Leapfrogging Archives

March 24, 2004

Making the Connections

Environmental sustainability. Energy independence. Information and communication technology. Development. These issues are inextricably linked. By ignoring the centralized models of the past and moving directly to the decentralized, networked models now emerging, developing nations can leapfrog -- build infrastructures which are more powerful, more efficient, and more sustainable than many of their more "advanced" neighbors. This isn't just the argument we make here at WorldChanging, it's the conclusion of a UN task force working under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme.

A United Nations Environment Programme Task Force on Information & Communication Technology and Renewable Energy for Sustainable Rural Development conducted its third meeting at the Neko Tech Center in Ada, Ghana.

Building upon its work in Paris, Delhi, and on-going field work from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Task Force found that:

* Renewable energy enables rapid deployment of reliable affordable electricity in rural areas, a prerequisite for accelerated national development;

* Information and communications technologies are essential to enhancing rural health, education, government, entertainment and enterprise, and to participating actively in the global economy; and

* Deployed in harmony, renewable energy and information/communication technology mutually reinforce the cost effective deployment of basic infrastructure and enable new livelihoods, social empowerment, and environmental security (emphasis added).

UNEP is an interesting group. Although it clearly has its share of bureaucratic afflictions, it appears to be a startlingly useful information resource for those of us trying to integrate environmental concerns with the drive to improve conditions in the developing world. The Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics has numerous guides for businesses in the developing world (and in the developed world, too) looking to become more environmentally sustainable. The Environment and Sustainable Technologies database resource -- listing 86 different databases covering everything from an EU knowledge base on renewable energy to low-cost appropriate technologies (and that's just in the "A" section) -- looks to be weeks worth of WorldChanging postings alone!

April 20, 2004

Malaysian Solar-Hydrogen House

It's one thing to imagine sustainable housing; it's quite another to go out and build it. The challenge of such a feat is multiplied when the location is Malaysia, not traditionally thought of as being at the forefront of sustainable development. But the "Solar-Hydrogen Eco-House" has the dual distinction of being aggressively forward-looking in its application of sustainable technology and design, as well as being designed and built entirely by Malay engineers and architects.

Combining a solar-hydrogen system (using hydrogen both as a fuel cell medium and as a utility gas for the water heater and stove) with rainwater recycling, low-energy architectural features, and traditional Malay design, the Eco-House is a proof-of-concept for sustainable dwellings in Southeast Asia and beyond. As a one-off test home, it was fairly expensive to build: RM250,000, or about $66,000, largely paid for by the Malaysian government's Science, Technology, and Environment Ministry. It's not likely to trigger an immediate burst of Eco-Home development across Malaysia, at least at first. Still, it's an extremely positive development.

I have to admit that I find projects like this emerging from smaller, developing/post-developing nations to be far more exciting than equivalent efforts in the United States, Europe or Japans. This comes partially from experience with the inertia of the American housing market, extrapolated to other hyperdeveloped nations. But it also derives from a growing belief that the real 21st century revolution in sustainability (and, potentially, politics and economics) will come from the so-called "Third World." These nations are going to be first to be hurt by the ravages of climate change, and won't have the resources to adopt -- or time to wait for -- Washington-approved technologies and practices.

This house design is yet another bit of evidence that the leapfrogging is already underway.

April 23, 2004

Developing World, Developing Businesses

Wired has a good article today on increasing efforts to build business models and ideas for the developing world that don't simply mimic existing American/European practices.

In Africa, there is a huge demand for simple technologies that can be used by people who lack access to banks, phone lines, credit cards and computers that Westerners take for granted. Living in the only country on this continent that has a modern infrastructure -- even while most of its citizens remain firmly entrenched in poverty -- South African entrepreneurs are in a unique position to develop and deliver these products to Africa's poor, says Raven Naidoo, a founder of Radian, a small technology-consulting firm.

"South Africa is a testing ground but also a huge market," he says. "Typically in South Africa people have targeted the high end of the market, but it's a small high end. At the lower level the return might be lower, but there's a volume gain."

"That market out there is two-thirds of the world's population," says Alan Levin, Naidoo's business partner. "No one else is capable of seeing it the way we do, or putting solutions together the way we do."

Businesses cited as examples include "Wizzy Digital Courier" (which uses its own open source applications to archive email and web requests from computers without internet access -- typically those in remote schools -- onto inexpensive USB flash storage devices, rush the stored data to connected computers via milk truck couriers, then return the results the next day) and Fundamo (which allows mobile phone users to make payments via their wireless connection rather than having to use a credit card). And while Wizzy solves an infrastructure problem that will diminish over time as more locations get net access, Fundamo actually implements something that hasn't taken off in the West due to the abundance of the older credit systems:

Levin, of Radian, says the success of Fundamo in Zambia illustrates the changing mind-set among South African tech entrepreneurs, who in the past have struggled to sell their products in saturated Western markets instead of looking to their own backyards.

"These new technologies are taking on very quickly in the developing world, and allowing for a kind of leapfrog effect," he says. "While the First World countries are still in the credit card phase, this turns cell phone companies into banks."

"Leapfrog effect"... hmm... where have we heard that term before?

May 10, 2004

Water From Air

There are few more fundamental issues in world development than clean water. The availability of clean water and sanitation can be revolutionary; if you can assemble the infrastructure to pipe the water around, keeping it clean can be done inexpensively. But is piping and filtering the only solution?

Olivia Lum suggests not. A Singaporean who grew up in a ramshackle home in Malaysia without running water, Lum is the founder of Hyflux, a company specializing in the development of innovative water-treatment systems. Hyflux systems are in use in Singapore and China, and was just awarded $250 million to design, build, and operate Singapore's first desalination plant. It has also invented a system it calls "Dragon-fly," which pulls remarkably clean water out of the atmosphere. It's a condensation process, similar to the side-effects of running an air conditioner in a humid environment, coupled with both physical and UV filters.

Given sufficiently humid and warm air, the Dragon-fly can pull from 6.5 liters to over 24 liters of water from the air in a day, de-humidifying the surrounding air in the process. Given that the minimum required relative humidity is 45%, and functions best with humidity over 60%, the Dragon-fly is not going to be useful everywhere. But many of the regions of the world most likely to be hit hard by global warming-induced storms are already pretty humid; systems such as these could be very useful as means of guaranteeing clean water as a stop-gap while damaged infrastructure is made sanitary, as long as generators are available. And who knows? Maybe there's a market for a "pipeless" water infrastructure to match the wireless communication network.

The Dragon-fly is certainly not perfect: it's expensive and requires a serious amount of electricity to run the condenser, the UV filter, and the refrigeration unit. This is neither a device for hyperdeveloped West nor for the underdeveloped South... but it's a definite candidate for the Leapfrog Nations, those parts of the world taking advantage of new techs and new approaches to jump headfirst into the future.

(Thanks, CTP)

May 12, 2004

Leapfrogging the Grid

Wow, am I sorry I didn't hear about this event until after it was over.

The World Technology Network -- a think tank/global innovator network/consulting group -- organized the World Energy Technologies Summit in Paris, this last February. The topic? "Should We Leapfrog the Grid? Distributed Generation in the Developing World." Focusing on the feasibility of using distributed power generation -- primarily from renewable or "cleaner" energy sources -- as a way of bringing inexpensive electricity to the developing world, the conference brought together energy entrepreneurs, government officials, and energy analysts from around the world.

The website for the conference has the agenda and information about the speakers, as well as all of their Powerpoint presentations -- downloadable, not as HTML conversions. Since some of the presentations are many megabytes in size (the largest being over 150MB), you'll need either broadband or patience to get them all. That said, the amount of information in these presentations is pretty staggering. From data about developments in gas turbine and fuel cell technologies to power distribution in Sri Lanka to the chemistry of biofuels, the 20 or so presentations are an energy geek's dream. While a handful of the presentations are clearly advertising for the presenter's company, nearly all have interesting information about the current state of distributed power, and where it could go.

The conference site also links to a PDF of an editorial in Nature which summarizes nicely the importance of distributed power, especially in the developing world:

World energy needs will double by 2050 and we urgently need sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide or other pollutants. Decentralized generation puts technological choices in consumers’ hands. The technology is available to bring small, local energy sources, or ‘micropower’, better into the electricity equation, from gas turbines, hydro and wind power and sugar-cane biomass to nanoscale solar cells embedded in the bricks and slates of houses.

For countries like the United States that already have grids, decentralized generation will ease gridlock, radically improve energy efficiency, cut carbon emissions and provide better resilience to failures and terrorist attacks on vulnerable networks.

But for the 2 billion people without electricity, micropower could let them leapfrog the grid. Just as countries that had never seen an expensive copper telephone network jumped straight to mobile phones, so decentralized generation technologies offer the chance for them to leapfrog the grid and prosper.

There's a ton of useful information in these presentations, locked up in the ungainly Powerpoint format. If you can stand the download time, have a way of viewing Powerpoint files, and want to learn more about distributed power, these files are definitely worth exploring.

June 4, 2004

G8 vs. G20+ on Renewables

Reports are coming in from the Renewables 2004 conference in Bonn, Germany, of behind the scenes struggles over the use of timetables and specific goals for the expanded use of renewable energy. The conference is supposed to produce consensus "policy recommendations" outlining what countries should be doing to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of power. While foot-dragging from the United States comes as little surprise, the US was joined by Canada, Japan, and France (among others) in resisting calls from developing nations in Asia, including China and the Phillippines, for concrete targets.

As for the action plan, "we are seeing weak political commitment from the EU," WWF International spokeswoman Mitzi Borromeo told AFP.

"It looks as if the EU is failing in its commitment to go beyond 2010," she said, referring to the European Union's current goal of having renewables meet more than 22 percent of its energy needs by the end of the decade.

"The way things look at the moment, Asia could overtake Europe on its commitment to renewable energies."

According to a spokesperson from WorldWatch Insitute, China has committed to generating 20 gigawatts of its power from wind by 2020.

June 21, 2004

Open Access in Pakistan

Open Access News has a link to the online journal Hi Pakistan's interview with Dr Attaur Rahman, the minister-in-charge of the ministry of science and technology and chairman of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan. The interview concerns the state of university education in Pakistan, and the reforms he is introducing to the system. Among the most interesting elements of his plan is the introduction of open access journals to the university libraries across the nation:

At the moment, the plight of libraries is beyond description. There are no journals, there are no books. Our libraries are in a total mess. You cannot call them libraries. What we have done is to launch a nationwide digital library - and this really excites me.

We have been working hard on this for the past one and a half years and now this has happened. And there are 31,600 journals which are available free of charge. Every single school or college or university - any educational institution under any ministry - will get free access. Of these, 11,600 journals are full text. Now each journal can cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And we are talking about 31,600 journals. Over 20,000 journals will be available in the form of abstracts. They will be available for all the disciplines. Again I want to get rid of the impression that I am associated with science and technology only.

This means that students sitting at home in Pakistan today can go onto the Internet and download the latest issues of all these journals. It is a huge nationwide library. This is something that no other country, not even the United States, has today.

The entire interview is worth reading, particularly the last section, where he talks about infrastructure and curriculum. This is vitally important reform for a number of reasons: Pakistan is desperately poor, and this is a way for the country to jump-start a modern education system; this will be one of the largest open-access library networks in the world; and -- perhaps most critically -- these universities will provide positive competition to the madressas, the religious schools, which have not been bastions of progressive thought in Pakistan. We'll all benefit if these reforms succeed.

July 13, 2004


When it comes to information technology, the United States is something of an outlier. For a variety of reasons, Americans are far more likely than residents of much of the rest of the world to rely on computers as their primary information devices. In most other places, the mobile phone is the main platform for info services. While this has both advantages (mobility) and disadvantages (editing documents), the ubiquity of the mobile telephone as information appliance has led to some novel regional variants.

Gizmodo reports on the latest and most intriguing (for now) mobile phone information device: the Ilkone i800 mobile handset for the Islamic market. The name "ilkone" is derived from the Arabic word for "universe," and the manufacturers expect that the device will keep the users in touch with said Islamic universe. Features include:

  • Date Converter, to automatically convert between Hijri and Gregorian calendars.
  • Qibla Direction, to allow the user to know the direction towards Mecca for prayer.
  • The Quran complete text, in both Uthmanic Arabic font and English, with search engine.
  • Prayer Timer, with 5,000 cities pre-set, to alert the user when it's time to pray; this can be done with a standard alarm, or with the "azan" voice calling to prayer, with Cairo, Mecca, and Medina variants.

    And, of course, the usual run of mobile phone features, including polyphonic tones and "exciting action games."

    Part of trying to think seriously about the future involves keeping alert for "early indicators" -- data points which may not mean all that much in and of themselves, but when put into a larger context, begin to form an image of where things are going (a process Alex & I half-jokingly refer to as "data pointillism"). The i800 is just such a data point. The actual device may thrive or fail, but its existence tells us something about what the coming years may look like.

  • July 16, 2004

    Remaking Africa

    "Africa was a mess. Africa was always a mess."

    In Bruce Sterling's seminal 1988 novel Islands in the Net, the characters sometimes play with a planetary simulation called "WorldRun" -- imagine a mix of SimCity, Civilization, and Google News -- allowing them to model various political and economic approaches to solving global problems. Although I wait patiently for a version of WorldRun to appear for OS X, it has always bothered me that "Africa was always a mess" in the fictional simulations. I hate seeing futurists giving up on an entire continent.

