In our age of smart homes and the Internet of Things, it’s sometimes difficult to fathom that many millions of people in the developing world – from poor South American countries to remote villages in India and water scarce regions of Africa – still lack reliable access to many of the basic services we take for granted. Where cost is the single biggest factor, many ‘first world’ solutions used for providing these services are simply not feasible. Here we take a look at a few innovative, low cost products and technologies that might be able to help.
Access to clean drinking water is considered a basic human right, but in poor countries where water is scarce and the money to install extensive piping and infrastructure isn’t there, some outside the box thinking is required.
One such solution suitable for small isolated communities are fog catchers. Essentially consisting of large mesh nets, they do pretty much what it says on the tin – capture condensation from fog which would otherwise burn off in the heat of the day. First developed in South America, the largest of these projects is found on the slopes of Mount Boutmezguida in Morocco in North Africa. At this site, 6,300 liters of free, clean, instant water can be captured in this manner every day. Other similar projects exist in Chile, Ghana, Eritrea, and South Africa. The non-profit responsible – Dar Si Hmad – was awarded the UN’s 2016 Momentum for Change award.
In parts of the developing world where there is access to water, but that water may be unsafe to drink such as from dams and rivers, the innovative “drinkable book” from Water is Life provides another low-cost solution. In addition to each page being filters that can be used to provide an individual with clean drinking water for four years, it also contains vital information on good sanitation practices, making it both a water purification system and educational tool.
Other innovative products include the Waterwheel, and easier method than carrying heavy buckets for those collecting water from afar, a zero-maintenance, low-cost water filtration bucket from ProCleanse, and a bicycle water purifier the CycloClean – that uses the energy created by pedaling to filter water.
Basic Road Infrastructure
Reliable roads are vital in empowering economic development in rural and developing areas, yet the cost of shipping in expensive asphalt or concrete is frequently prohibitive. One possible solution is unpaved road geocell stabilization, consisting of a three-dimensional honeycomb-like grid of cells which can provide the stabilization required even when high quality aggregates are unavailable. Thanks to the high dimensional stability of the geocell layer, not only is less infill material required, it also means that whatever aggregates are locally available can be utilized for the construction of reliable roads – such as sand or recycled asphalt. They are also suitable for areas where the terrain and weather would make standard road construction difficult and are also a greener solution – as freighting in aggregates from afar becomes unnecessary. In addition, they are easy to install, meaning local labor can be used to construct the road.
The revolutionary tech behind 3D printing has several implications for the developing world. In Chile, Ghana, and Indonesia, many people have become the lucky recipients of 3D printed prosthetic hands thanks to the innovative e-NABLING the Future project. The project connects a global network of volunteers, who share 3-D printing designs and video tutorials, with doctors in the field – literally “giving a helping hand”.
Doctors without Borders are also investing the possibility of using virtual reality and 3D printing technologies to better design their field hospitals. And in Haiti, organization Field Ready is using 3D printing to produce small yet critical medical devices such as umbilical clamps and splitters for oxygen tanks.
We do however need to be wary of ‘over-innovating’ solutions for the developing world. In Ghana, patients at many hospitals would wait for hours before receiving treatment simply to have their medical records retrieved, if they could be retrieved at all, from among vast stacks of towering paper files. The obvious solution, from a developed nation’s perspective, would be the implementation of a paperless system. Yet because the system wasn’t correctly designed for the typical Ghanaian hospital and there was no local ‘tech support’ to call on, patients instead waited for hours because the system was down.
The final solution turned out to be a combination of the two – a well-ordered paper system with a simple barcoded retrieval method. There is an important lesson to be learned here – while innovative solutions for the developing world are critical, they also need to be simple and tailored enough for those on the ground to get the full benefit from them.