Sunday, March 30, 2008

An opinion: Oprah's Big Give

the cast of Oprah's Big Give. (photo credit:

Oprah's Big Give was something I was excited truly excited about. First off, I love her talk show, and I truly respect and admire what she has made for herself. She's funny and fabulous. She walks her talk. Essentially, she's great. But her Big Give show sucks!

Why does the Big Give suck? Its ridiculously unrealistic and it teaches people/reinforces bad philanthropy habits! I guess the point of the show is to get us to realize that we, i.e. anyone, can do something. We should all care and help. And we can!! But the way of doing it is just bad. Done right, this could be powerful...but it isn't and its annoying. So here are my big issues with it:

1. It teaches people to throw money (sometimes in the form of stuff) at a problem: Philanthropy is NOT about money ONLY. Philanthropy is about caring, and caring for a while. I think the show is set around people caring for a short period of time and rallying around a cause (maybe because the camera is there). What happens after they leave?? I don't know about this case, but I do know about several other cases where the short-term momentum has killed a good project or killed someone's coping abilities. For example, the problems were often long-term, but they focused on short-term solutions...which is what money is. How about coping and money management?? What about their lack of skills??? And that takes me to my next point.

2. It doesn't force people to think long-term: This was obvious from the very beginning. Let's take the guys who "won" the first episode. Two guys went and helped a family who had just lost their father in a tragic shooting incident. The mother was worried about her mortgage. So the guys called around and got a bunch of money. They then took the kids on a Target shopping spree. They emerged with carts of stuff, most of which I wondered if they really needed and about how long it would serve their needs. And more than anything else, I wondered if they had lost their house, where the heck were they going to put all that stuff?? This is a continuous problem in the show (and with most donors). You can't just throw money or stuff at a problem. You can only solve it with a little more well-rounded thinking and more holistic solutions.

3. I don't get their definition of "person in need": Ummm...i'm sorry, but some of the people on the show who have been defined as "victims in need" are better off than myself and many of the people I know or have known in my life. For example, the "plastic surgeon from South Central LA" who needed people to help pay off his medical school loans. I know many professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers) who have come from adverse circumstances, paid off their loans, and done a lot of community service...a couple of them called me up and scoffed. A plastic surgeon?? come on!! If he cares so much, he'd work for two years, pay off his loans and then spend the rest of his life doing service. Or in the second episode where a restaurant owner who had three cars gets another free one just for hosting a fundraiser at his place. (we won't go into the gas consumption of those vehicles either that they gave is that helping a poor person get on their feet!!). I have more, but we'll leave that...and its been only two episodes!

Part of the problem is the judging itself as they set the tone. While the host and judges are nice people, I wonder how much they really understand the idea of need, philanthropy (granted they are involved in philanthropic efforts, but being involved can be at different levels!), or the particularly crucial need for sustainability in philanthropy.

My biggest pet peeve is the lack of long-term thinking in the philanthropic industry (and among donors). This is for various reasons which I will discuss later...particularly that they lack the understanding or economic incentive to do so. This NEEDS to change, and Oprah's Big Give is perpetuating a bad situation. Come on Oprah...your show needs a makeover!! (you can hire me and i'll help fix it).

Its sad that a show with so much potential is just not thinking big itself...

Closing out the week on film:

To close this week's posts that focused on media and using media to reach out to the world, I wanted to showcase one last film. Victoria T is a colleague and friend, who would like to spend her time filming what I like blogging about - the impact of technology in developing countries - and using film to spread the word. As seen from some of the previous posts, media is powerful and can reach millions more effectively than anything else.

Victoria started a non-profit production company called {Develop} in 2007, that focuses on exactly this topic. I encourage you to view her first film "Mayan Territory" here, which has already aired on PBS. The projects are partially self-funded and partially with money raised from various organizations...meaning it takes time between projects. She is an amateur filmmaker, and personally I think she's got a great talent for it.