    There are some good resources out there for those of us who still think that it's possible for Africa to no longer be a mess. In many ways an Africa-focused sibling of WorldChanging, Emeka Okafor's Timbuktu Chronicles is a blog which identifies and discusses the intersection of technology, sustainability and development in sub-Saharan Africa. Reading over the site's archives is like reading a checklist for leapfrog development. (Thanks, Emeka, for telling me about this site. Great work!)

    More of a traditional news site, aggregates headlines and information about the continent in both English and French. The main site covers general news, but it also has three subsections: Biztech (focusing on building up Africa's business and technology infrastructure), Peace Africa (covering military and peacemaking issues), and Sustainable Africa (encompassing water, energy, health, agriculture, and the environment). Like Timbuktu Chronicles, the headlines on the various AllAfrica pages are a good reminder that the tools and ideas for building a better world are here, and we need to make use of them.

    August 5, 2004

    Talking Books in Afghanistan

    Near Near Future points us to the US Department of Health and Human Services partnering with (aptly enough) LeapFrog, Inc., to make cheap electronic talking books for the women of Afghanistan (80% of whom are illiterate) in order to provide health information:

    Developed jointly by HHS and LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc., the 42-page interactive books deliver important basic health information through state-of-the-art audio and point and touch technology. Books are available in both of Afghanistan's two major languages Dari and Pashto. [...] The book allows users to point to pictures, then the book speaks to the user incorporating a literacy tool with health information.


    The book presents more than 350 items of recorded information concerning 19 personal health subjects. Basic health information covered includes diet, childhood immunization, pregnancy, breastfeeding, sanitation and water boiling, treating injuries and burns, and preventing disease. The books convey everyday household situations, as well as information specific to child and reproductive health. LeapFrog's patented LeapPad technology brings the health information to life through stories that convey the basic health lessons for the readers.

    2,000 will be distributed to Afghan households and medical facilities to determine usability and behavioral shifts. This initial dissemination will shape the subsequent distribution of the full 20,000 book project. LeapFrog, Inc. has a more detailed press release about the project here (PDF), where they emphasize that "Women will be encouraged to use the books when they visit the clinics, especially as they wait to see health professionals."

    I must admit to decidedly mixed feelings about this program. The LeapPad devices are undoubtedly rugged, and while they're used for children in the US, that doesn't mean that the localized information-for-the-illiterate versions would be seen as childish or a toy. But each device requires 4 AA batteries (at least the consumer version does, and based on the press releases, I don't think the Afghan version will differ); without power, the LeapPads are heavy plastic shells for slim paper books. Given the existing infrastructure problems in Afghanistan, the assumption that batteries will be readily available -- even to clinics -- is not necessarily warranted. A better solution might have been to add wind-up power to the devices, a technology which already exists for radios (which have a similar power draw).

    August 9, 2004

    Leapfrog Updates

    Three links for those of you interested in the accelerating pace of developing world technological change, and the environmental/social effects thereof:

  • Ken Novak points to a November report from All4Engineers about the start of a new biodiesel production facility in India, supported by DaimlerChrysler, using the regionally common Jatropha plant. The Jatropha biodiesel was successfully tested in April. (Added bonus: the website of an Indian biodiesel enthusiast.)
  • Also from Ken Novak: The demonstration of a fuel cell designed to provide home power for rural electrification in Latin America. Sufficient power for a home would come from a device not much larger than a shoebox, running on sugar cane-derived ethanol.
  • Finally, a useful and interesting resource: SciDevNet provides "news, views and information about science, technology and the developing world." Not all good news, of course, but a clearinghouse of reports covering everything from biodiversity to indigenous knowledge to HIV/AIDS. For those of us interested in the notion of leapfrogging, SciDevNet is definitely worth adding to the list of news sources. No RSS feed available, sadly, but they do have a weekly newsletter recapping top stories.

  • August 23, 2004

    China As Solar Tech Resource for Developing World

    This could be big news.

    SciDev.Net reports that China plans to train 10,000 technicians from the developing world on the deployment and use of solar power technologies over the next five years.

    Describing the plans, Xi Wenhua, director of both the Institute of Natural Energy (INE) and the China Solar Energy Information Centre, told SciDev.Net the training will include programmes on small-scale solar power generation and solar-powered heating and irrigation.


    According to Xi, China has some of the most advanced and practical solar energy technologies of any developing country. While admitting that China's solar energy technologies are less efficient than those of Germany, Japan and the United States, he adds that the cost of producing them is much lower than in industrialised countries.

    The costs of solar technologies continue to drop in China as it pushes forward in its plan to get 5% of the country's power from solar within ten years. But the efficiency and cost of the solar power systems may be secondary to the relationships being built between China and these various developing nations in the realm of alternative power. Remember the observation in last week's post about BusinessWeek: Someone is going to make a lot of money off of the response to global warming and the shift away from fossil fuels. China is positioning itself to be that someone not by trying to skim the cream of American, Japanese, and European markets, but by becoming the business partner of choice for the myriad nations that will need power to support development but don't have an existing fossil fuel-based power infrastructure already deeply entrenched.

    The value to both China and the developing nations is evident: China gets larger markets for its solar power systems and wraps up a technology relationship with these nascent markets which could last decades, while the developing countries get experience with useful technology and the beginnings of a power infrastructure well-suited for the increasingly diverse and distributed nature of 21st century electricity networks.

    September 9, 2004

    Solar Powered Schools

    The BBC reports that the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, via the Uttar Pradesh Education for All Project, will be supplying solar power systems for rural village schools in order to run computer systems.

    A further 1,000 computers are to be purchased this year for village schools, but most of these will not work because there is no power available.

    "In the present situation of power supply we are not sure that electricity will be available in rural schools for computers," said GB Patnaik from the Alternative Energy Department.

    "To overcome this, we have drawn a scheme to arrange solar energy for these computers."

    Solar power is already in use in Uttar Pradesh for a variety of purposes.

    As authorities in the education and alternative energy departments try to arrange funds, some farmers who have solar pumps for irrigation are making efforts to use this natural and clean energy source for other purposes.

    So far, solar energy has been used for cooking, heating water, light and running tube wells.


    Government regulations say solar pumps should be used for irrigation purposes only. But other farmers and youths are inventing all kinds of new uses of solar energy, generating employment and additional income.

    One Umari villager in the Barabanki district is charging batteries to run TVs in rural areas, which gives him an extra income of $3.50 (£2) a day.

    Farmer Sharmail Singh has dug a pond near his solar pump in his farmhouse, which is used for fisheries and drinking water for buffalos. Solar pumps provide light in the night via a battery.

    India, like China, appears to be embracing solar quite enthusiastically. It will be interesting to see if India shifts from becoming a solar power consumer to becoming a solar power innovator.

    September 14, 2004

    "Developing Nations" Creative Commons License

    The Creative Commons group has announced a new license model: the "Developing Nations" license. This allows creators to make their works available for attributed distribution in the developing world, while still retaining all copyright control in high-income countries. Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons founder, says:

    The Developing Nations license allows, for the first time, any copyright holder in the world to participate first-hand in reforming global information policy. The fact is that most of the world's population is simply priced out of developed nations' publishing output. To authors, that means an untapped readership. To economists, it means "deadweight loss." To human rights advocates and educators, it is a tragedy. The Developing Nations license is designed to address all three concerns.

    The license was designed by IP expert Jaime Love: "The new license makes it easier to expand access to knowledge and support development. It is a tool to make the resource-poor information-rich."

    September 22, 2004

    A Leapfrog Panoply

    SciDev.Net -- which focuses on the intersection of science/technology and the developing world -- has an impressive number of stories today perfect for Leapfrog Nations. Rather than dribble them out one at a time, here's the whole set for your leapfrogging pleasure. The SciDev.Net posts are short summaries of longer articles from regional media, so be sure to follow the links.

  • India-Tanzania Scientific Collaboration.
    Hailing India's technological prowess, [Tanzanian President] Mkapa said it was an inspiration and a guide for Tanzania's own social, economic and scientific development. He added that Indian intermediate technologies were well-tested and were very much needed in less developed countries.

  • Not to be outdone, Jordan-Pakistan Scientific Collaboration
    The eight projects will include work in the fields of biotechnology, agriculture, renewable energy and pharmaceuticals. The two countries will also consider additional projects in these and other fields, including nanotechnology.

  • Perhaps they'll get support from... the Islamic Development Bank Science Network
    Mohamed Ghazali, head of the IDB scholarship programme office, through which the funds for the network would be administered, says its proposed activities will include publication of a science magazine, which has the working title Science and Development.

    The publication would seek to promote cooperation between scientists, as well as disseminate scientific information, including the results of studies monitoring the development and socio-economic impact of science and technology in member countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

  • South Africa's Science and Technology Minister Announces 'Biotechnology Roadmap'
    The policy calls for the establishment of world-class genomics capability, with at least one national facility and a number of centres of excellence. It also emphasises the need to develop cell and tissue culture technologies, such as cloning, stem cell research, plant tissue culture and gene banks.


    Mangena also identifies needs related to research infrastructure for the design, testing and manufacture of drugs and vaccines. Among these are improved biosensors, particularly those designed to monitor metabolite levels in humans and animals, and bioassays to identify compounds in screening programmes.

  • And finally, Costa Rica Opens Latin America's First Nanotechnology Center
    The laboratory will begin working on two projects. One will research, design and construct microsensors, a field of research in which Diaz was awarded Costa Rica's national science prize in 1999.

    The other project will research and construct carbon nanotubules, small cylindrical structures used in the manufacture of advanced electronics materials. On this project, Lanotec will collaborate with the Costa Rican chemist Jeannette Benavides, who is director of the carbon nanotubules project at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre based in Maryland, United States.

    Anyone who thinks the future is being created only in the labs of the richest nations is in for quite a surprise.

  • September 25, 2004

    Wind Micropower in Kenya

    WorldChanging ally Alternative Energy Blog has an absolutely kickass story today from about two men, Philip Osula and Mwacharo Guyo, who providing low-cost home micropower in Kenya through wind-powered generators.

    A beneficiary of the technology, Jeff Odera, a research scientist living in Nairobi, says he has found the technology reliable and cheaper than using a diesel generator. "It is silent, has less maintenance cost, is reliable, and no fuel is used," says Odera.


    "The power needed in the rural homesteads is little, thus one generator could serve 10 households according to our research," he says.

    It is estimated that, 75 per cent of Kenyans have no access to grid electricity due to high connectivity cost, the subsequent bills and maintenance costs. "I believe this generator will fill this gap for those who need electricity," says Osula

    This is why renewable/alternative energy systems are an integral and inevitable part of a developing world leapfrog. Unlike power systems which are useless without gas or oil trucked in across long distances or rough (or no) roads, wind and solar never run out of "fuel." And as innovations in the developed world drive costs down for more efficient and reliable designs, it's places like Kenya (and India and Brazil and...) which will ultimately benefit most.

    October 25, 2004

    Sustainable Energy in the Developing World

    In the comments on Vinay's post about flashlights, WorldChanging ally George Mokray gave some details about a talk at MIT by Kate Steel about the challenges of integrating photovoltaics into African rural villages. I thought the comment was worth highlighting, so got his permission to repost it on the front page:

    Kate Steel spoke about solar electricity in Africa at MIT this week. The notes from an earlier presentation on sustainable energy in developing countries, with a focus on south Africa is available online at (Ed: the other lecture notes for MIT's Spring 2004 Sustainable Energy class also look very interesting.)

    As one example, she said more rural people in Kenya get electricity from PV than the grid but there's no coordination between the grid and the distribution of PV. She is endeavoring to do a systems analysis of the problem. Furthermore, there is no linkage between PV and existing rural businesses: grain milling, restaurants, brewery/bars, snack shops/kiosks, satellite TVs, and mobile phones. The only business that can conceivably be all or predominantly solar is the mobile phone business. There are no warranties or insurance in rural Africa so development experiments can't afford to fail. ITDG (Intermediate Technology Development Group) and Ignite Innovations are two groups that have developed solar PV lanterns for rural use but the price point is still too high, over $100 per.

    Urbanization may diminish the need for rural electricity in the near future; in any case, the greater problem is the indoor pollution and biomass use from even the newer, more efficient stoves. Mali will exhaust all its biomass in 60 years at present rate. 70% of all the energy used in Africa is biomass. The crucial problem is less reading light and a radio/TV/computer than a safe, efficient, and non-polluting stove. If we can do that, some space heating (or a hearth) would be nice.

    I asked about solar stoves but Ms Steel said that they weren't being adopted. It would take no other, ready alternative in order for them to be generally used. LPG is the next step up from wood, charcoal, and dried dung. Electric stoves is what the people want in part because that is what they perceive the developed countries as using.

    December 13, 2004

    Lessons From Leapfrog Biotech

    This week's Economist looks at the growing level of innovation in the health-related biotechnology industries of developing nations. No longer simply copying existing drugs and treatments, nations such as China, India, Cuba and Brazil have begun to make substantial contributions to global bioscience. Biotechnology is an ideal leapfrog pathway, as it doesn't require a substantial existing industrial base, only well-educated scientists -- education acquired both in the West and, increasingly, at home. It also is a useful pathway for dealing with one of the problems of development: populations afflicted by serious diseases, yet not rich enough to be seen as an attractive market for American and European pharmaceutical companies.

