Julia Tran

Redoubling billions, yet why can’t the West save Africa?

William Easterly’s Monday column in the Washington Post, “The West Can’t Save Africa,” was unreservedly caustic toward all the big talk and promises in 2005 about ending poverty. Easterly pinpoints a most fundamental error in Western aid’s orientation toward poverty alleviation–its assumption of a savior complex toward Africans who are cast as an altogether destitute,disease-ridden, starving population. They are shut out from participating in discussions on how to “save” their own communities. Easterly’s basic point is well-made and articulates the motivation behind NextBillion: “Economic development in Africa will depend–as it has elsewhere andthroughout the history of the modern world–on the success ofprivate-sector entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and Africanpolitical reformers.” NextBillion’s database catalogues scores of local enterprises that are providing services and creating jobs in low-income communities–the bedrock of societies that can meet the needs of their citizens.

But what of aid? The G-8 has plans to double aid from $25 billion to $50 billion. Easterly grazes the subject of how to redirect aid by calling for”achievable and accountable programs” subject to “independentevaluation” and “with high potential for poor individuals to helpthemselves.” Examples he gives are investments in children’seducation and nutrition, and SME development programs. Another intriguing possibility for aid money is to serve as initial investments or subsidies for products developed for the BOP but as yet unable to reach economies of scale and costs per unit low enough to be sold directly to the BOP. The question is how best to leverage the increasing billions in aid and philanthropy, often culpable in the past of decapacitating economies? How do we convert aid into investment dollars for local economies? The below technologies, recently in debate by NextBillion staff, might yield critical opportunities.


Grameen Surya Bijlee Foundation (GSBF) is introducing LED lighting technology into rural India and currently funded by donations.

The Light Emitting Diodes used in GSBF’s lamps are four times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, solar powered by a photovoltaic panel, and produce nearly 200 times more useful light than the prevalently used, indoor air polluting, kerosense lamps.

While GSBF’s lamps, including installation, cost $45 each, the LED technology can light an entire village using less energy than a single conventional 100 watt light bulb.


The Immunosensor Project at the Sustainable Science Institute (SSI) tailors diagnostic nanotechnology to address the health needs of underserved communities worldwide. The project has no business plan articulated on its website and has support from the Acumen Fund for Social Investment, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and other sources of investment.

Working at the University of California, Berkeley, SSI is developing its first ImmunoSensor technology which uses a tiny computer chip that can be produced for pennies to detect nano-scale magnetic beads. Such technology will permit the creation of low-cost, rapid, portable and automated diagnostic devices ideal for use in remote and developing regions.


Watercone is a solar-powered water desalinator that can produce 1 liter of freshwater a day and can last for 5 years. Users pour in salt-water; the magnified heat inside the cone causes the water to evaporate, condense on the sides of the cone, and then to run down the edges into the collection base. This desalinated water can then be poured out the from the screw cap spout at the tip of the cone. Watercone is currently seeking investment.


Bushproof, contracted by NGOs, is a for-profit business that develops and installs low-cost, durable water-filters and well-pumps to increase access to clean, low-cost water. In order to increase local wealth, Bushproof situates production of its pumps in low-income countries and re-investing a percentage of profits into pilot-programs and research.