamination.

The hose at the very bottom means that ALL the water will get used up and drained out (water and pod can be regularly flushed out easily). And finally, because it stands taller than the average man, the tank is not necessarily in anyone's way and it harnesses gravity for distribution (you can even stand under the hose and shower!).

I just really liked the overall design of this unit. It included a lot of elements that few people think about, and although it was clearly designed for the western world, I think it will work very well in the developing world.

(oh, and the outer pod surface area is good advertising space. Get a couple of ads on there, and the pod owner can make his money back on the pod! head works very well!)

The what: I'm not sure how easy it is to clean it and what the mechanisms involved to do so are. And I really have no idea what the cost of the whole Rainpod or its replacement parts are (operation and maintenance costs are critical for BoP). I don't even know what material it is made of. I looked everywhere for these bits of information but couldn't find any.* Its still a prototype thats hunting for a manufacturer (so this information is a little time away). But it is cool. And by adding a few amenities (see under variations), Rainpod could really be a superstar.

Variations I would suggest:

1. Smaller wall or roof mountable units would be awesome, so that urban dwellers can claim its benefits as well, particularly if you are in a multiple house dwelling with no roof access.

2. An optional clip on/off filtration system can mean making the water instantly drinkable.

3. Adding a solar element might turn it into a solar water heater, or during the summer, when it doesn't rain, the tank can have optional solar panels or metallic parabolas to generate power. Maybe you can even harness the gravity drip energy of the water and have a mini-hydropower generator.

4. Increase the catchment space (by launching the catchment material out further) or incorporate ways for house gutters or other existing systems to work with the pod.

*I did find one blogsite that said the Rainpod came with an automatic timer and irrigation system. It carried upto 800 liters (212 gallons) of water was retailing for GBP 698 (USD 1378). This site had no pictures or description to really distinguish the pod I'm talking about, and since I can't find their reference (and these are professional journalists!), I'm assuming that the information is still at large.

Other reviews/information:
All about Rainwater Harvesting

Water 102: Rainwater Harvesting or Collection

Every year, thousands of gallons of clean, pure rainwater are lost to floods in some of the most impoverished countries around the globe, countries that are struggling with water availability issues. Here a woman from Hue, Vietnam struggles through a flooded street (source: 1ieve). Why not catch the water and use it, rather than lose it??

I am a HUGE supporter of rainwater collection. In most cases, rainwater is some of the most effectively clean water that you can possibly get. I say most because if the air surrounding the clouds or the air between you and the clouds is polluted (with dust, sulphates, nitrates or other chemicals), the pollutants mix with the rain and contaminate it. Generally highly industrialized areas or desert areas with high dust contents are problem areas. And even in these cases, if it rains continuously in high volumes, then the first couple of rains flush the area out and the next sets become cleaner. And even in these cases, the water is safe for gardening, washing clothes and bathing. It does need to be boiled, disinfected, and/or filtered for cooking and drinking.

Islands and areas with high rainfall, are the perfect places to implement rainwater harvesting. Many of the equatorial regions, which also have high poverty rates would benefit greatly from rainwater harvesting. While the rain is seasonal, collecting and storing water during that period can get one through some of the dryest summers.

The concept itself is simple - find a way to collect the rainwater funnel it into a storage area. So it has three parts:
-a catchment area (a roof, trees, the earth)
-a storage area (pots, tanks)
-piping that takes you from catchment to storage area. It doesn't have to be a pipe, its just a system to take the water from catchment to storage (reeds, pipes, gutters)

The key to a good rainwater collection system is a clean, covered storage area...this is MOST critical. If the collection area is dirty, wait 15-20 mins for the rain to flush off the area, then start collecting after.

By far, one of the best threads on rainwater harvesting in the developing world is here on changemakers. They talk about everything from how to check the quality of your water to how to install the system, etc.

In many cities and towns, water can be collected from roofs using a gutter system that funnels the water into a barrel. In rural areas, this can be a bit difficult with thatched or hay roofs. When large leaves are used it is a bit easier. Still, some of the best and simplest water harvesting I have seen have been in tribal communities across Asia and Africa (haven't been to Latin America yet, though I'm sure they are experts too), who use the trees surrounding their living areas to funnel water into pots.