    Developing world biotech groups have come up with innovative treatments for (among others) Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Chagas Disease, and AIDS, with the research sometimes based on local knowledge of indigenous plants and traditional treatments. Some of the research is government driven, but local entrepreneurism is an important part of biotech innovation. This may present some difficulties down the road; the rapid growth of the developing world biomedicine industry is triggering some concern for health activists such as Médecins Sans Frontières. This is not because the drugs and treatments aren't useful -- they are, critically so -- but because a number of these biotech leapfrog nations are starting to adopt stricter patent regimes, potentially restricting the ability to produce cheap copies of new medicines produced elsewhere. A conflict between the principles of South-South science transfer and the desire for WTO membership seems to be on the horizon. It will be interesting to see if the growing "open source" biotech movement gains any ground in these nations.

    The Economist piece is based on the December issue of Nature Biotechnology, which surveys the state of health-related biotechnology research in Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea. (PDFs of each of these articles are available at no charge, although a multi-step free subscription to the website is required.) Each article looks at examples of recent health biotech developments, as well as the lessons each state teaches to other developing nations looking at local bioscience efforts. Nature's overall conclusions are worth listing, because they apply to leapfrogging efforts beyond biomedicine:

  • Focus on local needs. The greatest successes come from solving important indigenous problems.
  • Success is expressed in many ways. Don't assume that the developing nation must follow paths established by the developed states, or even by other developing nation innovators.
  • Build on educational and health systems. Good local education systems are the heart of successful innovation-based development.

  • December 15, 2004

    Leapfrog 101

    frog.jpgI've been asked twice in the last two days to give some examples and explain the logic behind the "leapfrog" concept. It occurs to me that many WorldChanging readers may be wondering about what leapfrogging is, and why we talk about it so much. Here's the argument:

    "Leapfrogging" is the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps. We see this happening all around us: you don't need a 20th century industrial base to build a 21st century bio/nano/information economy.

    Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of "progress," leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies. Leapfrogging can happen accidentally (such as when the only systems around for adoption are better than legacy systems elsewhere), situationally (such as the adoption of decentralized communication for a sprawling, rural countryside), or intentionally (such as policies promoting the installation of WiFi and free computers in poor urban areas).

    The best-known example of leapfrogging is the adoption of mobile phones in the developing world. It's easier and faster to put in cellular towers in rural and remote areas than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding. As we've noted, mobile phone use already exceeds land line use in India, and by 2007, 150 million out of the 200 million phone lines there will be cellular. There are similar examples from all over the world.

    Examples of leapfrogging other than with mobile phones abound. A few, pulled from the WorldChanging archives, include:

    Continue reading "Leapfrog 101" »

    Rural Computing in Peru

    The BBC reports on the Agricultural Information Project for Farmers of the Chancay-Huaral Valley, 80 kilometers north of Lima, Peru. Combining computer training, agricultural information, and wireless access, the 14 telecenters will be open to the region's 13,000 rural inhabitants and 18,000 students.

    The project is notable for a number of reasons. All of the software used is free/open source, community training has been attended by men and women equally, and each of the 14 telecenters cost only $3,200. The driving force behind the project is to get farmers communicating with each other, sharing knowledge and ideas:

    One of the key elements of the project is the Agricultural Information System, with its flagship website.

    There, farmers can find the prices for local produce, as well as information on topics ranging from plague prevention to the latest farming techniques.

    The system also helps the inhabitants of the Chancay-Huaral Valley to organise their vital irrigation systems.

    "Water is the main element that unites them all. It is a precious element in Peru's coastal areas, because it is so scarce, and therefore it is necessary to have proper irrigation systems to make the most of it," Mr Saldarriaga told the BBC News website.

    The information network also allows farmers to look beyond their own region, and share experiences with other colleagues from the rest of Peru and even around the world.

    This appears to be a textbook example of how to integrate information networks in the developing world -- the inclusion of training, the use of free/open source software, and (most importantly) the emphasis on communication among the users, not just consumption of centralized information and entertainment. It's a pilot project, so organizers are watching closely to see how well it works before implementing it elsewhere in Peru. Fortunately, it sounds like they've taken the correct first steps.

    (Via SmartMobs)

    December 18, 2004

    Solar Powered Water Purification

    Alt-Energy Blog points us to an article about the use of solar powered water purifiers on the island of Kulhudhuffushi, in the Maldives. Starting in January, 2005, a set of off-grid systems will start producing bottled drinking water for the island's inhabitants; the government of the Maldives has identified twenty some islands as candidates for these systems.

    The units use solar power to draw the water up from brackish sources below the surface and pass it through a system of reverse osmosis units to remove all pathogens, metals and dissolved solids, using just 20% of the power of a standard reverse osmosis unit.

    Each unit can produce 500 litres of water per day from a single 100 Watt (1 square metre) solar panel.

    Solar Energy Systems Infrastructure, the company making the systems for the Maldive government, plans on introducing the technology to other off-grid islands in Indonesia and the Philippines. One would presume that being on an island is not a prerequisite for the use of this technology; any location with a combination of brackish water and abundant sunlight would suffice. As access to clean water is far and away the most important development issue around, leapfrog technology like this could indeed be worldchanging.

    December 20, 2004

    Energy Leapfrogging

    reap.jpgOur friend James at the Alternative Energy Blog gives us a good example of the interconnection between leapfrogging and sustainability. Cambodia has the lowest level of electrification in Southeast Asia, with only 13 percent of rural citizens and 54 percent of urban residents with electricity. For a variety of geographic reasons, building a centralized power grid is an enormously expensive proposition. Instead, Cambodia is embarking on an ambitious plan to bring electricity to 100% of its rural population by 2020 by using a decentralized grid -- and by relying on micro- and pico-hydroelectricity, biomass and solar photovoltaics.

    The goals are outlined in the draft Cambodian Renewable Energy Action Plan (REAP). While the plan is not yet complete, some details are available at the Cambodia Renewable Energy & Rural Electrification website. REAP targets for the next five years include:

  • 6 MW (around 5%) of electrical supply capacity from Renewable Energy sources;
  • 100,000 households served;
  • 10,000 solar (PV) home systems;
  • The creation of profitable, demand-driven renewable electricity markets.

    Energy Probe Research Foundation, a Canadian environmental group, undertook a detailed analysis (free subscription required) of Cambodia's renewable plans late last year. REAP's key conclusions read like an energy leapfrog checklist:

  • Continue reading "Energy Leapfrogging" »

    December 31, 2004

    Energy Leapfrogging in Morocco

    morocco.jpg(Note for new readers: We'll continue to post tsunami-related analysis today and in coming days, but we're going to start shifting back towards the broader scope of issues we cover here at WorldChanging. We hope you find our coverage of models, tools, and ideas for building a better future interesting and useful.)

    The Alternative Energy Blog points us to a set of articles at about the current status of renewable energy in Morocco. We've noted before the potential for abundant use of wind and solar power in the developing world, and Morocco seems to be taking tentative steps towards greater reliance on renewable energy. As with other developing countries, solar power is of particular value in rural electrification; it currently is 3 percent of the rural electricity mix, but is on track to be 8-10 percent by 2007-2008. Solar is also being used in urban settings, with an emphasis on solar water heating. The number of solar water heaters jumped from 20,738 in 1998 to 111,332 in 2004. Part of the jump in use can be attributed to a 1999 UNDP-coordinated program supporting the deployment of solar heaters and solar power collectors.

    The big renewable push, however, is in wind power. Morocco is ideally-located for wind farms, and Moroccan wind farms generated 203 gigawatt-hours in 2003, up from 194 GWH in 2002 and just under 64 GWH in 2000. (Pictures of one of the Moroccan wind farms, run by a company called Sahara Wind, can be found here.) Two more wind farms are scheduled to come online in 2006 and 2007.

    January 3, 2005

    India: Nanotech, Leapfrogging, and Irreverent Science

    Nanotechnology has all of the earmarks of being a key leapfrog pathway. Advances rely more on brainpower than industrial might, and the economic potential of molecular manufacturing -- a form of nanotech that has not yet arrived, but is getting closer rapidly -- is astounding. It's no surprise, then, that not only are developing nations putting money into nanotechnology research, they're doing it with an eye towards longer-term payoffs, not simply nanomaterial production. New Kerala has an article about Indian Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal's announcement of a new nanotechnology "mission" for the Indian government. India has already invested Rs 50 crore (about $11.5 million, if I got my Indian number translation correct) in a new Centre of Nano Bio-technology, located in Chandigarh.

    Sibal's statement accompanying the nanotechnology mission announcement is worth quoting in full:

    "While the scientific community will make efforts to provide solutions in resolving issues. I hope to provide the necessary enabling environment for you.

    "For the scientific community I pledge to do the following. Bring autonomy in their functioning, for only those who are irreverent of the past in the scientific sense, will guide the future.

    "Invest in Human Resource Development and expand the skilled human resource base to meet the needs of technology for industry, academia and research and development institutions.

    "Provide a suitable regulatory mechanism for an effective bio-technology policy.

    "Strengthen the management system for intellectual property rights including awareness, modernization of the patent office; providing for an effective system of enforcement of such rights and helping educational institutions and small industries in protecting their intellectual property.

    "Provide for an effective public private partnership in R&D and technology based industries.

    "Set National Missions in nano-technology, transport intelligence systems, technology development for judicial re-engineering. Eradication of malnutrition and discovery of curative and preventive medicine for malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis."

    That sounds like laying the groundwork for one hell of a leap.

    (Via Howard Lovy's Nanobot)

    January 6, 2005

    More Energy Leapfrogging

    I'm really happy that WorldChanging Ally James at the Alternative Energy Blog is back in full-scale blogging action. Alt-Energy has become the number one place to find good energy leapfrogging stories, and today's offerings are no exception. Two more developing nations are on track to adopt renewable and alternative technology solutions for recurring energy production and distribution problems.

    Tanzania, located on the east coast of Africa, is considering the use of wave and tidal power to generate electricity for the island of Zanzibar, replacing old gas turbine generators. Zanzibar currently draws about 31 megawatts of power, well within the capacity of ocean power systems. The current power generation operates at a significant loss; the coastline's strong tides and currents could make this renewable option a better economic choice.


    Continue reading "More Energy Leapfrogging" »

    January 10, 2005

    Innovation and Development

    mdg.jpgThe United Nations Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation thinks there's a better way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

    Three years in the making, their new report, "Innovation: Applying Knowledge In Development" (PDF), is a weighty tome, coming in at just under 200 pages. It takes a hard look at the relationship between efforts in scientific research (and technological innovation) and the breadth of economic development. I'm not done reading it, but I can already tell it will be an important contribution to the debate on the best approaches to development. I can also already see some places where it has blind spots.

    The few news stories about the report (none, as far as I can find, in the major US media) emphasize its key conclusion, one with which we are in full agreement: scientists and technology experts should play a role in steering a nation's development as large as, if not larger than, the role played by economists. This is backed up in the report by good historical evidence. Nations where a scientific advisor plays a key role in government decision-making have a better track record of development.

    Many of the present structures arise from outdated economic thinking, [Task Force leader Dr. Calestous] Juma says. ''It was thought that the main sources of economic change were land, labour and capital,'' he told IPS. ''But now science and technology is the driving force behind economic transition. And changes in the world of science and technology are coming much faster than in the world of land, labour and capital.''


    ''Putting science at the centre of government decision-taking is politically significant both in the developing and the industrialised world,'' Juma said. [...] But science can deliver quick and more dramatic benefits in the developing world. ''Jamaica has a well established mechanism of scientific advice to the prime minister's office,'' Juma said. ''In human health Jamaica now records the same longevity as industrialised countries because of the use of science in the health system.''

    The report focuses on four key recommendations:

  • The creation of science and technology advisory groups at the national level;
  • Greater investment in local institutions of higher learning, and their greater involvement in the service of community and national development;
  • The strengthening of programs to encourage and support business development;
  • Greater investment in infrastructure -- communication, information, energy, transit -- as the underpinnings of technological innovation.

    The report, at least upon first review, has two glaring omissions.

  • Continue reading "Innovation and Development" »

    January 17, 2005

    South Asian Traditional Knowledge Digital Libraries reports that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation participants have begun to draft a regional Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TDKL): an information base of traditional medicine, foods, architecture and culture to fight patent claims from rich countries:

    Continue reading "South Asian Traditional Knowledge Digital Libraries" »

    January 21, 2005

    Leapfrogging in the News

    torstar.jpgThe Toronto Star had two excellent articles about leapfrogging this last weekend, both worth checking out.

    The first, "Leapfrogging the technology gap," by Alexandra Samuel, is an introduction to the concept with a particular focus on information and communication technologies. Few of the examples will come as surprises to WorldChanging readers, but the article brings together cases and observations in a useful way. Of particular note is the suggestion that leapfrog development is a result of the correlation of infrastructure improvements and economic growth. While the article discusses only telecom and (to a lesser extent) computing, the idea applies more generally. Most of the leapfrog development projects we've discussed at WorldChanging have focused on infrastructure -- energy, water, and transportation, along with telecom and Internet.

