One-third of the world’s population is without access to electricity; 1.3 billion people don’t have safe drinking water; 3 billion have no sanitation. Nearly 11 million children under the age of 5 die each year from diseases that can be prevented or treated. More than 115 million children don’t have access to primary education. And, nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names. These are only a few of the staggering statistics that illustrate that, despite all the advances in technology, there is much work to be done.
Today—especially in Silicon Valley—it seems that the primary goal of innovation is too often to create wealth, not progress. But there are visionaries who are finding ways to use technology to address some of the world’s most urgent and basic needs. Risking their life savings, their reputations, even their lives, these social entrepreneurs—individuals, corporations, non-profits, foundations, and governments —are making unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s most marginalized, the very people who are often left behind by technological innovations.
Some of these innovators were honored at the Tech Museum Awards last November, an international awards program that honors those who are creating or applying technology to improve the human condition.
“I would challenge anyone to go to the Tech Awards and not be inspired on one hand and humbled on another,” said Tim Haley ’81, the founding partner of Redpoint Ventures, a member of SCU’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society’s Advisory Board, and a judge on this year’s environment panel. “It’s pretty healthy to step outside of Silicon Valley, where the paradigm is: you have an idea, you incubate it, you get funding from VCs, and you start the next great company, and in many cases millions are made,” he added.
“Then you look at some guy who’s developing technology to solve the problems with gillnetting or coral reef restoration. They’re just as dedicated. They work just as hard. They’re just as passionate, but their world is different. They are solving really important problems with far less financial reward. Having gone through this once, I now really understand why the University is involved in this,” explained Haley.
James Koch, the founding director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, helped create the awards program. “Multinational companies have ignored the 3 billion people that live on less than two dollars a day because they are low-margin markets—in fact they aren’t even considered a market. The fundamental challenge is how to make technology accessible to people who are marginalized.”
Michael Kevane, the chair of the equality judging panel and an SCU economics professor, adds, “We look for technologies that relieve the specific challenges faced by the disabled so they can extend and deepen their lives; we look for technologies that enable those without rights to have their voices heard; and we look for
technologies that improve the well-being of those left behind by globalization’s cycle of ‘innovate or die.’”
This was the overwhelming theme of this year’s Tech Awards: Laureates either creating technology or utilizing existing technologies in new ways to reach those often left behind by innovation.
An ergonomic loom for Pakistan’s carpet weavers
The Center for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment (CIWCE) in Lahore, Pakistan, is an example of a government organization that’s creativity and innovation has thrived despite multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape—much to the benefit of Pakistan’s poor rural families who make a living by weaving carpet.
Established in 1988 by grants from the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Development Program, CIWCE designed a new carpet-weaving loom—something that hadn’t been done for centuries.
CIWCE conducted a study that found that weavers—including children—suffer from chronic health problems (bone and joint pain, respiratory ailments, carpal tunnel syndrome, deformities), and that low productivity and earnings (due to harsh conditions) were major factors for why families engaged their children in their work.
“A major design consideration was how to ‘engineer out’ child labor from the new loom,” said Saeed Awan, the director of CIWCE. “We did it mainly by raising the height to adult level. Although the loom itself does not eliminate child labor, it reduces the degree of hazard, and improves the health and earning of families, thus indirectly helping in the efforts to combat child labor.”
On the new, user-friendly, ergonomic loom, the weaver sits on a bench instead of his or her toes and there are optional foot- and armrests. The loom is also portable so that it can be moved according to lighting conditions or a worker’s comfort. CIWCE also provides dust masks, first aid, and training on the use of the new loom.
The loom, which has been implemented in 30 sites in the country, has not only improved working conditions, but has also improved carpet quality. Thus, families owning a new loom have been able to negotiate with contractors and have increased their earnings by as much 30 to 50 percent.
“The real winners of this award are the downtrodden and poor carpet weaving families, the importance of whose work got noticed,” Awan said, regarding receiving this year’s equality award.
According to Awan, the biggest problem ahead is the freedom to spend the cash award. He says that if they follow government procedures, they may never use the money, as it could “vanish somewhere in the government treasury.” Therefore, he is currently working to establish a separate entity with the award money such as a non-profit, non-governmental organization, or foundation.
The world’s first synthetic human vaccine
Thanks to the international collaboration of scientists from Cuba and Canada, we now have a synthetic vaccine against Hib—the bacteria that can cause meningitis and pneumonia.
Although Hib vaccines made from purified bacterial polysaccharides have been widely used for years in the United States and Europe since the early ’90s (and have virtually eliminated childhood mortality rates attributed to Hib in the U.S. and other industrialized nations), the cost of these vaccines limits their use in poorer countries. As a result, most of the deaths from Hib infections are in developing nations—nearly 700,000 children around the world die annually from Hib infections.