A woman in rural India collects water using a length of cloth hung between two trees, a weight and a pot. (source:

On Jeju island in Korea, traditional women matt together brush and reeds and let water drip into the pot. Usually for the first rain, the water was allowed to flush the brush, and was used for agriculture only. But after that, the brush acts as a funnel and a filter, and the resulting water is used for everything. (source: James Lim)

A rainwater harvesting system designed by students at Clemson University, South Carolina (source: Clemson U)

Regardless of whether you are in a developed or developing country, I would highly recommend installing a rainwater collection system (you can design your own using the gutter system on your house).

Other resources:
An introduction to Rainwater Harvesting, one of the best rainwater harvesting websites
Is rainwater clean enough to drink?
Who's up for drinking rain?
Drinking rainwater

Monday, April 14, 2008

The White People's Guide to Development (TWPGtD) #5

Part 5 from guest blogger Victoria. Again, to jog your memory, here are the first four TWPGtDs:

Remember that old saying, "If you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"?: Practice tact in your speech.

Discern what [behaviors, superstitions, objects] hold special significance and is sacred to the locals, and act accordingly. Discriminate more, be discerning. Practice tact in your behavior.

Learn the pace of time in that culture. Quit being so up-tight. Take a chill pill.

Socialism and Sharing. Your kindergarten lessons will come in handy...SHARE everything!

And now...

#5 The Rigidity of Truth; The Role of Exaggeration and Story-Telling.

Take a lesson from the Pope! :-) (source:

The white liberals who jump into development and NGO work tend to be terrible at the cadence of poetry, arts and story telling, which is so integral to traditional cultures and the feeling of belonging to a closer more intimate unit. Maybe it comes from the practice of sitting around a bonfire and listening to revered grandparents, but it's something lost in modernity these days. Sometimes details will be exaggerated for comedic effect, or at least to keep the audience rapt attentively. Most of the time, it doesn't do any harm, but puritanical and record-keeping whites always tend to spoil the fun by fact-checking and causing the story-teller considerable humiliation by holding him/her accountable to his/her version of the event.

If you are serious about going into the field, you should try to tell something about your family without jumping on the "lies" of the stories of locals. Practice discretion and know when to keep your mouth shut. This isn't a Western courtroom, and exaggerations and inconsistencies are to be expected. And in certain cultures it's actually self-absorbed to not add in a light-hearted personal anecdote of your own. It isn't that you're incompetent, it's just that you tend to see revelations as inappropriate intimacy, you tend to jump into debates and cross examinations, which isn't what conversation is about. Flawless logic has its role sometimes, but for so many cultures it must be tempered with parables from the holy script, or passages from respected fables. Oh, and if they make a joke at your expense, learn to take a joke...

Water Technology: The Aquaduct

The IDEO team pose with their winning technology (photo: examiner)

Technology Name: AQUADUCT

In a nutshell, the Aquaduct a pedal powered water transportation and filtration system.

Aquaduct was designed by a team of IDEO folks in response to the Innovate or Die competition 2007, sponsored by Google and Specialized Bicycles. It placed first. The rules were simple:
  • Invent an unheard of, unprecedented pedal-powered machine, build it and film it. Just make sure that your innovation has human pedal power as its original source.
  • You may either ride solo or build with a team of up to five people.
  • Individual entrants (or the team contact) must be registered members of YouTube at the time of entry, be at least 18 or older and be residents of the U.S., Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain or the U.K.
Here's the basic layout and design of it:

My review:
The Aquaduct basically helps with transportation, filtration, and storage, (and disinfection?? need to check on this).

The good: It uses bicycles (with parts that can be found in even the remote parts of any developing country) and human power (probably the only thing they can count on in poor areas); it looks cute, and combines several different water processes into one unit. The filter is just representative of other more locally available filtering systems that we can find. I love the fact that the water is covered at all times, which keeps it from being contaminated further. And I love the pedal-powered pump.

The what: Ummm...bicycles being used to transport water or anything else in developing countries are not new. Infact bicycles are the first transportation vehicles that a poor person will invest in. And they've been using bicycles to transport water and everything else for centuries. So why would anyone invest in this tricked out tricycle that carries only water??

And cost-wise, bicycles are luxury items to being with, in many of these parts. So you have to make it functional. Essentially, think about the cost and then double the amenities that come with it or it will fail.

Bicycles are crucial transportation for the poor, and a luxury. On the left, Ugandan boys carry jerry cans of water back home [1]; on the right, an Indian boy carries cans of water, petrol and a friend on a tricycle [2]. If Aquaduct wants to succeed, it must expand its functionality.