    Another Star article from the same day underscores this point. "Three sectors to watch," by Tyler Hamilton, takes a look at "technologies that are helping nations jump ahead." It too gives a quick explanation of leapfrogging, but then moves in to examples across a familiar spectrum of technologies: water treatment; transportation and energy; and computing & communications. The article hits the important WorldChanging notes -- distributed generation of renewable energy, Linux and open source software as leapfrog catalysts, even LED lights.

    Leapfrogging is definitely a meme on the rise. We didn't invent the term, but we're happy to have helped give it a push.

    Where else have you seen the idea show up?

    February 4, 2005


    Agricultural biotechnology, when done wrong, has the potential to be environmentally, scientifically and economically disastrous. The negative scenario is grim and familiar: monoculture crops, with insufficient testing for complex interactions with other organisms, owned by giant biotech companies paranoid about intellectual property ("genetic rights management," as I've termed it). But genetic modification techniques are not inherently evil, and when applied with wisdom, can have positive results. Alex has mentioned this more upbeat scenario in a few posts, but it's useful to see it in action. And, thanks to the Timbuktu Chronicles, we now have an excellent example: NERICA, or New Rice for Africa.

    Developed by Dr. Monty Jones of the West Africa Rice Development Agency (WARDA), NERICA is a hybrid strain of rice, developed using biotech by West African researchers, which is on its way to bettering the health of West and Central African citizens, restoring agricultural sustainability, and improving the economics of food importation for the region.

    Continue reading "NERICA" »

    February 7, 2005

    South-South Science and the MDGs

    The Millennium Development Goals are, at their root, a checklist of what it will take to meet the basic living needs of every person on the planet. They call for clean water, literacy, elimination of starvation, and the like -- simple, readily achievable goals. If the MDG project leaders had their way, it wouldn't cost the developed world much to see these goals implemented, around fifty cents for every $100 of developed world income.

    In the meantime, however, developing nations are looking for ways to achieve these goals on their own. Science is key to this, especially science done cooperatively between developing nations (aka "South-South science"). Medical biotechnology, in particular, may prove to be a key to the success of the MDGs.

    Continue reading "South-South Science and the MDGs" »

    February 14, 2005

    Nanotechnology and the Developing World

    Image Courtesy DOE/NRELThe Meridian Institute, a strategic solutions consultancy, is running the Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor, a project intended to trigger a conversation about the ways in which nanotechnology can be applied to the problems of development and poverty. Anyone may participate, and I encourage WorldChanging readers to do so. Meridian has prepared a short (29 page) document outlining the key issues in some detail. The Global Dialogue project would prefer if you signed up for the questionnaire prior to downloading the document, but the paper itself encourages broad distribution.

    The Global Dialogue project is very much a WorldChanging-style discussion:

    The goals of the GDNP are to:
  • Raise awareness about the implications of nanotechnology for the poor;
  • Close the gaps within and between sectors of society to develop an action plan that addresses opportunities and risks; and
  • Identify ways that science and technology can play an appropriate role in the development process.
  • The Global Dialogue will feed into a large-scale, multi-stakeholder meeting in April to address the issues raised. is also covering the Dialogue, and has prepared an excellent intro to the question of whether nanotechnology can be applied to development issues. For me, however, the answer is already crystal clear:

    Nanotech may be the ultimate leapfrog technology.

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology and the Developing World" »

    February 15, 2005

    Why Leapfrogging Matters

    Our post last week about the $100 Computer generated quite a bit of good discussion. Implicit in some of the comments, however, was the question of what use people living in the developing world would have for a seemingly-frivolous bit of information technology. Smart Mobs author and WorldChanging ally Howard Rheingold, in his new piece for The Feature, has an answer: market information.

    Markets aren't only for the rich. Certain kinds of information, however, convey advantages to those have the right data at the right time. Until recently, only the relatively wealthy had swift access to relevant market information. The cost of technologies that connect people with economically useful price data has declined steadily, however, from the tycoons of the early 20th century with their home ticker-tape machines to the day-traders of recent decades with their desktop PCs, and now, to farmers in developing countries who are beginning to own mobile phones.


    Continue reading "Why Leapfrogging Matters" »

    February 17, 2005

    GSM 4 3B

    c117.jpgThe GSM Association, the industry organization for manufacturers of the most widely-used variety of mobile phones, wants to get mobile phones into the hands of the three billion or so people who live in areas covered by GSM networks, but who don't have a phone of any kind. Cost is the main barrier -- the cost of the service, local taxes, and cost of the unit itself. The GSMA intends to tackle all three, but their first initiative is the one over which they have the most control: the cost of the phone hardware.

    The Emerging Markets Handset program asked 18 different phone vendors to submit designs for phones with an end-user cost of under $40, with a longer term goal of sub-$30 (this in comparison to typical cost at present of close to $100). The GSMA chose the Motorola C114 platform as its reference phone; Motorola will begin production this Spring. The initial production target is six million handsets in the first six months, ramping up from there as production efficiencies allow for even lower phone prices. Nine emerging market mobile phone operators (covering much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East) have agreed to participate in the program, as well, providing lower cost service to match the phone. ("Emerging markets" are defined as having a below-average rating on the World Bank's GNP per capita index and a mobile phone penetration of under 50%; there are about 125 such countries.)

    As noted here recently, mobile phones are particularly useful in the developing world, as they provide ready access to market information otherwise unavailable in rural and small village communities. Any disaster information/alert system relying on mobile phones and SMS will benefit from the emerging market handsets, too. And in a world where young adults often have to leave their home communities (and sometimes home countries) to find work, we shouldn't underestimate the value of simple communication.

    February 19, 2005

    New Scientist on India

    nsindiacover.jpgThe latest issue of New Scientist (cover date Feb 19-25) has a special collection of stories on India as an upcoming knowledge and technology powerhouse. The stories cover topics ranging from biotechnology and GM crops to the Indian space agency and satellites, with pieces about information technology, mobile communications, and energy along the way. Unfortunately, while the stories are all online, most are available only to subscribers. Two of the articles can be read for free, however, and even if you're not going to run out and buy a copy of the magazine, these are worthwhile reading.

    The first, "Vaccines for pennies," is a short piece on a pair of Indian ex-pats who wanted to bring an inexpensive new vaccine for hepatitis B to India, but couldn't get venture funding in the US to produce the drug. SmithKline Beecham sold a vaccine for $20 a shot; US venture capitalists couldn't believe there could be a solution for far less. By returning to India and setting up shop there, the company they founded, Bharat Biotech, "now sells the vaccine in developing countries for 28 cents a shot."

    More telling, however, are the statements from the Bharat founders used to close the article:

    Krishna Ella says he wants to tackle third-world diseases neglected by the multinationals, a sentiment often voiced by Indian entrepreneurs who believe scientists have a duty to the poor.

    "It feels very satisfying," says Suchitra Ella. "We are on top of the world because we are doing something that is really required for countries like India."

    Continue reading "New Scientist on India" »

    February 22, 2005

    Energy Leapfrogging

    Implicit in the idea of leapfrogging is a move not just to a more technologically advanced system, but to a better system: cleaner, more sustainable, less damaging to the environment and more in line with the needs of the local communities. Leapfrog systems are often distributed and decentralized, as these approaches often provide more flexibility and more local control. But there isn't a single path to leapfrogging; regions will adopt technologies which fit their needs and resources. Three examples of developing world adoption of new energy technologies make this clear:

    Continue reading "Energy Leapfrogging" »

    February 23, 2005

    Electricity, Kyoto, and the African Sun

    Recent developments in photovoltaics tantalize those of us in the West, allowing us to imagine a future of energy-producing fabrics and widely distributed power grids. Solar is seen to be one of the many parts of an emerging, renewable energy system, potentially embedded into our material goods and contributing to our efforts to build a bright green lifestyle. If new solar developments are slow to bring down prices, that'll just mean wind and wave power take on a greater load.

    But in the developing world, Africa in particular, solar has the potential to be a life-saver, providing clean energy in the remotest of locations. With no moving parts, solar panels are harder to make but simpler and cheaper to maintain than traditional diesel-powered generators, needing only batteries to store the power accumulated over the course of a sunny day. Their expense, however, remains a problem; if new solar developments are slow to bring down prices, efforts in the developing world to shift aggressively to renewable energy sources could fall by the wayside. The Kyoto treaty, however, may provide a solution.

    Continue reading "Electricity, Kyoto, and the African Sun" »

    February 24, 2005

    Sachs on India

    Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs is, if anything, controversial. Reviled by some (see, for example, the fifth comment down, from "trouble"), praised by others, he has moved from being a market-focused proponent of "shock therapy" for nations in economic trouble to the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on Millennium Development Goals, and a passionate proponent of global efforts to eliminate poverty.

    Indian business magazine The Smart Manager interviewed Sachs, and his discussion of India's current situation and likely potential touches on many issues we talk about frequently at WorldChanging, such as urbanization, the environment, rural technology, and the course of Indian development. The entire conversation is worth reading, regardless of which Sachs camp you fall into. I've selected some particularly interesting quotes for the extended entry.

    Continue reading "Sachs on India" »

    February 25, 2005

    Thinking Big

    CongoRiverMap.jpgCould Africa build its development on renewable energy? Conditions in much of Africa are ideal for the deployment of solar power, but other technologies beckon. South African power company Eskom believes that the hydroelectric potential of the Congo River may be Africa's best bet. Not only could Congo River power supply African development, they argue, excess electricity could be sold to Europe. While the plan itself is unlikely to move forward, it raises a larger question about Africa's role in the global energy economy.

    "We calculate that hydroelectricity from the Congo could generate more than 40,000 megawatts, enough to power Africa's industrialization with the possibility of selling the surplus to southern Europe," Reuel Khoza, chairman of the South African-based power company Eskom Holdings, said at UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. [...]

    The scheme, which will initially focus on the Inga Rapids, aims to supply surplus electricity to places like Spain and Italy via an inter-connector under the Mediterranean Sea after satisfying the power requirements needed for Africa's industrialization.

    This proposal is little more than that for now (Eskom doesn't even link to it on their website), but it points to an interesting scenario. If transmission line efficiency can be sufficiently boosted (likely using carbon nanotubes), could we see a world where regions with optimal characteristics for renewable generation take on a central role in the global grid? This is at once the polar opposite of the heavily-distributed smart grid model and an interesting potential partner -- imagine coupling renewable powerhouse regions (solar in Africa and Australia, wind in the American plains, etc.) with supplemental local and micro-generation all over the globe.

    The biggest problem with the Eskom plan, from an environmental perspective, is the potential greenhouse impact of flooding sections of the jungle by building hydroelectric dams . As we noted yesterday, decaying plants in dam-flooded basins produce large amounts of CO2 and methane; the problem is worse in the equatorial regions. (On top of that, as a commenter points out, the resulting loss of biodiversity would be enormous.) Perhaps a better plan for exploiting the power of the Congo River would be the use of tidal or river-flow generators. I wonder if anyone has looked into that option...

    March 9, 2005

    Mobile Phones and Development

    The BBC reports about a new study, undertaken by Vodafone and a group called the Center for Economic Policy Research, which claims that mobile phone use is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, and that those countries in Africa with the greatest use of mobile phone also saw higher growth rates. The Vodafone report is available here (PDF); fair warning, it's full of fairly dense academic economics prose. Read on for some of its observations and some discussion of its conclusions.

    Continue reading "Mobile Phones and Development" »

    March 17, 2005

    Digital Solidarity Fund

    We've talked quite a bit about the value of information and communication technology as a tool for development. While certainly not more important than basic literacy, health and nutrition efforts, ICT can play a significant role in both local empowerment and accelerating economic development, especially mobile and free/open source technologies. A recurring question, however, is how to pay for such tools; while proposals to bring down the cost of individual devices can be helpful, broader-based efforts may also be necessary.

    That's the goal of the Digital Solidarity Fund.

    Continue reading "Digital Solidarity Fund" »

    March 24, 2005

    Green Car China

    Wired magazine's April 2005 cover story is hybrid cars, with several articles of varying WorldChanging interest. We mentioned the main piece on Toyota, "Rise of the Green Machine," yesterday; the comparison of current hybrid vehicles (written by the founder of a Detroit-based car website, so adjust your expectations accordingly) is also getting a bit of attention. But the most important article in the bunch has to be "China's Next Cultural Revolution," by Lisa Margonelli. It's an examination of China's oil dilemma (encapsulated in the quote, "When everyone can afford a car, you won't be able to drive.") and the push for a rapid move to fuel cell vehicles.

    Many of the themes the article touches on will be familiar to WorldChanging readers: questions about sustainable development; the need to look ahead to respond not just to current problems, but possibilities down the road; and the big one, opportunities for leapfrogging.

    Decades behind developed nations when it comes to supporting a car culture, China may actually benefit from its very backwardness. All those bicycles mean there isn't a cumbersome - and entrenched - gasoline infrastructure to stand in the way of the next big thing. That's why China hopes to eventually bypass the oil-based auto culture and go right to a hydrogen economy. "Some theorists believe China has an advantage with fuel cells because it has no resistance," says General Motors vice president David Chen as he attends to a Shanghai dignitary at Bibendum. "It's been cut off from the world for 30 years. It may be in a unique situation to leapfrog."