Vicente Verez-Bencomo of the University of Havana and Rene Roy of the University of Ottawa, along with 300 investigators and technicians, developed a completely synthetic version of the Hib antigen that is just as effective, can be manufactured at lower cost, and may be even be safer than current commercial Hib vaccines, making it an attractive alternative for poorer nations.
With the approval of the Cuban Health Ministry, virtually every child born in Cuba in 2004—more than 1 million—has been inoculated, and not a single case of Hib-caused invasive disease has been detected in the vaccinated population to date. Approval of QuimiHib (the marketed name) by the World Health Organization and the UN could happen this year and would expand the market outside of Cuba.
Outside of the multitude of scientific challenges this project presented (Verez-Bencomo has been working on it for decades), the U.S. embargo complicated the importing of needed research equipment into Cuba.
“To reproduce the results in Cuba, it took somewhat longer then usual to buy the necessary chemicals since they had to be brought from Europe. Nothing could be brought from the U.S., thus adding to the cost and time of delivery,” Roy said. In fact, Verez-Bencomo himself was denied entry to our country to accept the health award in November because the State Department would not issue him a visa.
Roy, who accepted the award, said, “The ultimate reward is not so much the new scientific discovery and its glory, as much as providing the lead for lower cost and safer vaccines for infants in developing countries.”
Roy said he sees two main challenges ahead: First, how to handle large-scale production due to the increasing demand from poor countries; and second, how to help the industrialized countries embrace this novel technology.
Web Exclusive: Empowering Africa’s Human Rights Watchdogs
“In most of Africa, access to the Web is slow, frustrating, and expensive,” says Firoze Manji, executive director of Fahamu, a non-profit with offices in the U.K. and South Africa, and one of the five education laureates at this year’s Tech Awards.
“Because the bandwidth for access to the Internet is limited, and because there is monopoly control of the connection to the backbone of the Internet, Africa pays five times more per kilobyte than does America or Europe,” he continued.
To meet these challenges, Fahamu (which is a Swahili word that means “understanding or consciousness”) developed a way to distribute training materials to African human rights organizations without placing them on the Web. They developed a CD-ROM and e-mail-based distance-learning course that could be used on low-specification computers, which are common in Africa.
The interactive CD-ROM courses cover topics like human rights violations, the role of media in the Rwandan genocide, using the Internet for advocacy and research, fund-raising and resource mobilization, leadership and management, prevention of torture, conflict resolution, and effective writing skills. In the past two years, Fahamu’s courses have benefited more than 160 organizations in more than 30 countries.
Because most Internet service providers in Africa charge less for e-mail than for browsing, Fahamu supplemented the CD-ROM courses with a weekly e-newsletter that provided resources, commentary, and analysis on politics, current affairs, development, human rights, and gender issues in Africa. The newsletter, Pambazuka News, became so popular that it grew from a distribution of 300 in December 2000 to more than 80,000 today—it is Africa’s most widely distributed electronic newsletter on social justice.
Web Exclusive: Light for the Developing World
SELCO (Solar Electric Light Company) India is living proof that you don’t have to be a non-profit to serve the underserved. The privately held company has developed a profitable supply chain for providing affordable solar electric home lighting to rural India, where the majority of homes still use kerosene.
SELCO did not invent a new technology, but rather found innovative ways to get existing technology to the people that need it. “The link between the solar technology and rural users was missing—that was the gap we bridged,” said Harish Hande, SELCO’s managing director.
The toughest obstacle SELCO had to overcome—once they gained the trust of the people—was enabling ways for their customers to finance their product. “When we are supplying energy services to the poor, the financing needs to be tailor-made according to the present and future income streams,” Hande said.
SELCO did some financial engineering, using its own scarce resources to be flexible and creative to make it possible for poor rural households to purchase their electric supply systems. Now that they’ve proven their success, SELCO has partnered with local financial and micro-finance institutions to continue to provide creative financing for their customers.
Headquartered in Bangalore, India, SELCO has sold, serviced, and financed more than 45,000 solar electric lamps since 1995. The systems have improved lighting conditions for children to study, increased the number of hours people can work (thereby allowing them to pay for their systems), and decreased indoor pollution and other health and environmental hazards associated with kerosene. The lifetime cost of one of these systems is $1,700, significantly less than kerosene ($2,800) or connecting to a national or regional electric grid ($3,000).
SELCO plans to use the $50,000 they received as the winner of this year’s economic award to continue to innovate with linkages between technology, end-users, savings, and earning as well as to establish female-run energy services businesses. In fact, they are already working with a women’s micro-finance institution.