Variations I would suggest:

1. Most poor people I've gone water hunting with, carry plastic or clay pots (the clay keeps the water cold), or large 20 gallon plastic jugs (aka jerry cans). The Aquaduct should actually include areas to load existing water jugs and filter into existing water jugs, not new ones that you sell with the tricycle.

2. Make the rear storage unit a "clip-on" so that they can take that thing out and carry other things when they need to.

3. I love the peristatic pump. Is there any way you can design it so that the pedal-power can be used to pump water directly from the ground? or transfer to power other things?? Poor people WON'T invest in this unless it can serve multiple purposes.

[1]: Source: Staffordshire Learning Network
Source: People's Daily Online

Other reviews/information:
The very uninformative Innovate or Die website
The inspiration behind Innovate or Die:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Estamos Founder (who focuses on clean water and eco-sanitation) wins Goldman Prize

Feliciano dos Santos talks to a rural community about clean water and sanitation (Photo: John Antonelli for the Goldman Prize)

Today, I was reading about the winners of the Goldman Prize, which is...
...the world's largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists... Founded in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the Goldman Environmental Prize annually awards US$150,000 to environmental heroes from each of the world's six inhabited continental regions.
Turns out one of the 2008 winners is Feliciano dos Santos, a Mozambiquan musician who has spent the past 10 years providing and promoting safe water and ecological sanitation to rural communities in Mozambique through an organization he cofounded called Estamos. In 2005, I had the opportunity to work extensively with Estamos in Maputo doing wat-san work. They were a wonderful community-based organization and had tremendous trust within the communities they worked in.

Feliciano is cool for more reasons. He has also started a musical band called Massakos, and he uses the music to promote hygienic practices, clean water, and sanitation in the communities. The music is catchy, and his number one hit "Wash Your Hands" has even become an international hit! He has now signed with UK-based Poo Productions (gotta love the name!) which promotes bands and films that also focus on awareness of water and sanitation issues in the developing world.

The websites are all great, with documentaries and music for you to check out. And if you like the music, buy it! Proceeds from music sales go to support Estamos and other wat-san projects for the poor.
Also, BBC recently did a write-up on him, which is also very good.

An important note on reviewing technologies and how Tworque works

Right, its time we get into technology showcasing and reviewing. But at this juncture, I need to make a quick and important note on my reviews.

As written in my very first post, I'd like to ultimately (hopefully soon) build a cnet/digg community (called possibly!) where information about technologies from around the world with BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) applicability can be archived and reviewed.

At this point, is just a place to test the waters for readership and act as an archive for information I collect. Its incredibly hard to review something without physically viewing or testing the product. So please take what I write with a grain of salt. Please give me your own feedback/review on any of the technologies I present. It will greatly add to the objectivity of my review and tell me (and the designers) what factors to look for in the future. I will also try to get the technology developers to possibly weigh in on their technologies.

My goal when becomes a reality is not to fly around the world wildly to review these technologies first-hand, but rather rely on the sense and will of the "commons," as Linux, wikipedia, and other such ventures have. Anyone, anywhere (with a registered account) should be able to submit a technology that they have either built or come across randomly (either in article, by word-of-mouth or in-person); while other users can review as they deem fit. Experts (who will be selected by the editorial board based on their expertise, experience and individuality) will be allowed a special say in what goes on, but even they can (and should be) questioned. In the end, will be a library of technologies for anyone to access, which will include balanced dialogue with the inventors/designers, users, and other reviewers. This will improve technology access and implementation, technology transfer, and technology design (which the inventors need!) around the world.

I need to say here that I don't believe that technology is the answer to poverty alleviation or economic development. I believe it is part of the solution, an accelerator or catalyst that when designed and used correctly can greatly shorten the distance between problem and solution.

Finally, if you would like to be a part of/help design/sponsor, let me know. I'm on the lookout for advice/help.

The White People's Guide to Development (TWPGtD) #3 revisited

If you recall TWPGtD #3 was "Learn the Pace of the Culture." Today, Chris Blattman concisely summarizes a recent thread on the subject opened by the BBC, entitled African Time. I highly recommend you read both the thread and his post on the subject (which is really just a summary).

The question is:

Should we kill off African time ?

How many hours have you spent waiting around for people who are late? How many times have they eventually arrived, be it for an evening out or a business meeting, and instead of apologising, they've laughed it off and said "I thought we were going on African time"?