    Continue reading "Green Car China" »

    March 25, 2005

    Brazilian Microbe Bank

    One way to avoid biopiracy is to document a nation's cultural and environmental heritage. Traditional Knowledge libraries are a good step towards the former, and now Brazil has given us an example of the latter.

    The Brazilian Collection of Environmental and Industrial Microorganisms -- better known as the Brazilian Microbe Bank -- is a recently-opened repository of information about native microorganisms. The researchers in charge of the bank have collected detailed information on and examples of 700 types of microbes, with facilities for maintaining up to 12,000.

    The collection includes microorganisms originating in soil, water and plants in different Brazilian ecosystems, such as the Atlantic rainforest and the cerrado, a kind of savanna. Other specimens were isolated from petroleum reserves and oil fields.

    The Unicamp team also developed software for managing information about the microorganisms, such as their identity, place of origin, conditions needed to grow them in laboratory conditions, photographs and information on their genetic material.

    The bank is online (in Portuguese, the name is Coleção Brasileira de Microrganismos de Ambiente e Indústria, or CBMAI). The home page includes a button to switch to an English translation; unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work. Any Portuguese-speakers want to poke around the site and give us a first-hand account of what you find?

    March 29, 2005

    PC Conectado

    Use of Linux and other free/open source software projects continues to grow steadily in the developing world. Brazil, no stranger to Linux by any means, is taking the drive to F/OSS dominance another step further. The new PC Conectado plan, starting next month, will make Internet-connected PCs affordable to poor households -- and they'll run Linux.

    "For this program to be viable, it has to be with free software," said Sérgio Amadeu, president of Brazil's National Institute of Information Technology, the agency that oversees the government's technology initiatives. "We're not going to spend taxpayers' money on a program so that Microsoft can further consolidate its monopoly. It's the government's responsibility to ensure that there is competition, and that means giving alternative software platforms a chance to prosper."

    Buyers will be able to pay just under $25/month for 24 months for PC and Internet service; the Brazilian government expects up to a million participants in the program by the end of the year. The push to put Linux on the machines is coming under criticism from opposition politicians, and Microsoft continues to tout its feature-reduced "Windows Starter Edition" for the developing world. Not surprisingly, a fully-featured version of Linux is broadly considered more appealing than a stripped-down version of Windows.

    The New York Times piece seems to be the only English-language information currently available on PC Conectado. Any Brazilian readers (or Portuguese-speakers) want to tell us a bit more about the program?

    April 11, 2005

    Innovation and Development

    SciDev.Net has published a terrific set of articles looking at the relationship between innovation and development. Innovation doesn't just mean coming up with new ideas; innovation is coming up with applications of new ideas, or even new applications of old ideas. Innovation also has an element of interaction, as it's often a conversation between inventors (who have "codified knowledge" of the function of a new system or technology) and the users (who have "tacit knowledge" of how such systems and technologies fit into their lives and work).

    The key distinction between invention and innovation is this focus on use -- inventions are potential change, innovations are changes realized.

    Continue reading "Innovation and Development" »

    April 13, 2005

    Nanotechnology and Development

    nanomdg.jpgA new report, published in the latest edition of PLoS Medicine, lays out precisely how emerging nanotechnologies can help to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

    63 specialists around the world were asked by the Canadian Joint Centre for Bioethics to identify the ways in which nanotechnologies could be used in the developing world. The group ranked the potential of different applications, and linked them to five key MDG categories.

    We posed the following open-ended question: “Which do you think are the nanotechnologies most likely to benefit developing countries in the areas of water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy, and the environment in the next 10 years?” These areas were identified in the 2002 UN Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. We asked the panelists to answer this question using the following criteria derived from our previous Top Ten Biotechnologies study.

    Impact. How much difference will the technology make in improving water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy, and the environment in developing countries?
    Burden. Will it address the most pressing needs?
    Appropriateness. Will it be affordable, robust, and adjustable to settings in developing countries, and will it be socially, culturally, and politically acceptable?
    Feasibility. Can it realistically be developed and deployed in a time frame of ten years?
    Knowledge gap. Does the technology advance quality of life by creating new knowledge?
    Indirect benefits. Does it address issues such as capacity building and income generation that have indirect, positive effects on developing countries?

    The resulting list covers issues familiar to WorldChanging readers.

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology and Development" »

    April 14, 2005


    swera.jpgSWERA -- The Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment -- is a site from the UN Environment Program which serves as an information resource about (you guessed it) solar and wind energy resources in thirteen partner countries. Notably, all thirteen are in the developing world: Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya in Africa; Bangladesh, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka in Asia; Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in Latin America. The tools provided by the SWERA site range from maps and regional assessments to support for decision-making software and geospatial/GIS planning kits.

    The overall aim of SWERA is to bring sustainable energy approaches to developing countries through increased investment in renewable energy projects. The database and analytical tools developed through SWERA will help governments develop realistic energy policies and programmes that are based on sound knowledge of available renewable resources.

    SWERA doesn't try to fund projects or coordinate activities; rather, its purpose is to make the information available which will make those projects and activities possible in the developing world. The "About Solar and Wind" page is a good example of the site's value: a clear, structured set of links explaining the tools for measuring solar radiation, the models and satellite data available, and how to set up a ground measurement station. And while the thirteen participating nations are the focus of the data collection, the SWERA site also includes links to solar/wind assessments, tools and projects across the globe.

    This is one of the many UN programs quietly making a difference, even while higher-profile controversies rage.

    April 29, 2005


    nivo.jpgNdiyo is Swahili for "yes" -- and is also the name of a new non-profit organization set up to build and sell a low-cost network computer for the developing world. We've covered the question of how best to provide information services in low-income countries before, and I've argued that a beefed up mobile phone is a more reasonable course than a pared-down desktop. A big reason is that desktop computers, even pared-down ones, tend to be power-hungry and space intensive.

    Ndiyo solves one half of that problem. Their "Nivo" unit -- "network in, video out" (PDF) -- is a so-called "thin client" desktop drawing only about 5 watts of power (compared to over 100 watts for a typical desktop PC). In locations where the power supply is spotty, lower-consumption devices are at a distinct advantage. For the Nivo, the main power draw is the monitor. Traditional CRTs can draw 75 watts or more; with the far greener flat panel screens dropping dramatically in cost, a Nivo + LCD system could draw as little as 20-30 watts of power, total.

    The "thin client" model uses a single moderately powerful server splitting its time among a multitude of networked systems. Some data processing and the bulk of the storage is done on the server. Ndiyo units run a version of Linux along with a variety of free/open source Internet applications, all stored on the server. Thin clients have been available in the west for years, but never managed to replace PCs. Ndiyo believes that thin clients will do much better in places not already filled with networked PCs -- the lower cost and easier maintenance will be attractive for Internet cafés, small businesses and the like. The Ndiyo system is not meant as a home or personal computer.

    That may be its undoing. One of the lessons of the information technology revolution everywhere it's hit is that people demonstrate a strong preference for individual machines, with private storage of data and customized interfaces. The Nivo as Internet terminal cannot be personalized in that way; it doesn't even have the capability to use smart cards to store personal preferences (something Ndiyo plans to fix in an upcoming version).

    Still, a low-cost, low-power-consumption system is a more realistic catalyst for the spread of desktop information technology than is a chopped-down PC. It's particularly heartening to see the use of free/open source software at the core of a developing world computer. The Ndiyo device's current setup may not be perfect, but it has potential. Ndiyo's progress is definitely worth watching closely.

    May 11, 2005

    Mobile Computing, India-Style

    mobilis.jpgAs we often think of India as a rapidly-developing, high-tech-focused nation, it's sobering to learn that there are only about 13 million personal computers there (in a nation of over a billion people). Projects like the "$100 Computer" seem well-suited for this market, but the spread of information technology in the world's largest democracy may well come from a local source. Encore Software, one of the makers of the Simputer, today announced a new design -- the Mobilis.

    The stats on the system (PDF) are impressive, particularly given its Rs.10,000-Rs.20,000 price (about $230-$460). It can be used as a tablet or as a stand-up portable desktop, and weighs about a pound (~500 grams). Encore promises six hours of battery life, which sounds amazing to those of us accustomed to 2.5-3.5 hour laptops, but is mitigated somewhat by the lack of a hard drive; the Mobilis stores all of its data on Smart Cards. The basic version has a wired modem and ethernet, and the more expensive version includes GPS and a GPRS modem. The core OS is Linux, of course, customized for the local market with a variety of language options and a text-to-speech feature.

    The Times of India and The Hindu have some additional details.

    Will the Mobilis take off? I'm not sure; I still think that information tools for much of the world will evolve from the mobile phone, and not be limited-utility PCs. But the Mobilis clearly has greater functionality than the similarly-priced Simputer, without significantly added heft (the Simputer is smaller, but still too large to fit easily into a pocket). At the sub-$500 price point, I could see these devices doing relatively well in the West, with a few minor changes. Ultimately, it will come down to whether the devices have a sufficient variety of applications of direct value to the people they're selling to. That sounds obvious, but it's not uncommon to see new tech rolled out without much consideration of whether anyone is actually interested.

    If the Mobilis succeeds, it will be worth celebrating. If it fails, it will be a failure worth learning from.

    May 20, 2005

    Climate and the Leapfrog World

    The Kyoto treaty, as most people know, does not include developing nations. The reasons behind this are two-fold: firstly, that the per-capita emissions of the developed nations are significantly higher than those from the developing world (even if the overall emissions from China and India approached developed world levels due to population); and secondly, that rich nations can better afford the transition to more efficient technologies without harming growth, while the poorer countries could find development stalled while trying to cut greenhouse gases. The presumption is that the developing world will be brought in for Kyoto II, the still-to-be-negotiated next phase kicking in after the first treaty ends in 2012.

    The initial talks for a successor to Kyoto are now underway, and it's interesting to observe the early positions being staked out. While much attention is focused on whether the United States will participate, the real story may be the degree to which the big developing nations -- China, India and Brazil, in particular -- sign on. At this early stage, it seems that India is pushing hard to avoid being part of a 2012 climate treaty.

    This observation is underscored by a series of brief essays by environmental activists in these three key leapfrog nations, published this week on openDemocracy. Rubens Born and Mark Lutes of Vitae Civilis Institute for Development, Environment and Peace in Brazil, Clifford Polycarp of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, and "Angel Green," a Chinese environmental activist writing under a pseudonym, present useful observations of the state of climate change politics in their respective countries.


    Continue reading "Climate and the Leapfrog World" »

    May 24, 2005

    Leapfrog Energy Roundup

    Several links about energy innovation in the developing world hit the old inbox recently, and all are worth a look. Hit the extended entry to learn more about the Global Village Energy Partnership, the Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative, and what's happening with renewable energy in India.

    Continue reading "Leapfrog Energy Roundup" »

    May 27, 2005

    Getting Closer To The Mobile Leapfrog Tool

    nokia770.jpgThe need for a cheap, mobile wireless computer in the leapfrog world is pretty clear, and a number of manufacturers have come up with designs for that market. The Simputer is the canonical example, but other attempts include the EELS and the Mobilis, with the Ndiyo taking the wired/desktop route. None of these are perfect, however, with substantial limitations in how they connect or how portable they really are. But the big stumbling block is the cost; of the units actually available for purchase, all cost in the $200-$500 range.

    At that price, it might be a good idea to target more affluent buyers, then rely on production efficiencies to drive down costs. That's the path that Nokia seems to be taking with its 770 Internet Tablet. If you follow the gadgetblogs at all, you've undoubtedly seen the specs: WiFi and Bluetooth, full Linux OS with web browser and email, touch/write-on 800x480 screen, and ~230g in weight/141mm x 79mm x 19mm (0.5 lbs./5.5" x 3" x 0.75") in size. Due out this Fall, the target price is $350 (about the same as the Simputer or the Mobilis). There are lots of potential drawbacks to the 770 -- no GSM/GPRS, so no phone use aside from VOIP and no web access away from WiFi hubs; limited battery life (~3 hours active use); limited onboard storage -- but it's certainly evokes what I've described in the past as a "step up from the mobile phone instead of a stripped-down laptop."

    I cite the 770 not because I think it's particularly wonderful (frankly, it won't be out for months and it may well be a lemon), but because it's the clearest sign yet of the rethinking of the Internet platform as a variant of the mobile phone. Price aside, the biggest limitation for its use as a tool in the leapfrog nations is the lack of GSM/GPRS networking, a surprising omission given that the manufacturer is Nokia. But the larger message is clear: very soon, at most in the next year or two, the hardware design for the mobile leapfrogging tool will be available; the next step would be driving the price down. With a cheap wireless device like that available, the web can truly be world-wide.

    May 30, 2005

    Free Software for India

    cdac.jpgBrazil's position as the leading developing world champion of Free/Open Source Software may soon by challenged by India. The Indian government (working through the Technology Development for Indian Languages Programme and the independent Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) has begun distributing free CDs with localized versions of a variety of F/OSS applications. The first set of CDs contain Tamil-language versions of Firefox, OpenOffice, an email utility and a dictionary, as well as a variety of Tamil fonts (as the links suggest, all of these may also be downloaded directly from the TDIL website). Hindi will be next, with all 22 official languages of India covered eventually.