Anyways, check it out. Mayan Territory is
"a documentary that is beautifully filmed in over 15 rural and urban locations in Guatemala, Belize and Southern Mexico, a region that is known for both its conflicting poverty from civil war, as well as the crucible of the Mayan civilization. From their own voices, this film examines how technology and ideas have impacted the individual lives of villagers and volunteers alike, and shares my learning experience by portraying villages as I see them: with dignity, focusing on their culture and showing ideas that have risen from their own people to empower them."

I am going to try to get Victoria to guest blog on here. She already has a blog for {Develop} here. Hopefully I'll get more people to do the same.

photo credit: jubilo haku

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Pangea Day...prepare!

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design...a MUST visit site for an amazing archive of brilliant talks by various visionaries) has come up with a novel new concept of uniting the world through film (I think you are noticing the theme of this week).

On May 10, 2008, people everywhere will host/gather at events to screen international amateur films on various world issues in the name of world unity. Think "global campfire!" If this makes no sense to you, check out their site at

I'll be at one. Hopefully you will too.

Media's love affair with philanthropy

Its true, media loves philanthropy, and its beginning to be vice versa, which is really good. We now have a win-win situation.

Here's an article written by Rich Polt, a commentator on the field, asking "When Will the Media Bubble Burst??" And he answers saying that it won't. Here's why...

Good news, folks! Philanthropy will remain a permanent fixture of the media universe. Here are three important reasons why (each a topic worthy of further discussion):

  1. Sex sells, and apparently so does philanthropy. Yes, it's true. The images we see and the stories we read are a direct reflection of what society demands. And in this day and age, people are all about giving. Whether driven by global disasters, technology's ability to make giving a one-to-one experience, or the financial windfalls of the '90s, everyone is interested in how they can do their part to give back. It's funny, but I never hear anyone talking about "charity" anymore. Even a gift of $25 dollars to support a friend doing a walk for cancer is now thought of as personal philanthropy. There has been a major culture shift and the media is simultaneously covering it and selling advertising against that demand. Check out Sean Stannard-Stockton's recent column in the Financial Times about "social capital markets" in the year 2033. It provides another interesting viewpoint on how philanthropy is becoming more entrenched in the fabric of our society.
  2. Philanthropists are rock stars...and rock stars are philanthropists. This cover image from Time magazine says it all. As philanthropy increasingly becomes a pastime and passion for athletes, politicians, and celebrities, the paparazzi and "personality media" will continue to infuse their reporting with coverage and images of how their subjects are giving back. Conversely, since business success coupled with giving back have become such great fodder for media coverage, we will only see more in-depth interviews and personality pieces on those who are passionate about philanthropy.
  3. Foundations are open to being open. Over the last few decades, donors and foundations have become increasingly comfortable using external communications to complement and even strengthen their giving activities. Much has been written about this already (read Joel Fleishman's recent book, The Foundation, check out this article by Bruce Trachtenberg and Grant Oliphant, or this piece that I wrote). In the old days, a newspaper would assign a private foundation story to its investigative reporter -- a reflection of how easy it was to obtain information. Today, those same stories are handled by business reporters, financial reporters, lifestyle reporters, and even (you guessed it) philanthropy reporters.
Its SO on. Cameras, keep rolling!

Friday, March 28, 2008

The power of one

(image courtesy of

This post will combine topics from all the past posts - field work, technology, the power of voice and media...

Often people come and tell me (and even I sometimes think this)..."I am only one person, what can I possibly do to make an impact?" How can I change the world??" This applies even to folks who say "how can I get field experience without any resources??"

Like Jessie M. in my previous post, I'll try to highlight people as I come across them, particularly earlier in the stages of doing something...people who are starting small, but whose ideas are on the verge of "snowballing." Or even otherwise, hopefully the stories behind people whose ideas have "snowballed."

Today I'll give you three examples of people who have come up with simple ideas that are making waves. (I must add here that this does not mean these are model methodologies of social enterprise. You don't have to do what they've can come up with your own. These are just modelable examples of people making a difference in the best way they know how).

