A student in my masters program last year wrote his dissertation on a business model for a pedal-powered pump for fecal sludge to be used in slums in Tanzania. He also, as part of his research, created a cool “widget” – the “People Powered Poo Pump”.

The technology was actually not so new. The student came from MIT and worked with Global Cycle Solutions, whose focus is on pedal-powered technologies (recognize the blue stand and attachment in this article? GCS developed those). The business model was more interesting, in my opinion.

But as his dissertation was picked up by the media, the spotlight was focused on the widget. Because cool widgets are a selling point.

Unfortunately, the fact that the media likes a widget does not mean that it’s going to work. As Kevin Starr points out in his talk at PopTech, such was the case with LifeStraw, OLPC, and PlayPumps.

(This is the sOccket. Lots of hype. Little to show for it.)

In order to mitigate seduction by “cool widgets”, Starr recommends we ask ourselves the following question for every new technology in the spotlight:

1. Is it needed?
2. Does it work?
3. Will it get to those who need it?
4. Will they use it right?

I like it. Short and sweet. Now if only we answered these questions more often before we support organizations, we’d start supporting more realistic and effective solutions.

(For those of you who watched the video from yesterday’s post, you’ll have heard this already. But I thought the points were so important that they needed their own post.)

(Image from here.)


Kevin Starr from the Mulago Foundation doesn’t find the average mission statement of development organizations very useful, as most of them look like this:

“… blah blah blah blah grassroots blah blah
blah empower blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah sustainable blah
blah capacity-building blah blah blah blah
blah blah innovative blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah strategies blah
blah participatory blah blah blah…”

Instead, he wants something in this format:

verb + target + outcome < 8 words

Starr gave a talk at PopTech where emphasized the need to distinguish between the organizations that say they’re doing a good job with those that are actually having an impact. A clear, concise and measurable mission statement helps. Watch the full video here:

Since the start of January, I have had incredibly vivid dreams. I can’t remember the last time I slept through the night soundly, and it’s beginning to get unpleasant. At first I thought it was stress-related, because I’ve been significantly more stressed and busy this term than I have in a long time. But my sleep patterns have been so consistently poor that I’m beginning to think that stress is not the only underlying reason.

Let’s rewind a bit. From June 2007 to June 2008, I was on Mefloquine, an anti-malaria drug taken weekly. I wasn’t in areas with malaria that whole time, but the Mefloquine prescription starts one week before you’re in a malaria zone and lasts for four weeks after. I traveled so much during that year that I was on Mefloquine continuously.

Mefloquine is notorious for giving people vivid dreams. Add that to the list of other side effects, and it’s a pretty scary drug. (“Mefloquine may have severe and permanent adverse side effects.” Fantastic.) To top it off, apparently it’s not uncommon for people who have taken Mefloquine in the past to continue experiencing side effects long after they’ve stopped taking it (does almost 3 years count?), especially during period of high stress.

Mefloquine is probably one of the worst malaria prophylaxes, but it’s one of the more common because it’s cheap and weekly (as opposed to expensive and daily). Other options such as Malarone have a better reputation, but they’re all still rather powerful drugs.

So in June 2008, I stopped taking malaria prophylaxis altogether. Here’s why:

1. Malaria prophylaxes are powerful, and I don’t want them in my body. Especially for long period of time. I don’t like taking regular pain killers, and the thought of putting something significantly more powerful in my body scares me. Also, would you want to take a drug that gives you side effects years after you’ve stopped taking it?

2. Malaria prophylaxes don’t always work. Certain prophylaxis only protect against certain strains of malaria, and there’s no guarantee that’s the one you’re going to get. I have a friend who spent a few months in Africa on two separate occasions, took prophylaxis both times, and got malaria, both times.

3. Malaria tests and treatments are easy to come by and more trustworthy in Africa. If there’s one test that every clinic has the ability to do, it’s a malaria test. Ok, there are probably some rural and poorly stocked clinics that are currently out of the supplies, but in general this is one of the most common diseases that clinics deal with. Both the test and the treatment are also cheaper in Africa (there’s a higher demand for them), and frankly I trust them more. Western doctors probably see very few malaria patients, and so no matter how much experience they have in medicine, they are less likely to be as familiar with malaria.