Africa has a bad reputation for time-keeping. African philosopher John S. Mbiti thinks the concept of time for Africans differs from that of the western world. Why is that?

Do you think this relaxed attitude to time is healthier and less stressful? Or is it holding Africa back? Is it part of our makeup to take things easy and not let the clock govern our lives? Send us your views.

My favorite response is:
Africa time is...waiting 30 years for a leadership change, waiting 20 days for a suspicious vote count, waiting months and years for SADC and the AU to condemn a dictator among their ranks, waiting for half a million Darfurians to die before sending in the peace keepers, waiting until a country has been bankrupted before taking action, waiting, watching, starving. Time to do something?

Read the rest of the comments here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The power of mobile phones

A cellphone shop in Accra, Ghana, carries and repairs a variety of handsets (photo credit: Shaul Schwarz/Reportage, for The New York Times)

My first couple of posts on this blog focused on mobile phones, and I've been sorta quiet on the subject since...mostly because I've been trying to focus on one subject at a time (right now its water, because its one of my specialties). But information about the power of mobile phones and how they are improving connectivity, and REALLY impacting the lives of the poor is everywhere. Today I read a brilliant article on Jan Chipchase's work in the NYT, which got me all excited again. I had to share it and in addition, while I'm on the topic, I thought I'd add a bit more...

Here are three things that I believe will really make you consider the amazing impact mobile phones are having on the developing world:

1. Jan Chipchase's work on mobile phones and their impact on the Third World have been captured most recently (this morning) in print in The New York Times, and on video this weekend on TED.

2. Iqbal Quadir knew about the impact of mobile phones in his native country of Bangladesh. This Wharton grad returned to Bangladesh to start Grameen Phone which brought mobile access to the poorest of the poor. Suddenly they were all connected, and they could reach beyond their village into the larger international space. It changed everything. Here Quadir talks about his project and how it worked:

3. Pangea Day (that I blogged about earlier) will broadcast live across the globe on May 10, 2008. To make sure EVERYONE has access, the four hour independent film festival will be broadcast so that mobile phones will have access. This way even the poorest in some of the farthest regions of the globe will be able to connect. So you better be there, viewing with your own home, office or shack!

The Schweitzer Fellowship for health professionals

Another of the blogs I follow regularly is one written by Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess (BID) hospital in Boston, MA. BID is one of the most respected medical centers in the country.

I first met Paul in 2005, when he was part of a panel of speakers talking about leadership. Paul stood out because he was, by far, the most effective. He was clear, concise, and laid back. He spoke simply, so that you didn't feel stupid, and had a very encouraging manner. At one point he said that he learned everything he needed to know about leadership from coaching his daughter's soccer team. I'd encourage you to read his blog, particularly if you are interested in public health, medicine, and/or leadership.

Today he wrote a great post about the Schweitzer Fellowship, that financially supports a variety of budding health professionals in their studies, provided they dedicate atleast 2000 hours of community service in return. You can read all about it here.

The White People's Guide to Development #4

Part 4 of guest blogger Victoria's series. Just to jog your memories, here're points 1-3:
  1. Remember that old saying, "If you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"?: Practice tact in your speech.
  2. Discern what [behaviors, superstitions, objects] hold special significance and is sacred to the locals, and act accordingly. Discriminate more, be discerning. Practice tact in your actions.
  3. Learn the pace of time in that culture. Quit being so up-tight.
And now...

#4 Socialism and Sharing: Your things are the community's things

Learn from the little guy...share!! (photo credit: Melanga)

Don't panic, I'm not talking about communism. Traditional cultures mean big families, and extended relatives, half-cousins and great nieces and nephews. The impoverished community you spend time with is likely going to remain very medieval in their beliefs, and they might expect you, the rich visitor, to share everything you have. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Sharing food. Sharing water. Sharing your pocket knife and compass, and your iPod.

In some communities, everybody is supposed to be equal. The flaunting of better things---particularly the REI premium goods and the waterproof map---is a source of resentment. Better to leave your best stuff at home unless you are prepared to pass it around to everyone. To those who believe in closing their purse strings after they've given what they've judged to be enough, working with communal-minded people can be frustrating. After all, if you don't fork up the best things you've got and you're supposed to be the person who has had the means, you violate a code of honor and sense of brotherhood that is meant to deem you a good member of the community. Best leave the nicer things at home, and prepare to donate and write off your "losses".