A few of the major commonalities between them is that these projects are young (less than 2 years old), with young founders (early 30's and below), were self-funded, and are using a business model (where the selling of a commodity is involved) to raise money (if they are raising money).

1. Inspired by a speech given by Jeffrey Sachs (noted economist, author of The End of Poverty, and Professor at Columbia University), Notre Dame graduate student Shawn went to Bangladesh on a short, self-funded project to find his own answers to what caused poverty. He created short videos or "thought journals" of his search, which are archived on his site and on YouTube. He's also kept a blog. Its interesting to watch how his thinking has evolved over time. Already his media has caused a mini-snowballer. In his latest post, he actually asks people not to send him supplies and money...rather on focusing on making being aware and better people a priority in their lives!

Here's a sample of one of his videos:

2. Charity: Water: This organization was started by 30 y/0 photographer Scott Harrison, who had an epiphany when drinking a $16 margarita in NYC. Scott had just hopped off a boat where he had spent a year volunteering for Mercy Ships . In that minute, he saw opportunity...$16 would have paid for an African family's meals for a month. (Prior to his stint in Mercy Ships, he had spent 10 years as a marketing/brand manager for the fashion industry).

So he started Charity:Water. People could buy a $20 bottle of drinking water, and all the profits went to drill wells in some of the poorest countries in the world. In two years (I think...his site doesn't make it clear when charity: started), Scott has drilled 470+ wells in 9 of the world's poorest countries. Check out their blog and site. Here's a great preview:

3. Source Chocolate: In 2005, Jeffrey W founded an organization to reduce road traffic injuries in Africa. Turns out that road injuries are the leading cause of death for children between ages 10-24 (WHO, 2004). Who would've known?? Well, Jeffrey decided that he had to do something. But his programs were costing money and he didn't want to keep begging for money from foundations. He had just started a program in Ghana, and Ghana is the world's largest producer of cacao. So he decided to sell high-end chocolate sourced from Ghanaian cacao into U.S markets and use 100% of the profits for programs. It was Ghanaian farmers helping their own children. Thus was born Source Chocolate Co. Source is only a year old, but you can buy some of their yummy chocolate on their site. Also check out's work. (image below courtesy of

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The power of voice

We all know about the power of the media. Probably in no country is this more obvious than in the U.S where we are constantly bombarded with some type of media - bulletin boards (in your office, school, on the roadside, in the supermarket), newspaper, radio, internet, and television.

In the context of impoverished communities, media is a powerful connecting tool. It connects the ones with a voice to the ones who want or need to hear, particularly in areas that most need it. Without a voice, you are severely handicapped. Your government rarely cares. After all, what's their incentive?? You are poor and uneducated, and while there are others like you, you are scattered and unable to unite. You don't have any power, and you don't have any voice. Sometimes, your government deliberately keeps you scattered in order to maintain their power. So what are your options?? How do you make yourself heard??

In 2002, I had the good fortune of meeting Jessie M. She was a filmmaker of pedigree, and had come to India to teach others film-making. She had this idea of giving the poor "a voice." I admit, I didn't fully buy into her idea. So you give kids a camera and tell them to film things. But what was the point? There was no electricity, no education, and who was going to see it?? What's the point of a voice if no one can hear it??

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Yesterday, I was fumbling around on the net and stumbled on an online channel that features documentaries made by amateur filmmakers...filmmakers born and living in the slums and villages of impoverished India. I was amazed by the quality of the videos, the material in them. Suddenly I was in the field with the real people - connecting, listening, hearing. There were no barriers. There was trust between them and me. They were telling me about issues that really mattered to them and about how they viewed the world. Normally it would take days, weeks or months of patient waiting and cajoling to connect like this. But I didn't have to anymore. It was refreshing and beautiful.

It turns out to be Jessie's gang (go figure!). Shortly after we met, Jess had started a foundation called Video Volunteers. She brought with her all the materials - cameras, equipment, laptops (with editing software), and her skills; then linked up with local organizations who would provide the volunteers. Since 2002, the organization has grown. Their YouTube channel now features 57 videos.

Here's a preview:

So who heard them?? Me...out here in the U.S. And you, wherever you are. And soon the people they were initially talking out to. That's the power of voice, vision, and the right technology.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What good field experiences bestow...

This is a short interview with Rory Stewart, formerly in the British Diplomatic Service and currently Director of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. He has had an amazing life, largely due to his own courage and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I'd highly encourage reading his books, "Prince of Marshes" and "Places in Between," where he documents his solitary walk across central (the middle east) and southern Asia. If you want to know what a good mentor is or what good field experience can do, see the depth of his knowledge in these interviews. Then imagine if a person like this was actually in charge of the development of a country or foreign policy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Field work: Answering questions

Firstly, I wanna thank everyone who has been patiently reading my posts. And I'm LOVING the comments, so please keep them coming. I'm learning so much from everyone!

So yesterday, after my post on "the importance of field work," one of my friends (on google talk) and I got into a discussion regarding the following questions. These are excellent questions and important ones. So I'll do my best to address what I consider very difficult topics, largely because of how subjective they are. So in order:

1. What constitutes good field work?
I think its important for everyone experienced or not to weigh in on this one. I'm curious to know what other people think.

All good field work starts with a good personal attitude. You can have the best field experience set up for you, but if you have a bad attitude, you won't learn a thing! I have also known people who have gone into the field for a week and have come away with a greater knowledge of their clients, than people who have spent years in the field (might explain why so many international development agencies are inefficient). Its about your attitude. Have a good attitude, be open and be willing to learn. I'll tell you this...I've learned one thing from being in the field, and its that I don't know squat. People who go in thinking they know the solution to every problem, often are the problem and create more problems. I've been in the field with these folks, and it is a pain in the behind that I can't quite describe. It rarely has anything to do with someone's education. You can be book-educated all you want, but if you don't know your consumer, your product or what they want, you aren't going to get anywhere. BE OPEN, LISTEN AND LEARN.

Good field experience is all about quality more than quality. It doesn't necessarily involve lengthy periods of time. If you are a sponge soaking in the culture, observing and absorbing everything around you, and processing it, you will likely need lesser than the vast majority of others (and there are lots!) who spend years in the field and get nothing. Of course, the more time you spend in the field, the more you learn. Like I said in my previous post, there is still SO little theoretical information on BOP markets, technologies, and consumer habits, that you unfortunately have to learn it from scratch. And because of the extreme variability that becomes so pronounced in these communities, you need a lot of exposure to different places and circumstances to adapt and be more effective.

Seek experiences that allow you time to really spend with the people you are helping (not just the agencies you are working with or the people in them); learn how to communicate with your clients. Communication doesn't require spoken language (though this is IMMENSELY helpful); body language, music, dance, laughter are equally valuable for connecting and learning from them. If you aren't learning about your clients, you are in the wrong field experience.

Expect field work to be immensely frustrating, and rewarding. If you aren't banging your head against the wall, losing sleep, or racking your brains about an issue regarding your work, then you are probably not having the right field experience (atleast initially). Its important that novices understand this, because it prepares you well for the future.

2. Are there any substitutes for time in the field?
Absolutely. Good mentors who have "been there and done that" can teach you a great deal and prepare you better for an assignment, so that you are more effective. You can tell a good mentor by how clearly they teach, and how much experience they themselves have had. They will be equally candid about success and failure, and quick to have learned from both. The reason field work is so necessary is because so little is documented. But as that changes, we can hopefully shorten initial field experience some. Still, theory only takes you so far. Nothing quite compares to the real thing.

