Al Hammond

Technology at the Edge: Low-tech, near-term examples

Several new technology innovations developed specifically for BOP markets are already making a noticeable impact. KickStart (formerly ApproTech) has been developing and promoting such technologies since 1991, with the explicit goal of helping entrepreneurs in East Africa establish and run profitable small scale enterprises. To date, the organization’s efforts have resulted in the creation of more than 35,000 businesses which currently generate a total of $37 million in new profits and wages annually.

The innovations KickStart has commercialized are diverse. Its suitably-named MoneyMaker irrigation pumps, for instance, allow small-scale subsistence farmers to turn their land into vibrant commercial enterprises. The inexpensive ($52-90) treadle operated pumps irrigate plots up to 2 acres in size from water pumped from hand-dug wells, rivers, streams, lakes or ponds. Mafuta Mali, KickStart’s manually operated oilseed press, has resulted in the creation or expansion of more than 700 cooking oil businesses. The organization’s building technologies allow entrepreneurs to cheaply produce high quality bricks, roofing tiles, latrine covers and carpentry tools. Other innovations include technologies for hay bailing, sanitation, and transportation.

KickStart isn’t the only group using innovative technologies to provide decent housing at prices ordinary people can afford. A South African company called Moladi is utilizing a unique plastic injection molded technology to produce cast-in-place mortar structures. The process allows unskilled laborers to use indigenous materials to quickly and cheaply construct high standard permanent buildings that are earthquake, cyclone and tsunami resistant. With the intended purpose of “housing the nations”, the construction technology addresses four key challenges embodied in the low cost housing shortages facing developing countries, namely: lack of resources, insufficient funds, shortage of skills, and time constraints.

Wind-up electric devices have also made a comeback in recent years. The first hand-powered radio was introduced almost a decade ago by Freeplay, produced with the needs of developing countries in mind. Surprisingly, the devices took off in the developed world as well; in its first 5 years of production, Freeplay sold more than a million wind-up radios to Western consumers. Competitors quickly joined the market, including Sony, Philips and Aiwa. Prices have fallen as a result, making the devices more affordable to the people they were originally designed for.

The company now offers a wide variety of hand-powered radios and lights, as well as a mobile phone charger. The last is particularly relevant, given the increasing number of rural areas that are being covered by cell phone networks but have no easy access to electricity to take advantage of them. Freeplay has also invented a foot-powered portable energy source which delivers enough power to jump start an automobile battery, and with a 40W maximum capacity, is capable of powering a wide array of instruments and accessories – including laptops. By quickly providing access to electricity off-grid, the distributed source of power generation has the potential to overcome one of the major obstacles that has thus far prevented efforts to erase the digital divide in rural areas.

Acumen Fund