    The CDs don't provide Linux, just applications (which can be installed under either Windows or Linux). The Indian government still has a ways to go before matching the ambition of Brazil's PC Conectado plan. But that doesn't mean that widespread free/open source software won't be useful. While the zero-cost aspect of the software is certainly appealing, the main value of F/OSS for India is the ability to modify it for local use:

    [CDAC Researcher R.K.V.S.] Raman believes open-source software has two main advantages for the Indian population--it is relatively inexpensive and it can be modified fairly easily. "We are sometimes not comfortable with Western user interfaces--they don't make sense in our culture, particularly for rural people who haven't had much access to technology. If we want to modify the software we have to have access to the code," he said.

    Too many developers of information technology for the developing world ignore issues of interface, assuming that a direct translation of menu items and alert text will suffice, or that developing world users have a less complex set of needs than Western users. The "Windows Starter Edition" rolling out soon from Microsoft is particularly bad in this regard, as not only does it not modify the interface for local cultures, it strips off most Windows features in exchange for a lower price. Windows Starter Edition is due out in India in June; we'll see if there's any market for it, especially once more Indian users get a taste of what Free/Open software can offer.

    Software in Africa

    africalights.jpgWhich is better for public use in the developing world: free/open source software or proprietary software? Even casual readers of WorldChanging should be able to guess where our opinions tend to fall, but it's always useful to have empirical evidence to back up (or refute!) subjective beliefs. While a good deal of work has been done about free/open software in the South American and South Asian settings, less research has been done about free/open software in Africa ("Black Star Ghana," which we linked to over a year ago, remains a high point in the field). is a technology NGO that works with organizations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force), United Nations ICT Task Force, Glocal Forum, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to help promote socio-economic development using information and communications technologies. They have just published a report comparing the uses and utility of free/open source software and proprietary software in the African setting. The paper -- which can be downloaded directly from Bridges (PDF) -- does not take a zealous position on either side of the free/proprietary divide. Instead, it looks at the reality of computer use in economically developing areas, and illustrates the ways in which different approaches can achieve similar goals.

    Some of the key observations and conclusions:

    Continue reading "Software in Africa" »

    May 31, 2005

    Rural Innovations Network and the L-RAMP

    RIN_cycle.jpgInnovations don't just come out of R&D departments and university labs; they can also come from people operating in the "real world" needing to figure out new ways to accomplish necessary tasks more effectively and efficiently. For the leapfrog nations, improvements to rural conditions are quite often at the focus of new ideas. In India, the Rural Innovations Network (RIN) is a highly successful non-profit organization set up in 2001 to help promote and disseminate innovative practices in the rural parts of the country. In August, 2004,, RIN teamed up with the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and the US-based Lemelson Foundation to launch L-RAMP -- the Lemelson Recognition and Mentoring Programme -- as a way of seeking out and supporting inventors and inventions coming from rural communities. This month, they announced a specific search for innovations with a "social purpose."

    Part business incubator, part fabrication and market research facility, L-RAMP is meant to improve the ability of rural innovators to make their ideas more widely accessible, as well as more profitable. This builds on the core RIN agenda:

    Continue reading "Rural Innovations Network and the L-RAMP" »

    June 10, 2005

    Leapfrog Lighting

    Evan Mills wants to change the world one lumen at a time.

    Mills is a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division, specializing in the ways in which developing regions provide lighting. As we've noted from early on, lighting is one of the less-obvious but still critical parts of development. Kerosene, wood, candles and the like -- so-called "fuel-based lighting" -- pollute the air in homes, can be energy-intensive to gather, and often provide insufficient illumination for extended work or education. But Mills sees a solution in solid-state lighting: LEDs. Light-emitting diodes are definitely worldchanging, and Mills argues that LEDs are the ultimate source of leapfrog illumination:

    “As they modernize, developing countries can select better technologies, and in so doing surpass levels of efficiency typical of industrialized nation. The latest improvement is the solid-state white light-emitting diode [WLED].” In recent years, R&D performed by private industry as well as the Department of Energy has made these light sources suitable for task illumination.

    Mills also points out that LED systems are well-suited to developing nations—they are rugged, portable, use direct current, have long service lives, and run on widely available “AA” batteries.

    Continue reading "Leapfrog Lighting" »

    June 15, 2005

    Bottom-Up Environmental Revolution -- in China

    pollutioninchina.jpgAlthough the presence of officials such as Pan Yue in the Chinese bureaucracy is a small sign of hope, China remains an ever-worsening environmental disaster. Air and water pollution still choke the country, brought on by barely-regulated industries. Cities are being rebuilt to better-accomodate automobiles, and China is now the number two importer of oil in the world, beating out Japan, behind only the United States.

    But there are signs that some citizens of China are starting to take environmental matters into their own hands. Two recent stories illustrate the breadth of what that can mean: urban dwellers buying and using electric bikes made by small start-ups in defiance of city leaders and the national auto industry; and a peasant uprising over industrial pollution. Read on for details.

    Continue reading "Bottom-Up Environmental Revolution -- in China" »

    June 17, 2005

    Broadband for Barefoot Bankers

    We've argued many times here that, while computers should not come before clean water and secure homes, access to information and communication technology is critical to the growth of the developing world. Mobile phones and Internet-connected computers can do much to improve the economies of rural and remote communities, as well as help to maintain the social ties often broken by urbanization. This is becoming especially visible in China, where the Internet boom has moved from the gleaming coastal high-rises of Shanghai and Shenzen to millions of inland rural homes and businesses -- and, especially, Internet cafés. Moreover, an effort is now underway to deploy high-speed Internet connections as part of microfinance programs, a project called "Broadband for Barefoot Bankers."

    China's Internet user population is now estimated at 100 million, up from 80 million in late 2003, and while precise numbers are hard to come by, observers say that most of this growth came from outside the big cities. A rapidly-rising share of Chinese Internet users get on via broadband, both in the cities and in the countryside. As IEEE Spectrum describes it:

    Continue reading "Broadband for Barefoot Bankers" »

    July 1, 2005

    Ethiopian Coffee and the Internet

    ecafe.jpgBy using an Internet-based auction for the first time, Ethiopian coffee growers received more than double their usual price for coffee -- and one bid was more than triple what the growers had received in the past. The auction was sponsored by the Ecafé Foundation, a non-profit organization providing education and support for coffee-growing communities around the world. Ecafé, in turn, is supported by the Dutch trading firm Trabocca BV and the US coffee importer BD Imports.

    "Because of your support, the Ecafe auction generated more than $187,000 for Ethiopian cooperative coffee at an average price of $3.22 per pound," [Ecafé President Willem] Boot wrote in a letter thanking auction bidders. [...]

    The highest bid received $6.50 per pound for Ethiopia's top-grade coffee from Yirgacheffe. The lowest winning bid was tendered at $1.82 per pound, Boot said.

    Ethiopian coffee normally fetches an average of $1.30 a pound in normal markets .[...]

    Four unions of 151 coffee cooperatives, with a total membership of 180,000 individual producers, participated in the auction with the hope of getting a better price for their product.

    Ecafé has a page listing the auction results, including the bid histories.

    This further underscores the argument that access to global information networks can have an enormously positive result for developing nations. We typically make the point that farmers (and fishermen, etc.) can use information tools to better follow market conditions, but this reminds us that the reverse is also true -- information networks also make global buyers aware of these local growers.

    July 5, 2005

    Nanotechnology and the South-South Divide

    The latest issue of Science includes a couple of very interesting articles about the state of nanotechnology research in the developing world. Chunli Bai, executive vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, gives an overview of the growing importance of nanotech research in China, and its current emphasis on nanomaterial production; the article helps explain just how China has come to have the third largest nanoscience budget in the world. But it's "Small Things and Big Changes in the Developing World," by Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, that is the most striking.

    Hassan argues that the pace and pattern of nanoscience and nanotech research in the developing world increasingly mirrors that in the North, and that there are good reasons to believe that significant breakthroughs could come from laboratories in the developing world. As noted, China spends a very large amount of money on nanotech research (perhaps as much as $600 million total between 2003 and 2007), and India, Brazil, South Africa and a variety of other less-developed nations are also funding nanoscience relatively well. Hassan argues that this reflects both a recognition of nanotechnology's potentially critical role in developmental leapfrogging and an embrace of the larger notion that science is a fundamental engine of development.

    At the same time, this could hasten the onset of a "South-South" divide even greater than the "North-South" divide with which we're familiar:

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology and the South-South Divide" »

    July 12, 2005

    LEED and Beyond in India

    leedplatindia.jpgAlthough the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard comes from the US Green Building Council, it has become widely adopted outside the US borders. It may come as a surprise to some, however, that India is second only to Canada in the number of LEED-registered buildings listed at the USGBC/LEED site. As long-time readers will recall, this includes the Confederation of Indian Industry's Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre (PDF) in Hyderabad -- the first building in the world to be given the LEED 2.0 Platinum rating, and declared the "greenest building in the world" in early 2004 (the National Resources Defense Council's headquarters (PDF) in Santa Monica, California, has now tied it in its LEED rating). In fact, two of the five LEED 2 Platinum sites in the world are in India.

    They may soon be joined by a third.

    The Auto Cluster Development and Research Institute Limited (ACDRIL) building in Pune, India, will be registering for LEED status, and the the designers promise at least a LEED Gold, but are aiming at LEED Platinum.

    ...the auto cluster buildings will use sunlight for most day lighting and natural ventilation to keep the usage of electricity to a minimum for lighting and air-conditioning.

    The design envisages roof-top gardens for reducing heat pockets, use of recycled and local building materials, vermiculture, rainwater harvesting, sewage treatment plant, grey water recycling to be used for flushing toilets and gardens and use of renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) apart from a lot of greenery and water bodies, including a natural stream running through the site to beautify the campus.

    The site is expected to be open in late 2006.

    But India is not content to use the US standards for sustainable buildings. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Dehli is developing its own set of criteria which take India's local conditions into account. These standards will be known as "TERI-GRIHA, or TERI’s Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment"

    (Via Sustainablog)

    Going Organic in China

    USDA_sust_farm_China.jpgWhile the popular image of agriculture in China may be the rural peasant tilling his field using methods differing little from those of his grandparents, in reality Chinese agriculture is one of the most heavily-dependent upon chemical fertilizers in the world. According to the World Resources Institute database, in 2003 China used an average of 227.6 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of arable and cultivated cropland; by comparison, the US used 110.7 kg/ha and Europe an average of 73.4 kg/ha. But this is starting to change, as Chinese consumers begin to appreciate the nutritional value of organic products -- and Chinese farmers begin to appreciate their export potential.

    The quick summary: over the last six years, China has increased its organic farm acreage nearly ten-fold -- and is well on its way to becoming the number one organic food producer in the world. Read on for a survey of where organic farming stands in today's China.

    Continue reading "Going Organic in China" »

    July 13, 2005

    Grameen Phone at TED

    villagephone.jpgAs he mentioned yesterday, Alex is at the TED Global conference in Oxford, England right now. He's scheduled to talk tomorrow morning, at 11:00 GMT; we will undoubtedly have a copy of his talk up on the site soon, and more posts from Alex about the other speakers at the conference. Those speakers include WorldChanger Dawn Danby, who spoke this afternoon, my colleagues at the IEET Aubrey de Grey and Nick Bostrom, worldchanging friends Clay Shirky and Robert Neuwirth, and sustainable design guru William McDonough, among many others. Today's speakers also included Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameen Phone.

    Grameen Phone is the groundbreaking project, started in 1993, to bring mobile telephones to villages and rural areas in Bangladesh as a tool for both local empowerment and developmental leapfrogging. The program has been remarkably successful; Grameen Phone has more than 3.5 million subscribers and has distributed over 115,000 "village phones" throughout the country, where they serve as "owner-operated" pay phones. In and of itself, this has enhanced rural life. In particular:

    Continue reading "Grameen Phone at TED" »

    July 14, 2005

    Spam vs. Development

    Those of us in the West who have been online for awhile can often have something of a blasé attitude towards spam. I don't mean that it's ignored, of course. Every day I get a couple hundred spam emails, and every day the admins at WorldChanging have to remove more spam comments and trackbacks, and add new terms to the site's blocking list. But with a sufficiently fast connection and sufficiently intelligent filtering software, the spam problem is more-or-less manageable.

    It's a very different situation for many people in the developing world, however. The level of spam on the networks is as great (or even greater) than in the West, but a very large portion of those getting online do so with slow modems or in crowded Internet cafés that charge by the byte. A level of spam that might be considered annoying to someone in Los Angeles could be an insurmountable obstacle to someone in Lagos. This has important development implications: as more regional economic activity moves online, problems like spam, viruses and denial-of-service attacks can drive people out of business.

    The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has just published a report on the subject of spam in the developing world (PDF), and it makes for sobering reading. A couple of big problems -- and some useful solutions -- stand out:

    Continue reading "Spam vs. Development" »

    July 18, 2005

    Bright Green Urban Leapfrogging

    leapfrogcity.jpgChina and India seem to be taking quite divergent approaches to sustainability. It's tempting to over-simplify the differences as "top-down" vs. "bottom-up," but there are sufficient counter-examples in each society that such generalizations tell us little. "State involvement" vs. "benign neglect" is perhaps closer, except that the Chinese state choices are not always beneficial and the Indian state "neglect" has sometimes meant opportunities for emergence and entrepreneurialism. Regardless, the distinct cultures and politics of the two nations are clearly affecting how each comes to grips with the need to improve efficiency, reduce energy consumption, and bring a growing portion of their people the bounty of wealth and comfort.

    When it comes to green buildings, the differences are clear. India's approach seems quite similar to that of the West -- lay out some semi-official ground rules, then encourage (but not require) builders to meet them. China's approach, conversely, seems to be more revolutionary than evolutionary -- build sustainable cities from the ground up. Read on for a look at the LEED-India standard and what William McDonough is up to in the village of Huangbaiyu...

    Continue reading "Bright Green Urban Leapfrogging" »

    July 22, 2005

    Texting for Rice (and Religion) in the Philippines

    priest2.jpgA new article at the Philippines tech journal i.t. matters talks about the use of cheap GSM phones by the very poor, and the role of the local Catholic church in setting up commerce networks. "Alleviating poverty with technology's help" gives some real-world examples of our recurring argument that the proper application of information technology can be a powerful development tool. Moreover, it shows the utility of building upon existing information and communication networks -- in this case, the church -- as new technologies are introduced.

    Tondo is a slum on the western edge of greater Manila, literally built upon a former garbage dump. Over 2,500 families live there, in a mix of official low-cost housing (dating back to the mid-90s) and squatter-city shanties. In February of this year, the parish priest, F. Benigno Beltran, introduced a kind of online commerce to the community:

    ...for Nestor's family of six, some things never change -- like having to live on just a kilogram of rice for an entire day, and to contend with a cloud of noxious gases from the garbage mount that can blanket the entire community.

    This time, however, there is one glaring difference: these impoverished families have started using technology to get by each day on slightly better terms.

    Continue reading "Texting for Rice (and Religion) in the Philippines" »

    July 25, 2005

    Negroponte's Hundred Dollar Laptop

    HDL.jpgThe design for inexpensive, useful networked information devices for the developing world is a recurring topic here. After all, the evidence is strong -- and getting stronger all the time -- that cheap, functionally-ubiquitous information and communication devices help to accelerate development. The political and cultural impact of personal devices allowing for ongoing access to knowledge and widespread group communication is somewhat harder to measure, but it seems likely that there's a positive result there, too.

    We talk quite a bit about the form such devices could take, as function is intimately related to form. Will they be souped-up mobile phones? A handheld computer, like the Simputer (WorldChanging ally and former contributor Taran Rampersad got his Simputer recently, and his recent posts about its use definitely make it sound appealing)? Or perhaps something more conventional, like Nicholas Negroponte's suggestion of a cheap ("hundred dollar") laptop for young students across the developing world.

    Except... it turns out that Negroponte's design isn't quite as conventional as I thought.

    Continue reading "Negroponte's Hundred Dollar Laptop" »

    August 9, 2005

    Hello, Sunshine

    wulingsunshine.jpgIf China is to avoid an environmentally grim future, it's going to need to push the adoption of high-efficiency energy consumption technologies. In the case of vehicles, that means high mileage, whether attained through hybrid cars, electric bikes or fuel cells. But China has an odd combination of problems compounding the vehicle issue: increasing demand from citizens without the money to buy high-end, high-tech cars; a populace, especially in rural communities, heavily dependent upon pollution-spewing small cargo vehicle deliveries; and a strong political desire to build as much of its booming economy internally as possible.

    Fortunately, a vehicle is available in China that goes a long way to solving these problems: the Wuling Sunshine. It's a small van, running about $5,000 total in cost, and getting around 43 miles per gallon in the city. On sale since 2002, it's among the most popular vehicles in the country, helping to push Wuling to the number one spot in the light vehicles market. The surprising part of the Wuling Sunshine story? The van was designed by General Motors, co-owner of Wuling since 2002.

    Continue reading "Hello, Sunshine" »

    August 15, 2005

    Ethiopia Leaps

    ethiopia_vsat.jpgAs much as we celebrate leapfrogging here on WorldChanging, we have to acknowledge that it's a risky endeavor. The introduction of an entirely new infrastructure or technology is almost always financially costly, and questions inevitably arise about the appropriate allocation of resources, the relative needs of the population, and whether the chosen path is actually the best way to achieve the leapfrog goal. Efforts that focus on information technology are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of criticism, as IT -- unlike (say) water or electricity, or even medical biotechnology -- has a less obvious day-to-day positive impact on the lives of the people making the leap. At the same time, as computers and networks have enormous potential as economic drivers, it can be tempting for a developing nation to push ahead with an IT strategy in hopes that it will trigger the kind of economic acceleration to make other sorts of development more readily achievable.

    Ethiopia is in the midst of just this sort of leapfrog process. We've noted encouraging signs recently that Ethiopia was embracing information and communication networks, but we didn't know the half of it. According to the Times of London, Ethiopia is spending 10% of its GDP on the introduction of local and regional computer networks, classroom computers and satellite-based Internet connections throughout the country. Although it hasn't much been in the headlines, this leap actually started several years ago; now, the hardware is ready, and the real work begins.

    With the infrastructure in place, politicians, engineers and users now face the challenge of realising its potential. The network is intended to deliver high-quality education, agricultural training and, eventually, a telemedicine service, as well as to provide the foundation for an internet-based telephone system that could replace the antiquated equipment used in most of the country.

    Continue reading "Ethiopia Leaps" »

    August 16, 2005

    India Energy Independence

    India_Energy.jpgThe President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (who is, quite literally, a rocket scientist), made a major speech this week on the future of energy in India. The presentation (available in full here) covers the current status of India's energy production and consumption, and looks at what needs to be done to make India energy independent by 2030. It's a sometimes surprising mix of ambitious high-tech green endeavors and an almost stubborn continuation of traditional fossil energy sources. It provides an interesting comparison to the 2005 Energy Act just passed in the United States -- similar in some regards, dramatically different in others, but still clinging tightly to the old models of centralized production and control over energy.

    Those who have been following India's back room reluctance to participate in post-Kyoto restrictions on greenhouse gases won't be surprised that the closest Dr. Kalam gets to discussing global warming is a vague mention that "the climate of the globe as a whole is changing." He has good reason not to want to touch the carbon issue -- he sees the bulk of electricity production coming from coal, albeit largely from coal gasification. As a result, there's a pretty robust scenario painting India -- not China or the US -- as the main greenhouse gas emitter of the first quarter of the century, and Kalam's proposals do nothing to dispel that fear. It's interesting that China's government seems more ready to address the environmental dangers of coal use than the Indian government; the silver lining to this acid raincloud is that, as a democratic polity, India is in a better position to vote in a government willing to grapple with the problem than China would be if its leadership was more intransigent.

    But the Indian energy plan isn't just coal and self-delusion about carbon.

    Continue reading "India Energy Independence" »

    September 26, 2005

    African Climate Change Network

    Despite being likely to suffer the worst effects of global climate disruption, Africa actually has few climate scientists. A step taken last week could help change that situation, however, boosting support for geophysical sciences in Africa.

    A workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya last week heralded the creation of the Africa Network in Earth System Science, a transnational group encouraging the sharing of ideas and resources between organizations working on climate change (as well as other Earth science issues). A major goal of the network will be to address the shortage of good climate and geophysical scientists in Africa.

    Capacity building was therefore imperative, [Bob Scholes of South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] said, adding that African researchers produce only one per cent of scientific articles published in major climate change journals.

    Continue reading "African Climate Change Network" »

    November 9, 2005

    Waiting to be Connected

    brazil_popularpc.jpgAs enthusiastic as we often are about both the utility of low-cost information tools and the open-source/networking-related efforts of the Lula government in Brazil, it's important to recognize when things aren't working out the way one would wish. Failures can be more important than success when it comes to learning, as long as the same mistakes aren't repeated. A recent article from the online computer magazine C|Net entitled "Brazil's bumpy road to the low-cost PC" is important not because it describes a successful effort, but because it helps to explain why success has been elusive -- and what can be done about it.

    Brazil has been trying to make and distribute a low-cost Internet-connected computer system since 1999. Earlier efforts fell prey to poor design (a system without a disk drive, just a small flash memory), political tribulations (the program was abandoned while Lula's predecessor was in office), or the simple economics of a proliferation of duties and taxes -- a PC could cost 50% more in Brazil than its equivalent in the US simply because of extra fees.

    The PC Conectado ("connected PC") program started up in 2003, and rolled out its first systems earlier this year. Manufacturers would get a tax break, and users would get a PC that they could pay for over several years. However:

    Continue reading "Waiting to be Connected" »

    Native Wind

    nativewind.jpgWe're accustomed to talk about leapfrogging as a process that happens elsewhere. But nearly every advanced industrialized country has pockets of poverty that are as damaging and as pervasive as you'd find in the developing world. They're also opportunities for leapfrogging -- and Native Wind may have the key.

    In the United States, among the locations most in need of transformation are the Native American reservations. Native Wind wants to turn the reservations around by making them centers of wind power development. Most reservation areas in the western and mountain states have some amount of wind power potential. But it turns out that some of the richest areas for wind power can be found on reservation territories in the northern plains states: twenty reservation locations have a combined potential of around 300 gigawatts of wind power.

    The Native Wind project is bringing together wind energy experts and tribal leaders to work out ways to build wind farms on tribal lands. Two wind facilities have already been built -- a 750kW turbine at the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation and another at the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota -- and two more should be completed by the end of this year. Fort Berthold alone is believed to have over 17 gigawatts of wind power potential. In 2006, the Rosebud location will be expanded into a 30MW wind farm, and another 80MW of wind farms are in development.

    Continue reading "Native Wind" »

    November 11, 2005

    The Greening of China

    chinasolargansu.jpgAs China goes, so goes the future.

    A successful bright green world requires a green China. A China that continues to spew tons of coal smoke into the air, tear up the landscape for dams and minerals, and push the adoption of the automobile as a "pillar industry" is a China that could drive the world past the environmental tipping point, regardless of the efforts of the rest of the planet. A year or two ago, the likelihood of Chinese leaders seeing this disaster unfolding and changing direction in time seemed slim. Now, we may well see a glimmer of hope.

    The last month or so brought us a bonanza of reports about the new choices the Chinese leadership is making regarding the environment. Some are doubtlessly motivated by wanting to look good for the 2008 Olympics. But many of the proposals look to be the kinds of steps necessary for China to head off further environmental disaster -- big, risky steps, with the possibility of significant benefit should they succeed.

    Hit the extended entry for links and discussion.

    Continue reading "The Greening of China" »

    November 16, 2005

    Grameen and Nokia

    The Grameen Foundation employs some of the most innovative poverty-reduction and economic development tools around: microfinance; biomass-based village micropower; and "Village Phones," which enable rural communities to maintain access to regional and national markets, information and -- most important of all -- family members. Grameen Phone has been wildly successful in Bangladesh, where it started (and now serves as the nation's top phone company), as well as in Uganda and Rwanda.

    Yesterday, the Grameen Foundation and Nokia announced a partnership to expand the Village Phone network in Africa:

    With tiny loans, financial services and mobile technology, Village Phone provides affordable access in a sustainable manner.

    The collaboration between Nokia and GFUSA is designed to accelerate efforts to make universal access, particularly in rural areas of Africa a reality. As part of this effort, Nokia and GFUSA have jointly developed a solution based on Nokia's most affordable phones and an external antenna to serve rural communities in Uganda and Rwanda, the two countries where GFUSA's Village Phone currently operates.

    As far as I can tell, this is more of an expansion and acceleration of the Village Phone project than a new venture, but so far, there's little more information available than in the press release (which is identical on both the Grameen and Nokia sites).

    The final part of the press release promises that Nokia and Grameen will work together on a large-scale study of the socioeconomic impact of mobile phones on global development, as well as on the sustainability of microfinance -- a good sign that both organizations are starting to think through the longer-term implications of their decisions.

    (Via On Safari with El Jorgito)

    One Laptop Per Child -- Updated

    laptop-handside.jpgKofi Annan and Nicholas Negroponte were scheduled to unveil the prototype design of the "$100 Laptop" (also known as the One Laptop Per Child project) today at the World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Tunis. (WorldChanging has previously discussed this project here -- Ethan gets a preview, here -- I get an update, and here -- my original post on the subject.) I haven't seen any reports yet from the scene, but while we wait, here are some updated links:

    The One Laptop Per Child website at MIT has new pictures up of the latest version of the design. The crank (which currently does not actually work) has a definitely "toy" look to it, which is intentional (see below), and the unit itself is actually fairly small. The ability to flip the system into "e-book" and "laptop theater" mode is striking, however -- it's something most laptops costing ten or twenty times as much can't do.