3. How does working through an organization like the Peace Corps or Hosteling International, help in any way?
Another good question. Besides mitigating financial and health risks, the biggest way in which a good international organization can help is by setting you up with a legitimate project in the field. There are a zillion international agencies out there, all claiming to be legitimate and working for the poor. I'd say that maybe a tenth (if that!) of those are really legitimate. I have come across too many unwitting good samaritans who wandered into an illegitimate lot, and came out miserable and jaded. DON"T do this. It takes a lot of homework, and can be extremely time consuming and exhausting. So go with someone who has already done the grunt work for you. They also provide good support systems. Should anything go wrong, you have a way out.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Practical education: The importance of field experience

I have seen FAR too many appropriate technologies and social enterprise methodologies fail. Why?? Generally, its because the inventor/implementor was not adequately prepared and did not take the time to adequately prepare (I say this of not just individual inventors, but of NGOs and government organizations). They were essentially not well-educated for the task.

I'd like to talk about the importance of practical education. If you are embarking on a career in Technology/Social Enterprise in the context of poorer economies, rural markets, etc, YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED field experience.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, in my opinion, can train an inventor or implementor as effectively as field work. This is true of whether you work in a social enterprise or the more capitalistic world - any successful entrepreneur in any part of the world or any sector will tell you is that you need to know your customer, your product, and the process of connecting the two, i.e. getting your product to your customer, extremely well. While this happens regularly among people who work in the regular markets, it doesn't happen quite so frequently among people who work in the poorer markets (let's call these BOP or Bottom of the Pyramid markets), even though its probably far more important. Why?? Let's examine the following:

Now in the regular markets, this methodology of "apprenticeship" is already integrated into the system. Firstly college/school includes mostly knowledge you need for application in the regular markets. After all, this is the most profitable and educated market. Consequently its better profiled, studied and documented. Once well theoretically trained, you get your practical training (you can also do this simultaneously). You intern or even get an entry level job at a company that provides financial incentives for you to get trained in the field. Let's say you want to sell computers to kids in the regular markets, you work "in the field," i.e. with a company (say "Dell") that sells the computers to your target market, and you learn the skills and the geography of your customer, product, and process. You get some training, get some skills and get paid at the same time.

Contrast that to anyone who wants to work in a BOP market. Firstly, there is little knowledge about these markets. So you come out of college or school already ill-prepared. Few people have any idea about the extreme variability in BOP markets - the difference in consumer spending, buying or saving; or the impact that caste, culture, ethnic identity, religion, lack of literacy, etc have on the BOP markets. They have no concept of supply chain dynamics in an area where there are no roads, or the lack of literacy on technology development. NOBODY teaches you that. Unfortunately you have to learn these from scratch while you are in the field struggling. Add on top of that the lack of financial incentive. People who go out to study BOP environments and train in the field do so at great risk to themselves financially, health-wise, in terms of safety and security, and others. No wonder few people venture out. If they do its for short periods of time, making the knowledge less complete. Consequently, their technologies fail and their implementation methodologies more so.

So let me save you some thinking here and just tell you that if you know you want to go into the BOP market area or do social enterprise or whatever, be aware that YOU NEED THE FIELD EXPERIENCE, that it will cost you financially, but that its the ONLY thing that will diminish the chance of failure of your technology or implementation model or your general impact. And more universities, NGOs, governments, etc NEED to step forward to encourage this, and help mitigate the financial risk for these people.

For those of you thinking...well, I know I need the field experience but am too poor to get out... there are MANY programs already out there that will help you mitigate the risks. You just have to reach out. Try to take advantage of programs like the Watson Fellowship, Peace Corps, Americorps (exclusive to the US), Teach for America (exclusive to the US but expanding internationally), Indicorps or Service Corps (for work exclusive to India), Rotary Scholarships, work for organizations like the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, that force you to spend considerable amount of time in the field learning quantitative/qualitative skills to understand your market. If you are in a university, look for classes or campus clubs who can put you in touch with resources like this. MIT and Stanford University have loads of appropriate technology/social enterprise classes, clubs, and scholarships that incorporate fieldwork.

