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Creative and Inventive Ways to Aid the Global Poor



As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Poverty can be a major spur to invention, and invention a route out of poverty – but only if the poor in the developing world can get the recognition, capital and support for navigating the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that will inevitably stand in their way. Thankfully many new initiatives acknowledge this.

Contrary to popular perception, the poor do have buying power, as has been documented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their paper “The Economic Lives of the Poor”. Surveying 13 countries, they found those living on less than a dollar a day, the very poor, actually spent 1/3 of their household income on things other than food, including tobacco, alcohol, weddings, funerals, religious festivals, radios and TVs. The researchers also found that the poor increasingly used their spending power to seek out private sector options when the public sector failed to provide adequate services. As awareness of global poverty has grown in the past decade, a new wave of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs has started to apply their considerable brain power to tackling the everyday problems of the poor.

Afrigadget, a website celebrating African ingenuity and inventions, serves as a goldmine for small-scale entrepreneurs looking for inspiration. All the inventions on the website share something in common: they are grassroots, homemade and handmade solutions to everyday problems of the poor. Examples of inventions profiled on the website include multi-machines, basically a 3-in-1 machine used as a metal lathe, mill and drill press, all built by hand from old car engine parts; a US $100 bicycle motor that gets 50 kilometres per liter made in Kisumu, Kenya; hand-made African wire toys; do-it-yourself telephone handsets which are then used to run roadside phone booths as a small business; and Malawian homemade windmills used to generate electricity for both home use and as a business to recharge mobile phone and radio batteries.

Another African invention tackles the urgent need for inexpensive or free common toilets that are self-financing. In the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, where 60 percent of the city’s inhabitants live, the lack of decent toilet facilities has led to the widespread use of so-called “flying toilets”, plastic bags filled with excrement and then flung as far away as possible. The resulting build-up turns the streets into a foul-smelling sludge in the rainy season and causes disease outbreaks like diarrhoea and typhoid fever. Up to now, conventional attempts to provide communal toilets have failed to resolve the problem, because they charge too much to use. But an innovative solution has been developed: bio-latrines that capture the methane gas produced by the toilets for sale as gas for cooking, heating and lighting, and the sludge for fertilizer. A joint initiative between a Kenyan company, Globology Limited, and the NGOs Umande Trust and Ushirika Roho Safi Laini Saba, it is partly funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The toilets are used by 500 people a day and are self-financing from the profits made by the sale of the gas and fertilizer.

In India, social entrepreneurs have stepped in to help the rural poor navigate the Indian government bureaucracy. Drishtee, an internet service provider – offers a fast-track to government services used by the poor in rural villages through its e-government services information kiosk. Using a franchise model, it has branches spread out through 160 locations in the country and serves 1.5 million people. Drishtee’s niche is that it saves the poor the exhausting and draining time and long travel normally required to access any government services. Drishtee’s “ask a government employee” service brings government to the poorest people.

Operating out of New Zealand and South Africa, Ecologics is an engineering company focused on developing appropriate technologies for sustainable livelihoods in developing countries. All their inventions are built around the principles of low maintenance and costs, and ease of use. Its African operations are based in South Africa and run under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) scheme. It builds step powered pumps, the Step Action Water Pump which works just like a gym step exercise machine and is a highly efficient way to power the pump – for small scale mining and agricultural irrigation. The pumps can deliver 5,000 to 6,000 litres of water per hour, weigh just 11 kilograms, and have been field tested in Fiji, Lesotho and South Africa.

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: April 2007

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP's South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South's innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

Follow @SouthSouth1

Like this story? Here is a dirty secret: this website is packed with stories about global South innovators. We spent 7 years researching and documenting these stories around the world. We interviewed the innovators to learn from them and we visited them to see how they did it. Why not use the Search bar at the top and tap in a topic and see what stories come up? As for my work, I have been involved with start-ups and media ventures since the early 1990s. While most tech entrepreneurs were either still in their nappies in the 1990s (or just a drunken night away from being conceived in the 2000s), I was developing content for this new thing they called the "Internet". In the years since I have learned a great deal about innovation and digital and have shared these insights in the stories on this website as well as in the 5 issues of Southern Innovator magazine. So, stick around and read some more!    

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