Diana Jue and Jackie Stenson

After Invention, it Only Gets Harder: Technology distribution isn’t as sexy as innovation, but it’s critical

Have you ever wondered about what happens to all those cool technologies created for people in developing countries after they’re invented? Technologies like bicycle-powered mobile phone chargers, or innovative containers that make carrying water easier. They sound like they will drastically improve lives around world, and that’s what you expect they’re currently doing, right? You’d expect for them to be shipped to a rural village, made available to potential beneficiaries, and improve lives at the bottom of the pyramid. Right?

That’s what we thought happened to technologies-for-development when we were first exposed to them in MIT’s D-Lab, a program focused on designing low-cost technical solutions for problems in developing countries. We were undergraduates at MIT and Harvard who were drawn to D-Lab because of our interests in engineering and community-level international development. Finally, here seemed to be a tangible way through which young people like us could apply our skills and work with a community to bring about positive change. Affordable, technically sound, easy-to-use, durable, “appropriate” technologies would morph lives. How could they not? They were technological solutions to huge, worldwide needs; of course people would use them.

As we soon found out, this ideal was far from the truth. We saw that the innovation-for-development space is dichotomous. On one hand, Western universities and philanthropic organizations are encouraging inventors to create technologies for development by offering grants, hosting competitions, and showcasing the solutions in the media. On the other hand, very few people in low-income communities around the world are benefiting from these inventions, let alone know that they exist. During our travels in rural East and Southern Africa and Southern India between 2008 and 2011, not once did we stumble upon any of these technologies in use.

We had assumed that these technologies would spread like wildfire through communities around the world because the needs were huge and so dire. Instead, we learned that technology dissemination is so much more difficult and complex than coming up with the most appropriate technological solution. However noble an engineer’s aspirations may be, mere invention is not enough. Functional sales, marketing, distribution, and after-sales service strategies are required to get technologies into the hands of people they are intended to benefit. Without this holistic picture, technologies fail to achieve significant impact, and are essentially designed in vain.

Through our experiences and research, we saw that end users typically get a hold of these technologies through two channels: nonprofit organizations and manufacturers’ own distribution networks. Both channels face significant challenges. Nonprofit organizations’ reliance on donor funding means that they only distribute a limited number of technologies, meet the needs of a small region, and operate on a project basis. When manufacturers attempt to distribute their products, they split their time between production and sales – a difficult feat for start-up social enterprises with limited working capital.

These distribution channels are limited in effectiveness because they can’t adequately address three problems confronted by end users in a financially sustainable or scalable manner. People don’t know about these life-improving technologies, don’t know how to get them, and don’t know how to fix them if they break.

These are the problems addressed by Essmart, a for-profit social enterprise we are co-founding. We got started in the fall of 2011, after we were introduced by an MIT professor who recognized our mutual frustration about and passion for technology distribution. When we realized that most people in the communities we hope to affect buy all of their household items in local mom-and-pop shops, we decided to create an “essential” marketplace for technologies by selling through existing retail stores, thus utilizing existing, trusted buying relationships. We aimed to instill low-income customers with the dignity they deserve by offering a catalogue of technologies instead of thrusting upon them the specific product that we think they need. We brought together a team that is spread over two continents, and each team member is just as passionate about improving lives through technology distribution as we are. We ran a pilot in January 2012 through which two shops sold 17 technologies – four types of solar lanterns and a water filter – in just one week, and we raised just enough capital from competitions to get started this summer.

Now we’re on the ground in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, a third-tier city in Southern India where we’re beginning Essmart’s operations. We’ve already begun building relationships with six shops, introducing new solar lanterns and water filters to areas that have never seen these products before.

And we are learning plenty, and expect the lessons to keep on coming. For example, we’ve begun to see how important it is to emphasize Essmart’s value proposition to shop owners in very practical, economical terms, as they themselves are entrepreneurs who want to maximize their time and efforts. Explanatory training materials that are written in the local language have been in high demand, but the demand has come more from shop owners than from households. This is because shop owners must feel confident about their knowledge of the products they are selling. And their buy-in is essential for accessing households, who are their direct customers and our technologies’ end users.

We don’t claim to be experts in technology distribution, and we’re still experimenting with elements of our model. But we do know that technology distribution is the gatekeeper to impacting millions of lives. Invention is sexy; technology distribution is not, so it’s overlooked and underfunded. But if we want to scale technological solutions, it’s time to bring the distribution problem into the limelight.

Diana Jue and Jackie Stenson are the co-founders of EssmartGlobal.

business development, supply chains