Innovation in Africa tips


The Design in Africa blog has compiled tips on Innovation in Africa from thought leaders in development:

From Ethan Zuckerman’s post ‘Innovating from constraint‘:

  1. Innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
  2. Don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
  3. Embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
  4. Innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
  5. Problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
  6. What you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
  7. Infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa.)

And Amy Smith on rules for design in the developing world:

  1. Try living for a week on $2 a day.
    That’s what my students and I do when I teach my class about international development. It helps them begin to understand the trade-offs that must be made when you have only very limited resources. More broadly, it was in the Peace Corps in Botswana that I learned to carry water on my head, and noticed how heavy the bucket was; and I learned to pound sorghum in to flour and felt the ache in my back. As a designer, I came to understand the importance of technologies that can transport water or grind grain.
  2. Listen to the right people. Okay, so you probably don’t know what it’s like to carry fifty pounds of firewood on your head. Well, don’t pretend that you do. Talk to someone who has done it. I believe that the key to innovation in international development is truly understanding the problem, and using your imagination is not good enough.
  3. Do the hard work needed to find a simple solution. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”—and it is the key to this type of design work.
  4. Create “transparent” technologies, ones that are easily understood by the users, and promote local innovation.
  5. Make it inexpensive. My friend Paul Polak has adapted a famous quote to the following: “Affordability isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and there’s a lot of truth in that. When you are designing for people who are earning just one or two dollars a day, you need to keep things as cheap as you can and then make it even cheaper!
  6. If you want to make something 10 times cheaper, remove 90 percent of the material.
  7. Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution,
    rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.

And Paul Polak via Nextbillion;

  1. go to where the action is
  2. talk to the people who have the problem – and LISTEN to what they have to say
  3. learn everything there is to know about the specific context
  4. think and act big – don’t do anything that can’t reach a million people
  5. think like a child – children have no limit to their thinking
  6. see and do the obvious
  7. if somebody already invented it, you don’t have to
  8. design to critical price targets
  9. design for measurable improvement in the lives of more than a million people
  10. work to practical, three-year plans
  11. keep learning from your customers
  12. stay positive – don’t be distracted by what other people think (if there
    were a need for it, the market would have already created it)

So here are my 7 hints/tips/rules;

  1. Understand by observing the environment, infrastructure, culture and lives of people by being there.
  2. Think creatively: start big, use constraints as a filter and find the simplest solutions.
  3. Increase user acceptance; build on existing platforms, lower costs and beware of radically different ways of doing things.
  4. Deliver value; what are the benefits for people using the end product, does it improve a persons life?
  5. Economic sustainability; provide financial motivation for continued growth over time. Empower people by improving their economic or social status.
  6. Share knowledge and skills to continue the innovative process both to and from people and communities.
  7. Peripheral vision; keep a look out for other challenges or new solutions all the time.

Stay tuned – we plan to have more on this theme.

Blog Action Day on Poverty: Ending Poverty with Open Source Appropriate Technology


I gave this talk, “Ending Poverty with Open Hardware” in Reykjavik earlier this year. It addresses how open source appropriate technology could change the world and save millions upon millions of lives.

Appropedia and the open-source appropriate technology movement that it support are key parts of reducing poverty and its effects worldwide. With the right tools, even very poor people can enjoy reasonable health and food security and we see free information sharing about solutions as being key to that global effort. Please do everything you can to support Appropedia, and if you can make it to San Francisco, come to the first annual Open Sustainability Network this weekend, 18th and 19th of October.

Here are the slides from the talk.

For the unconnected


A question at BarCampAfrica: What use is a wiki, for the poor who have no internet?

  1. First you need to develop the information the resource. But over time I’m sure the Appropedia community will put more and more effort into dissemination.
  2. There are all kinds of ways of distributing offline content – in a computer (e.g. OLPC bundles), CD-ROM flash drives,  hard drives, printouts (leaflets, booklets or books*), education programs based on content developed on the wiki.
  3. Phones. A story was told at BarCampAfrica of a conversation in Africa. “Have you heard of Google?” “Yes, of course.” “Have you searched Google from a mobile phone?” “Of course – how else can you search with Google?” You only need one phone in the village with this capability to massively increase people’s ability to find information.
  4. Villagers who have moved to the city to work, that maintain a connection to the village – if they have internet access, they can send or take the information back to the village.
  5. That other way – the one none of us have thought of yet.

There’s no need to put weighting on the different channels. You might think #4 won’t be effective, for example. You may be right. For now, the important part is #1: Create the resource.

* This is one reason that it’s so important to use an open license that allows commercial use, so people can be motivated distribute this knowledge.

Subsidies hurting Africa


BarCampAfrica – The OLPC (laptop) project is another form of harmful subsidy, says one critic. It was a gentle critique – even the critic is a fan of the OLPC project in many ways (as am I – extremely cool tech and great educational ideas).

But it’s clear to anyone familiar with development issues that subsidies really are harmful, much of the time – and the speaker had examples of his own. Like the big headaches for ISPs in Africa when international aid organizations come in and dropping free connections on schools or communities. Such subsidies take out a whole chunk of the market that businesses no longer have access to – then when the aid organization leaves and goes somewhere else, the locals are left with local businesses that are weakened and less able to serve the community.

Now, I still see the OLPC as doing much more good than harm. Sure, they’re taking out a huge chunk of the market… but that market mostly didn’t exist before OLPC’s innovations made it possible to serve these people.

So, I like the suggestions: Open source the design*, let anyone build them, and keep the margin local.

On the other hand, I wonder if there is any possibility of a market-based solution that achieves OLPC’s aims, especially saturation. But if a no-subsidy model leads to more effective markets and institutions, then that may be a more important achievement. It also leaves space for more innovation – e.g. variations on the Educational Television Computer (a.k.a. the $10 computer).

* Actually, isn’t it already open source…? Help me out here...

As with all posts in this blog, the views expressed here are those of the poster, and don’t necessarily represent the Appropedia community.

Appropriate technology villages?


Can anyone add to our page on appropriate technology villages? There must be examples out there. (If our wiki isn’t friendly enough for you yet, then feel free to leave a comment here.)

My trip to Latin America is drawing near, so I’m personally very interested in examples in Latin America, that would welcome a traveler for a short visit. Heck, if they have broadband, and some need that I can help out with, then a long visit might even be on the cards.

*or eco-villages that care about affordability and usability (because an affordable and usable sustainable technology is most of the way to qualifying as an appropriate technology).

Your community, in a global community


Can local groups and communities could use the wiki as their own way of connecting and sharing knowledge?

Answer: Absolutely!

Appropedia is not only a living library, but:

  • A collaborative workspace, both to grow the library, and for plotting real-world action.
  • A networking tool. While our platform (MediaWiki) is not designed as a social networking tool, this is a community full of hardcore sustainability buffs and problem solvers from around the world, and from all walks of life.
  • A “shell” within which communities can operate, serving their members and connecting with partners both local and distant. A community of communities, if you will.
  • A way of increasing profile & findability.
  • A way of increasing synergy. Why work on a greywater treatment page on a locally focused site, that will have a small number of contributors and readers, when you can work with a global community on making an awesome page?
  • You can have your own pages on your own projects, too, as part of a collection of designs from around the world. Be like the developer of the Home biogas system (Philippine BioDigesters), who received emails of thanks, along with design improvements, from around the world.

This was prompted by a question from Steven Walling during a a recent presentation on Appropedia. It made me realize how far ahead Appropedia is when I envisage it, compared to what a visitor to the site sees today (e.g. the greywater treatment page is one-twentieth or one-hundredth as good as I’d like to see it). People already say how great the site is, but I foresee something much, much greater.

(I know I say “around the world” a lot, but hey, that’s what Appropedia is about!)

Open access content on Appropedia


CD3WD (CD for the 3rd World), and WikiGreen (the first major green wiki) have done an enormous amount of work getting permission for books and other great resources in sustainability and development, and getting it online. All up there are thousands of pages on specific agricultural subjects, appropriate technologies for building, and more.

Much of that content has ended up on Appropedia. It’s valuable content, and we are (we believe) allowed to share it. But we’ve had a dilemma: it’s not under an open license, as far as we know. It’s open access, but can’t be reused or modified, and certainly there hasn’t been permission given to use commercially. That clashes with our default license.

So, do we remove it? That would be a great loss to the internet community when they search for answers on these important subjects. This is something I’ve agonized over. So instead, we are now placing notices on these pages, noting that these are exceptions to Appropedia’s regular license. So far, all the CD3WD pages that we have, have had the notices placed on them. Next, we need to list the good material made available by the work of Eric and Roy.

If you’re aware of any work which should not be displayed (i.e. the rights-owners do not give permission for it to be made available as open access), please let us know, and we will take action to fix things up (gain permission or remove it).