“There are two billion people without light,” said Hande, as he accepted the economic award. “We still have long way to go. We can do it—sustainably, economically, and environmentally.”
Web Exclusive: Environmentally friendly toilets
A successful dentist for more than 25 years, Brian La Trobe never gave up his interest in organic chemistry. So when he was elected to the University Council at Rhodes University, he began amateur research on extracting energy from organic waste. After a successful landfill re-design that maximized the production of methane gas, he was asked by the South African Water Research Commission to find a way to stabilize human waste without a sewage plant to help communities in rural and developing areas.
“I hit upon the idea that, no matter how rich or poor, humanity had two basic waste streams; body waste and
garbage. I devised a system to combine the two and bombard them with God’s free air,” La Trobe said. “This excited aerobic bacteria to grow at an accelerated rate, creating a huge amount of biological heat which killed off all the pathogenic bacteria in a space of about 21 days.”
“We tend to look on bacteria as bugs that make us sick,” he continued, “when in fact there are trillions of them out there that are prepared to work for us.” So, after years of research, the Enviro Loo was born—a waterless dehydration and evaporation toilet system that provides a non-polluting, cost-effective sanitation system. This is a monumental achievement, considering the environmental implications of poor sanitation: pollution of surface water and degradation of urban and rural land and air quality, not to mention increased health risks to humans and animals.
This work was not without struggle. La Trobe waited for his fours sons to finish their education before he could take the financial risk to start a new career in waste. He invested all of his available assets into the project and many of his associates thought he was crazy. “At times I felt like the village idiot,” he said.
What kept him going, though, was thinking about how wasteful humanity is with water resources. “The waterborne sanitation system makes no sense,” he said. “We purify water supplies to strict standards for drinking purposes, then we use most of it to flush away…. What’s more, we deposit 200 milliliters of urine into a bowl then flush it away with 12 liters of potable water. Mankind does not have enough water to continue this madness in the light of our overpopulation of the planet. I have merely scratched the surface of providing an alternative means of treating our body waste.”
He’s covered a fairly sizable surface, however: to date, more than 20,000 units have been installed through South Africa and neighboring countries (Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe) as well as Ghana, Uganda, India, Greece, Cyprus, Brazil, Australia, and the United States.
Web Exclusive: Closing the Information Gap
It has been said that the information age has made the gaps between rich and poor larger. The faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made a bold move to bridge the information gap by making their course materials for all undergraduate and graduate subjects available online—free—to anyone in the world. Called MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), the Web site, which gets 12,335 unique visits per day, offers 1100 courses in 34 disciples to more than 215 countries.
“We set out not only to ‘give away’ MIT’s educational materials but also to start a movement to inspire others to openly share their educational content,” said Anne Margulies, the executive director of OCW.
It hasn’t been easy. The first obstacle they encountered was making those who could benefit from the materials aware of them. “With a worldwide audience, our strategy to build awareness has been to focus on major media outlets, online media, and international organizations such as UNESCO and the United Nations,” Margulies said.
The second obstacle was lack of infrastructure. “Unfortunately, those who most need educational materials face the most significant barriers because they don’t have access to computers or the Internet.” To overcome this, they started distributing content via mirror sites—local hard disks that contain complete replicas of the OCW site. In the last year, they have established more than 70 mirror sites on college campuses in developing countries.
A third obstacle was the need for translation. “Translating our materials into other languages is extremely labor intensive and difficult,” Margulies said. “Fortunately we have developed partnerships with organizations in China, Spain, Egypt, Thailand, and other regions who translate the materials and host them locally.”
According to Margulies, MIT took significant risk in announcing this initiative at a time when other schools were announcing the launch of for-profit distance education programs.
“Although I strongly believe that MIT was very courageous to lead the way with OCW—there are now more than 40 other universities implementing OCWs—it’s been even more impressive to learn about all the incredibly motivated people around the world who are using our materials to improve their lives,” Margulies concluded.
Helping the ignored
“Figuring out how to serve the poor is a great challenge,” said Koch. “These people are taking the risks that no one else wants to. These people are venturing into a part of humanity that others have ignored.”
— Kim Kooyers is a freelance writer in the Bay Area.
More 2005 Laureate stories
There are many more stories of social entrepreneurs available at the Tech Awards Web site. Here are a few highlights:
• The Reef Ball Foundation, which, among other projects, is working in Thailand to restore coral reefs (and local economies based entirely on fishing) damaged by the December 2004 tsunami.
• WorldFish Center, which developed the GIFT fish—Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia—for low-income food- deficient countries where fish are a staple.
• CEMINA — Communication, Education, and Information on Gender—an organization in Brazil that is improving poor women’s access to information via radio and a network of centers that offer Internet and telephone access.