Essentially the key to successful technology development and implementation in BOP markets is practical education and field experience. So, GET OUT THERE!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Follow up on DM

Someone just called me in response to my previous post and asked why I didn't pitch my idea to the World Bank (to start casing the technologies and build the community). Just so you know, I did. I offered to work for relatively cheap, if they'd take me on to evaluate all the different technologies and see how far the winners have come along since they got their money (for the earliest recipients, its now been 8 years!). But they weren't interested. Their answer was "we don't have the funding." Yeah, are a bank for crying out loud!

Anyways, their loss. Some day, I'm gonna make this happen. I'm gonna have specialty reviewers
for the different technologies (eg. water purification, toilets, drains, biogas generators, etc), and have them compare and contrast the technologies and methodologies across the world. And then readers/users can contribute comments and articles. Then people can invest in the product they like...Kiva style. Heck yeah!!

Development Marketplace and other such social tech competitions/conferences

Since 2000, the World Bank has been organizing an annual competition for social entrepreneurs called The Development Marketplace (DM) Competition. DM was the brainchild of two World Bank officials who felt that helping organizations directly, rather than through the government or other bureaucratic middlemen, would have a greater impact. After some brilliant lobbying, the two brought together a small amount of grant money, and a pint-sized effective workforce to put this together.

Almost every year since then, the Bank has held a DM competition. As of today, the DM has handed out over $46 million in grant money to atleast a thousand social entrepreneurs internationally. It also now has two levels - a national and international competition. Winners and other strong contenders from the national levels are sent on to the international competition (others can also apply as long as you are eligible and within the DM's theme)

The DM is a themed competition. When it first started, the DM was purely looking for solutions - any solutions. But they soon realized that to control and regulate the growth of the competition, a theme was needed. So far they have had competitions on water, sanitation, energy, nutrition, health, governance, etc. This year, it is sustainable agriculture.

I highly encourage anyone in the DC area (or nearby), or anyone generally interested in this topic to visit the DM. Usually 120 of the best entrants in the competition (there are usually 3000-4000 entrants) are flown out to DC to do a show and tell. At the end of 3 days, 30 winners are chosen and given upto $200,000 each for use over 2 years.

Most people think that the best thing about the DM is the money. What I think is priceless is that it has proven to be a mecca for emerging appropriate technologies and has provided a community for these budding entrepreneurs. I followed up with several of these entrepreneurs and many of them had found partners to collaborate with in other parts of the country and world. Finally having someone to bounce ideas off was priceless. That is the greatness of the DM, conferences and competitions like it.

Now all I wish for is the DM to case and follow up on these technologies and formalize these communities.

Other places like the DM - TED, The BBC/Newsweek World Challenge, Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship, The Fast Company Social Capitalist Awards (these are more US focused), Manhattan Institute Social Entrepreneurship Awards (again more locally focused), Social Edge (which provides the beginnings of a Social Enterprise community), and the Lemellson Foundation. If you come across others, let me know...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Good technology comes from good institutions

I spent a lot of time at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) until a few months ago. What makes me most proud about having been involved with that institution is that it is a true laboratory of genius - minds work together, not for the money or the fame, but for the beauty and purpose of technology itself, that it should help others. The university provides the space, the creative minds, facilities, and some funding to get students started up. From there, genius evolves. Its not surprising that some of the world's greatest minds and technologies are born there.

Recently, MIT has taken on a major energy and sustainability drive. The energy drive was first driven by student interest. They organized themselves and brought on board faculty and more students. Then the political climate became such that energy was the hot topic. Soon the university embarked on a major energy initiative. Now the whole University is working together to devise better technologies to address the incoming energy crisis. I have no doubt that they will succeed.

Similarly, when graduate students found that MIT's energy bill was a ridiculous 100 million dollars a week, they decided that something had to be done. They organized a sustainability drive, bringing together a group of undergraduate and graduate student projects that all addressed various sustainability issues across campus. Its now a movement to "green" MIT. Yesterday, NPR did a great piece on it. Check it out here.