    Continue reading "One Laptop Per Child -- Updated" »

    November 23, 2005


    starsight.jpgStarSight is one of those ideas that makes one wonder why it wasn't developed years ago. StarSight combines a street light -- something which can bring down crime rates dramatically -- with solar panel, wireless network (WiFi or WiMax), remote management, local network access, and (optionally) hookups for charging small devices. The designers, UK-based Kolam Partnership and Singapore's Nex-G, describe StarSight as being a key element of a "virtual utility," a low-cost, low-maintenance provider of intangible but very useful services such as public lighting and wireless networks. All of this is very cool, and makes a great deal of sense, but there's one last element that makes it truly worldchanging:

    Its first deployment is in Cameroon, and the designers have explicitly intended the system for use in the rapidly-urbanizing developing world. Mike Butcher at the Financial Times has the details.

    A technology to roll out green energy street lighting along with telecommunications and power could well be the great leap forward for which Africa is looking.
    Yannick Gaillac, founding partner of the Kolam Partnership, is enthusiastic: “This project will definitely change lives for the poorest people in the world and that’s what I wanted to do. We didn’t invent these basic technologies, but we are gathering them together in one solution.”

    Morocco, China and India are said to be next on StarSight's list for potential sites for the system. And the set-up is not limited to lighting and communication -- other potential uses include disaster warning systems, pollution monitors, and other location-aware network services.

    (Thanks for the tip, Mike!)

    November 26, 2005

    Mobile Phones as Development Catalyst

    04-05-mobile-world.jpgWe've made the point repeatedly here that mobile phones represent a critical leapfrog tool for the developing world. They provide access to information, contact with friends and relatives, even community business models. With programs like Grameen Phone and efforts like the GSM association's Emerging Markets Handset project, mobile phones are available to growing numbers of people in the poorest countries. The revolutionary utility of the mobile phone hasn't escaped the notice of phone manufacturers or even the gaze of conventional journals like The Economist.

    Now the world of international development is picking up on this idea. Developments: The International Development Magazine just published an article entitled "Loose talk saves lives," by Matthew Bishop, describing the poverty-reducing effect of widespread access to mobile phones.

    Readers familiar with the discussion here on WorldChanging will find in it little that's new. That's why it's a useful piece, in fact: the article provides a wonderful summary of the major points of the argument. Bishop hits the key issues, including the rapid spread of mobile phones in Africa, the relationship between phone access and GDP, the need for even lower-cost phone units, the Grameen Phone program, and even the mobile phone as a "leapfrog" technology. Bishop uses enough new examples that the piece doesn't simply read as a mashup of various Worldchanging posts, but it's clear that he's on our wavelength.

    (Via Smart Mobs)

    December 19, 2005

    How Much E-Waste Per Child?

    ewasteperchild.jpgThe One Laptop Per Child proposal (aka, the Hundred-Dollar Laptop) generates controversy nearly every time it's mentioned here, whether due to questions about its necessity, arguments about its configuration, or push-back about whether it's really even possible. But a post today at Triple Pundit points to an even more critical issue: would the success of the OLPC plan result in an explosion of hazardous material waste across the developing world?

    There's no question that the materials used in computers are problematic. Computer hardware can include plastics made with dioxin and so-called "brominated flame retardants," as well as mercury, lead and other harmful metals. Although the quantities may be small in any single machine, cumulatively, some 20-50 million tons of computer, electric and electronic waste enters the wastestream every year (PDF). When these materials get into the water supply, they can lead to birth defects and worse. As of now, the companies lining up to take part in the OLPC project all use traditional -- as in toxic -- materials for their systems. If the OLPC program manages to distribute a million laptops around the developing world, what kind of price will those regions have to pay a few years down the road, when the laptops are broken, discarded or replaced by newer designs?

    A few years ago, the question would end there: we would have to decide whether we want portable electronics or zero harmful waste. But we're now moving to a world where we could have both. We've covered, in recent months, a variety of developments that could be combined to make a laptop that, when eventually discarded, would produce few dangerous waste products. The two breakthroughs that could make this possible are bioplastics, which use plants to create a replacement for inorganic plastics, and organic polymer electronics, which use organic chemistry to create computation and display devices.

    Continue reading "How Much E-Waste Per Child?" »

    January 10, 2006

    Knowlege Generation in India: More Rural, More Global

    indiascience.jpgI found an interesting pair of stories about science and knowledge development in India this week. One argues for a greater focus by Indian scientists on the needs of the rural population; the other argues for greater participation in Indian research by the global Indian diaspora. These are by no means contradictory concepts, but they make for a striking comparison.

    Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the Indian Science Congress last week, and called upon local scientists to put a greater focus on issues relevant to the needs of the nation's primarily rural population. The concerns raised combine traditional development goals with leapfrog techniques:

    "The Western world has not invested enough in research on water, biomass, solar and other relevant sources of energy because they are not under the kind of pressure we face," he said.
    "Solar energy and biomass are areas where Indian scientists must be at the forefront of research and development." [...]

    Continue reading "Knowlege Generation in India: More Rural, More Global" »

    January 17, 2006

    Open Source, Development and Design

    Nilesource.jpgWhy do we consider the "open source" model a driver of leapfrog development? There are (at least) three good reasons: it enables production as well as consumption; it enables localization for communities that don't have the resources to tempt commercial developers to provide local versions of their products; it can be free as in "gratis" as well as free as in "libre" -- an important consideration for developing communities. All of this will be familiar territory for regular readers, but two more good examples of the utility of the free/libre/open source model emerged in recent days: the Africa Source conference in Uganda, and the Open Source Appropriate Technology discussion at Agroblogger.

    The Africa Source II conference, held in Kalangala, Uganda, has just finished up, and it looks to have been a real success. Africa Source II focuses on how open source technologies can be implemented by non-governmental organizations working in Africa. Sponsored by the Tactical Technology Collective (which also produced the Asia Source conference Ethan talked about last year), Africa Source II mainly looked at how free/libre/open source software could be applied to education and development support, but also addressed the role of Citizen Media as a model for information distribution. A conference wiki contains links to notes from all of the sessions, and the conference blog has back-channel discussion and some interesting interviews with participants:

    Q: From your experiences, what works best?
    [Stephen Settimi, USAID's Global Health Bureau's senior technical advisor for knowledge management and ICT4D.] The solutions that have proven the best in international development are those that are heavily-driven by community expressions of need and desire to develop in certain ways. Needs for better health, or needs for better transportation of water. When it's community-driven, we get better outcomes. Specially if the community is integrally involved.

    Continue reading "Open Source, Development and Design" »

    January 23, 2006

    African-Made, Solar-Powered Hearing Aid

    godisa.jpgThis story absolutely made my day.

    The SolarAid is a hearing aid designed and built by Godisa Technologies, a Botswana company founded to make low-cost hearing aids for the developing world. The SolarAid system combines a small hearing aid and a lightweight solar charger; Godisa developed the first No. 13 rechargeable button battery for the system. Godisa is Africa's only hearing aid manufacturer, and the only one in the world making hearing aids specifically for the sub-Saharan Africa environment.

    The SolarAid, including the solar charger and an extra pair of batteries, sells for less than $100, and is built to last at least two to three years. But, as low cost as that is, Godisa wants to do even better: they want to make the design free to everyone -- essentially, to go open source -- if the Botswana government will let them.

    Developed in Botswana with advisory support from World University Service of Canada, nearly 4,000 SolarAids have been sold in more than 30 countries.
    In Brazil, Jordan and Pakistan, non-profit organizations are looking to develop their own versions of the SolarAid and have asked for Godisa's help in providing low-cost hearing aids for their workers.
    Flying in the face of all sound business models, Godisa intends to transfer all its technologies for free. [...]

    Continue reading "African-Made, Solar-Powered Hearing Aid" »

    January 27, 2006

    Hands-On Leapfrogging

    wndw-dish.jpgWireless Networking for the Developing World is a how-to guide for building, deploying and maintaining wireless information networks in rural parts of the developing world. Written by Tomas Krag, O'Reilly editor Rob Flickenger and a wide assortment of wireless hackers brought together by the Wireless Roadshow last October, the book is now available as a download under a generous Creative Commons "share alike" license (which means you can do whatever you’d like with the text, so long as you share the output -- allowing people to translate the text into local languages, for instance.) In the near future, the book will also be available in a print-on-demand format.

    The website for the book includes a wiki to allow readers to participate in spotting and fixing errors, offering suggestions of case studies and useful websites, and contributing to the development of the next edition of the book.

    The book is very clearly a practical guide, not a discussion of policy or social theory:

    Continue reading "Hands-On Leapfrogging" »

    February 7, 2006

    NGO In A Box

    logo.pngNon-governmental organizations, especially those operating outside of the industrialized world, are rarely in a position to have a sophisticated technology infrastructure. Unless the NGOs in question focus on information technology, chances are the computers and networks they use combine donated hardware, a mix of off-the-shelf commercial software (which may or may not be legally acquired), and far too little time deal with technology hassles. We've pointed, in the past, to the Non-Profit Open Source Initiative -- NOSI -- and its primer on "Choosing and Using Open Source Software" (PDF), but some organizations need more than a list of URLs. That's where the "NGO in a Box" program from the Tactical Technology Collective comes in.

    NGO-in-a-Box is a set of specially-selected, high-quality free/open source applications, chosen to meet the needs of NGOs:

    Its aim is to increase the accessibility of F/OSS to non-profits in developing and transition countries. The box is targeted at implementers working with small and medium scale NGOs, IT intermediaries (eRiders, consultants, trainers, technical supporters), system administrators of non-profits, and self-taught specialists helping civil society organizations on a voluntary basis.

    The included applications range from the familiar (Firefox and Thunderbird) to the highly specialized (VNC, a tool for managing and controlling remote computers). The first set of NGO-in-a-Box kits, coming out in 2004, were localized for specific regions, but the "Phase II" version of the program seeks to provide tools for specific categories of applications. First up is the Security Edition:

    Continue reading "NGO In A Box" »

    February 9, 2006

    A Revolution Saved By Hackers

    linuxve.pngIn an ideal world, the first country to wholly embrace free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) as a tool for economic and social change would be one that also embraced entirely free/open political discourse. Sadly, we don't live in an ideal world, and the spearhead of an open source revolution may well be Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. We posted last month about Venezuela's law requiring government agencies to transition to FLOSS over a two year period. Now GNU software engineer David Sugar, in a report for Technology & Change, provides more details about Venezuela's adoption of open source technology -- as well as why Chavez owes his continued office to computer hackers.

    The appeal of FLOSS to developing nations is clear and simple: the software can be legally acquired free of cost; the lack of proprietary ownership means that users are not tied to a single company (likely located in the US or Europe); most importantly, the code is open, meaning that it can be modified to meet local needs and that citizens can learn programming and technical skills working with the software. It's a powerful argument, one that can be heard around the world. It's hardly surprising, then, that nations seeking to break out of the "Washington Consensus" would find FLOSS so captivating.

    Continue reading "A Revolution Saved By Hackers" »

    February 15, 2006

    LinuxChix Africa

    greenchix_logo.jpgLinuxChix Africa manages to shatter two stereotypes at the same time: the idea that women aren't interested in free/open source software development; and the idea that women in Africa are bound to traditional cultural roles. Founded in late 2004 by Anna Badimo, a computer science graduate student in South Africa, and Dorcas Muthoni of the Kenya Education Network, LinuxChix Africa seeks to build Linux skills among African women, as well as to support more generally the use of free/open source applications and systems across Africa. Like most Linux and F/OSS communities, much of their work entails professional software development and public advocacy of open source, but LinuxChix Africa adds a unique twist: they focus their outreach on encouraging young women to pursue careers in computing.

    LinuxChix Africa was a key participant in the recent Africa Source II conference, which (as we noted at the time) included a particular emphasis on getting more women involved in the use of open computing technologies for economic development. LinuxChix Africa participants place a high value on mentoring and visibility as role models; as they put it, "If they [African women] can see their future, they can realize their future."

    The organization, which is a chapter of the global LinuxChix movement, sees Linux and F/OSS as part of a larger spectrum of tools for regional development:

    Continue reading "LinuxChix Africa" »

    March 21, 2006

    Technological Self-Determination

    Most people who know about "open source" (including Free/Libre software) understand it as a technological model. A smaller group says no, really it's an economic model (Yochai Benkler's 2002 Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this perspective). But while both of these perspectives are narrowly correct, they are also both incomplete. Ultimately, open source is a political model.

    The idea that open source is political underlies many of the posts here on WorldChanging that talk about Linux and its brethren. Alex's 2003 "Redistributing the Future" sums up this concept well, but we frequently build on the argument that the real value of Linux, and the free/libre/open source model in general, is that it enables previously technologically-dependent communities to build the tools that they need with their own skills, and become a global participant as a producer of ideas, not simply a consumer. We're not alone in this belief; the United Nations University's International Institute for Software Technology has fully embraced the idea of open source as a developmental driver. They think of it as "technological self-determination," and they've come up with forward-looking programs to help this come about.

    "Being a 'passive consumer' rather than an 'active participant' is not in the best interests of a developing nation's government or business sectors. Technological self-determination in developing countries is key to their future prosperity and is contingent on harnessing the power of this high-tech phenomenon," says [UNU-IIST Director] Dr. [Mike] Reed.

    Continue reading "Technological Self-Determination" »

    About Leapfrogging

    This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Leapfrogging category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

    Imagining the Future is the previous category.

    Megacities is the next category.

    Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

    Powered by
    Movable Type 3.34