So I sleep under a mosquito net, I get myself tested if I feel sick, and I carry a treatment (just in case I’m somewhere without access to a treatment). Now I just need to get rid of the side effects from my year on Mefloquine back in ’07 – ’08.

Last night I watched this documentary:

What are we doing here? is the story of three brothers and a cousin as they travel overland from Cairo to Cape Town, exploring the question of why charity has largely failed to end poverty in Africa. I was intrigued when I read the synopsis, and so I decided to purchase the DVD to watch it (since I couldn’t find anyone else who had a copy).

Overall, I felt that the Kleins did a good job of keeping their own opinions out of their documentary. They never claimed to be experts. They only wanted to learn. And as such, I felt they did a decent job of showing multiple sides of a complex question, always using clips of others’ opinions.

The film lacked a bit of depth because they only spent 6 months filming the video (I felt like the two years it took me to do a very similar trip wasn’t enough time), and they had to skip multiple countries. But I guess I can’t really blame them for that – a multi-year trip is a lot for one documentary.

Sometimes the Kleins struck me as a bit inexperienced or naive, but then they never claimed to have any prior background in development or aid. I would predict that should they do the trip again, they would probably talk to some slightly different people and ask some slightly different questions. But overall, I think they did a good job of managing their task given their prior knowledge.

The best part of the documentary was the light in which they portrayed Africans. The world is filled with images of sick, helpless, impoverished Africans. What are we doing here? features a number of intelligent Africans who are acutely aware of the adverse effects of aid in their countries, and are often better posed to offer solutions.

There were two people that struck me the most. One was a Kenyan woman working in an HIV/AIDS clinic whose thoughtfulness on how to battle both HIV and aid was striking. The second was a Kenyan news anchor who was not afraid to tell a Kenyan NGO worker to “stop whining” about a river having too much or too little to water and to start taking action into his own hands. Unlike many Africans featured in the media, the Africans I know often resemble these women. What are we doing here? gives them a powerful voice.

Overall, it was worth a watch. I wouldn’t necessarily pay for it again, but I’d be happy to lend you my copy.

I’ve been collecting artwork on all my travels throughout Africa, and now I finally have a wall on which I can display everything.

(Where everything’s from (starting in the upper left and going clockwise in a circle): Ethiopia, Botswana, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa. A few still haven’t made it up yet because I ran out of room.)

The following is a guest post from a friend of mine, Alex D’Amour. He wrote a script for a commercial (SNL style) to humorously point out some of the fundamental logical flaws in how we think about design for development, followed by a manifesto to go with it. Check it out.

—- ShakeWeight (TM) for Developing Countries: Commercial Script —-

Now, from the inventors of the PlayPump and the sOccket, a new invention that will help the developing world pull itself into the 21st century while getting itself into SHAPE! It’s the ShakeWeight (TM), for the developing world!

The ShakeWeight (TM) has revolutionized working out across America by harnessing the power of Dynamic Inertia (TM) to induce a fat-busting workout that forces muscles to contract up to 240 times per minute! But now, this 6-minute workout is about to transform more than just bodies — it’s going to make over countries too! It’s the ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM)!

This ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM) includes the same muscle-toning action as the original ShakeWeight, but includes a small magnet that bounces through a coil of wire, producing electricity as the user works out! One 6-minute workout with ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM) can produce enough electricity to power a single LED bulb for up to one hour, giving children a chance to read at night, which is correlated with literacy, which is correlated with per capita GDP growth!

Toned arms, rock hard pecs, and the end of poverty? It’s a win-win!

—- Manifesto —-

There’s no doubt that new technologies have a large role to play in development, and the recent focus on devices targetted at the developing world is encouraging. We could go so far as to say that engineers probably have more to contribute than economists do to this endeavor. But it seems that a number of these devices that are getting the most hype have skewed design priorities, perhaps precisely because they were designed to generate hype.