There are many universities that do projects like this, but there need to be more. And there needs to be more invested in projects like these. More universities nationally and internationally need to provide this type of environment for budding minds to flex their intellectual muscle for the good of mankind.

mobile phones and their future

The cellphone has revolutionized business by improving connectivity between some of the world's poorest people. In his bestselling book "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" C.K Prahalad talks about "connectivity" as being an important aspect of improving a person's socio-economic standing. Most third world countries suffer from a desperate lack of infrastructure, that keeps its people grossly deprived of any interaction with the outside. This lack of interaction results in a lack of information, which keeps them ignorant of means to make their lives better.

It is easy for people to say that what keeps the poor in a state of poverty is their laziness. That is true of maybe a handful of them. The vast majority, I've seen work hard and desperately want ing to extricate themselves from their poverty. What keeps them poor is pure ignorance, lack of information, and without libraries, good schools, role models, or the internet, they have no way of changing that. They don't even know where to go for information.

That brings forth the One Laptop Per Child program, the wikimedia foundation, or others that are trying to bridge this gap. I'll talk about the computers in a later post. But what I think is the future, and what is already revolutionizing socio-economic growth in the BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) is the cell phone.

Take this market I came across in northern India, where flowerwomen were SMSing across villages to find which of the nearby markets was "happening." Once they knew which one had higher demand, they would clamber into the corresponding bus and sell their flowers in the right spot, generating a higher profit. John Adams would be proud...this is market efficiency at its best.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with George, an old colleague from Kisumu, Kenya, about life there. I've been to Kisumu, and there isn't much infrastructure to boast about. Although the third largest city in Kenya (Nairobi and Mombasa are first and second), all the main shops fit on a single street. Its like an overgrown village. There are few internet cafes and they are expensive. George is not rich. But he is ambitious, intelligent, and interested in making something of himself. So he uses his mobile phone to log onto the internet and check and send emails (which is cheaper than calling the US). So in a matter of half an hour, I could help George with solving some technical issues about his water system at home. Having no library or computer wasn't a problem. He could atleast contact me and I could get him the information. So now George's water system is working and he's drinking clean water again. That's the power of connectivity.

Africa today is the world's largest growing mobile phone market. Our second hand phones often end up there to be quickly grabbed by someone. Who would have thought that a Swede's broken down tossed-out phone would be fixed and grabbed up by a poor Malinese woman in Timbuktu. Globalization has done some amazing things. Cell phones are a market I would also keep investing in.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The purpose of this blog

This is a very personal story, and I share it only because this issue is so personal to me.

A few years ago, I found myself in India with the rare and beautiful opportunity to learn from the poorest of the poor. I was lost and confused in my life, and had no idea where I was going. India seemed like the best place to lose myself. With its complex and beautiful environment of competing landscapes, diets, cultures, castes, languages, colors, flora and fauna, India was a mini-world of sampling waiting to be tasted. Some NGOs saw me wandering around, took a chance (NGOs are desperate like that), and they put me to work immediately. I can't say I did much for anyone but my own self...not intentionally.

During my travels around that year, I was struck by how much of someone's quality of life could be improved by simple advances in technology - lighting, water purification, general health awareness, agriculture, etc. Or technologies that were available in one part of a country (or world) that never made it to other parts. There was a distinct gap in information that desperately needed to be filled.

Since then I've spent a great deal of time studying, developing and implementing different appropriate technologies. My own specialties are in water, sanitation, and energy. But my interests are far wider than that. EVERYTHING is connected. And better engineered and sustainable technologies have long-standing effects on other sectors of a person's life and ultimately society.

Some day, I'd like to start a CNET/ of appropriate technologies from around the world, where people can submit, discuss and grade the different technologies. But until then, I'll do the blog.

I don't know much about a lot of things. But as I learn about things, I'll put them up. But keep me on my toes...kee your comments coming and I'll do my best to keep up.

Thanks for reading.