I’m not terribly familiar with the jargon in this area, but I haven’t come across a particular word for the class of inventions I’m talking about. These inventions take a particular task (e.g. carrying water or generating electricity) and attempt to find a way to accomplish this task incidentally (e.g. through children’s play). On its face this combination seems to imply a free lunch — we can alleviate poverty through no additional work since this work is being accomplished automatically. It makes for a sexy pitch, and one that design firms have been happy to do stylish pro-bono work for to show to eager philanthropists. In terms of generating buzz, these devices have certainly been a success.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with PlayPumps, factoring philanthropic fundability into the design goals of these devices can seriously hurt their effectiveness in the field. One problem with the PlayPump is that when kids don’t want to play with it, it’s much less efficient at pumping water than a dedicated hand pump. From a child’s standpoint, it probably isn’t the most “efficient” toy either — if kids really found it fun, there would probably already be merry-go-rounds all over the place to begin with. The simple fact is that when you try to optimize a design to push two goals — in this case a fun toy and efficient water pumping — you are guaranteed to end up with a design that is sub-optimal at accomplishing either goal. You end up with a device that’s pretty fun to play with for a pump, and that’s really good at pumping water for a merry-go-round, but is ultimately pretty mediocre at either in an absolute sense.

Ultimately, I think that our focus on Incidental Work Inventions (TM) points to a larger flaw in our development logic. We keep hyping and funding inventions that are mediocre at accomplishing daily tasks for free, when what’s really needed are devices that are very good at accomplishing these tasks for less.

If you think about it, engineers trying to satisfy clients in the developing world have a pretty low bar to clear. For somebody who is used to carrying water from a local well or river for 8 hours a day, a pump that requires only 30 minutes to an hour of work operating a lever is a breakthrough technology. You could say the same for electricity production: for somebody who has to light, refill, and monitor kerosene lamps at night to see, operating a hand crank or pump (or ShakeWeight (TM)) that uses an inductive coil or electric motor for 10 minutes to power some LED’s or charge a cell phone battery would be a boon, even if those 10 minutes required the user’s full attention. These are robust, efficient solutions with simple mechanisms that could probably even be repaired locally rather than relying on external aid if they broke.

So why do we keep funding and hyping these device like they’re the newest piece of made-for-TV workout or weight-loss equipment? Why are we funding and designing more complex inventions that are worse at satisfying the client? It seems to me that we’re focusing on the wrong client. Many of these inventors (not entirely through fault of their own) aren’t focusing on end users as much as they are on their investors. And their investors are more often than not acting in some philanthropic capacity. These philanthropists want to fund new, publicity-friendly ideas, and they’re thinking charitably, which is to say they want the benefits to the end user to be free. (This is, I think, the fundamental nature of the social enterprise economy. What distinguishes it from enterprise (without a modifier) is that it is driven by investor rather than end users.)

These intentions aren’t necessarily bad, but aren’t terribly well aligned with the goal of creating sustainable growth. An economy can’t sustain itself on obtaining necessities for free, a lesson that we’re slowly learning when it comes to macro-economic initiatives like aid funding. The same can be said for these micro-level engineering initiatives. People in the developing world are already putting in backbreaking labor to perform the tasks that these development-centric devices are trying to make easier. There’s no reason to assume that they expect to be able to pump water or generate electricity for free. If it were me, a reliable, efficient device that requires some amount of less backbreaking work to operate would be much better appreciated than a finnicky device that only works when you feel like playing with it. Honestly, the latter feels quite condescending.

In the end, the devices that work are probably not the sexy devices that are the best at attracting charity dollars or social enterprise investors. And that’s probably for the best. If we want to help create wealth in the develping world, it’s going to have to start with devices that not only accomplish daily tasks, but also drive local enterprise over social enterprise.

But seriously, I think my ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM) is a winner.

(Guest blogger: Alex D’Amour)

A couple cool maps that look at the world from a different perspective:

1. World connections on Facebook:

2. Country equivalents (in GDP and population) of American states: