Innovation begins at home: inspiring people are showing they can find creative solutions to common problems of poverty.
Local Animation: A Way Out of Poverty
One of the more remarkable creative developments since 2000 has been the explosion in animation production in the developing world, in particular Asia. Once seen as frivolous or unnecessary, animation is now acknowledged as a high-growth area and a critical component in the emerging economies being shaped by information technology.Read more
Solar Power Bringing Light and Opportunity to the Poor
Meeting the South’s energy needs will be crucial to achieving radical improvements in quality of life and human development. It is estimated that 1.7 billion people around the world lack electricity (World Bank), of whom more than 500 million live in sub-Saharan Africa.Read more
Rickshaw Drivers Prosper with New Services
The rickshaw is the world’s oldest form of wheeled transportation and forms a significant part of India’s transport infrastructure. In large cities across Asia, 1 million three-wheeled auto-rickshaws form an important means of daily transportation and a vital source of income for their drivers.Read more
Next Generation of Innovation for the Grassroots
Taking inspiration from science fiction sagas like the TV show Star Trek, the next generation of innovation is already taking shape in the South. A group of innovative facilities called Fab Labs (short for Fabrication Laboratory) in Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa and Costa Rica are applying cutting-edge technology to address the everyday needs of people.Read more
Innovation from the Global South
A major study has documented a rising tide of scientific innovation coming from Asia’s fast-developing countries, especially India and China. Conducted over 18 months by UK-based think tank Demos, it challenges the conventional wisdom that scientific ideas come from the top universities and research laboratories of large companies based in Europe or the US.Read more
Rwandan Coffee Brand Boost
A successful Rwandan company is using coffee shops to promote the nation’s high-quality coffee brands at home and abroad. Started by two Rwandan entrepreneurs three years ago, Bourbon Coffee (http://www.bourboncoffeeusa.com/) now has three shops in the country’s capital, Kigali, and a savvily positioned shop in Washington DC.
While Rwandan coffee has built a good international reputation, the country’s more than 500,000 coffee farmers (mostly small-scale) previously depended on the product's reputation alone. But Bourbon Coffee joins several other initiatives changing this situation and starting to significantly raise the profile of Rwandan coffee and build the Rwanda brand.
The East African nation experienced the horrific genocide of almost 1 million people in 1994. Ever since, the country has been on a journey to reconcile with the damage done during this time and move on to a more prosperous future for all its citizens. A key part of the country’s future success will be its economic prosperity. And historically, coffee has played a critical role in Rwanda's economy.
The Bourbon Coffee chain of shops (taking its name from the high quality Bourbon coffee varietal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_coffee_varieties) which accounts for the majority of Rwandan coffee), started with its first shop in Kigali in 2007. Started by Emmanuel Murekezi and Arthur Karuletwa, two Rwandans living in the United States, it is modelled on the popular American brand Starbucks (http://www.starbucks.com). The entrepreneurs admired the coffee culture experience found at Starbucks. Just as Starbucks heavily markets its complete quality control over the coffee experience, their philosophy is to produce great coffee from "crop to cup."
"There are over 500,000 farmers that own 100 to 200 trees in the back of their yards, so the only way they can come up with a product is to come together in a cooperative sense," Karuletwa told the Washington Post. It is a learning experience for the Rwandan coffee farmers: they learn to work together, trust each other and be accountable to each other. "Neighbours that once killed each other and communities that once floated in the same bloodbath are now hand in hand producing one of the most amazing products."
"If done right, it could be the platform to re-brand the country," continued Karuletwa, a former chief executive and now a shareholder in the company. Coffee can "create awareness that there's recovery, there's trade, there's investment opportunities, there's tourism. There's life after death."
The importance of good design and a strong brand in the success of a business cannot be emphasised enough. That extra effort and thought can take a business from local success to regional and even global success. As consultants KPMG make clear, "For many businesses, the strength of their brands is a key driver of profitability and cash flow." Yet the majority of small businesses fail to think about their brand values or how design will improve their product or service.
The shops have a very tasteful modern, African design and feel. African sculpture and furniture are surrounded by African artwork. The shop’s logo is an eye-catching orange and there is an overall recognizable brand identity for the entire Bourbon Coffee concept.
The founders see it as an opportunity to educate people about the health benefits of coffee culture and the joys of the lifestyle. They proudly serve only Rwandan coffee and promote the national brands they serve, including Akagera, Kivu Lake, Kizi Rift, Muhazi and Virunga.
Bourbon Coffee, in a clever move, opened the Washington branch in 2009 in a former Starbucks in a neighbourhood packed with aid organizations and NGOs, many of which work with Rwanda on projects.
Karuletwa says Bourbon Coffee's ambitious vision "is to stand as a symbol of a new era in African economic development, one in which African nations rise to participate directly in the global marketplace."
"Coffee is a very intimate, emotional product," he said. "The preparation, the processes and the profiling of coffee is similar to wine."
The Rwandan branches can be found at the Union Trade Centre (UTC) in Kigali’s city centre, the MTN centre in Nyarutarama and Kigali airport.
The business is funded by Rwandan investors Tristar (http://www.tri-starinvestments.com/index.html).
Another initiative is the Rwandan Farmers Brand (http://www.rwandanfarmers.com). It also hopes to raise the profile of Rwandan coffee and drive more of the profits made into the hands of farmers. It is a joint venture between the foundations of former U.S. President Clinton and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter. They fund all the brand’s creation and operation in partnership with 8,700 farmers. They have started selling Rwanda Medium Roast Ground in the United Kingdom’s Sainsbury’s supermarkets. Sixteen percent of sales are clear profit and returned to the farmers via their own Trust Fund.
Karuletwa says he doesn't want Rwandan coffee to be "a pity-driven mission". It is all about the quality: "The value initiative here is because this coffee tastes great," he says.
And Bourbon Coffee is looking further afield to grow the brand: "We hope to expand even further," Murekezi told Monocle magazine. "Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, but also Europe. We think the concept can work there too."
Shoes with Sole: Ethiopian Web Success Story
Ethiopia’s bustling capital, Addis Ababa, is experiencing a building and business boom. Foreign investors and Ethiopia’s entrepreneurial and widespread global diaspora are investing again in the country. But Ethiopia still relies for most of its foreign currency wealth on exports of unprocessed coffee beans and leather hides -- a model that leaves the bulk of the profits made outside of Ethiopia.
But one shoe company provides an example of a home-grown business that is finding success in the international marketplace, while repatriating most of the profits for its goods back to Ethiopia, creating jobs and local wealth.
Ethiopia’s economy is mostly dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 60 percent of exports and 80 percent of employment (CIA World Factbook). The country has a tiny private sector and high youth unemployment. It is difficult to find funding for small businesses. Yet, because of the high population growth, the country needs to create more jobs.
The Economist magazine has forecast Ethiopia's economy will grow by 7 percent in 2010, becoming the fifth fastest growing economy in the world, and on course to surpass Kenya to become East Africa’s biggest economy. While this sounds impressive, the country has to run hard to create enough jobs to meet its growing population and still faces significant food security problems.
One company, soleRebels, is combining a clever twist on a local tradition – recycling rubber from old truck tires into shoes, locally known as selate shoes – with sophisticated design concepts and high quality craftsmanship to make a global footwear hit.
Co-founder and managing director Bethleham Tilahun Alemu, a 30-year-old African web-vending entrepreneur, has turned this local craft into a global fashion design hit by adding colourful cotton and leather uppers to the tire shoes. The recycled rubber shoes come in many styles: from handmade flip-flops to boat shoes, loafers, and athletic trainers resembling the popular American sports shoe, Converse (http://www.converse.com/).
SoleRebels’ (http://solerebelsfootwear.weebly.com/index.html) shoe factory is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in the historic village of Zenabework. Despite its location, it is reaching the international markets through online retailers like Amazon.com. Shipments take between three and five days to arrive in the United States.
And the secret to this small start-up's success? Apart from great shoes and funky design, Alemu puts it down to this: "We are sitting in Addis Ababa but acting like an American company," she told The Guardian newspaper.
It doesn’t hurt that Alemu is also money-smart: she is a former accountant.
Started five years ago, soleRebels now employs 45 full-time staff making 500 pairs of shoes a day.
The shoes cost between US $33 and US $64. They are also being sold in Japan and the United Kingdom on Amazon’s shoe-selling website, www.javari.co.uk.
In 2010, Alemu hopes soleRebels will make US $481,000. But soleRebels has an even more ambitious goal: to become "the Timberland or Sketchers of Africa."
Timberland (http://www.timberland.com/home/index.jsp), an American shoe and boot maker, has been a pioneer in high-quality leather footwear, breaking new ground in adopting green manufacturing processes and exploiting the power of the web by allowing customers to customise their footwear.
SoleRebels has cleverly exploited the advantages of the global marketplace to grow its customers and profits. The business has done this with just one leg-up: a line of credit from the government to help with large orders.
With 6.2 million people out of a population of 80 million needing food aid, Ethiopia is still highly dependent on international aid. But Alemu is showing there is a way to build a sustainable successful business.
Inspiration for Alemu came about when she was thinking what Ethiopian product could be produced in a sustainable way. She remembered the sandals worn in the country.
"Recycling is a way of life here – you don’t throw things away that you can use again and again," she said. "I wanted to build on that idea."
Ethiopian shoe makers have had a difficult time in recent years, trying to compete with cheaper Chinese imports. But rather than just trying to come up with a shoe that was even cheaper than the Chinese ones, soleRebels decided to build a business selling shoes to the more lucrative export market.
Alemu reasoned that good design would attract a higher price. She did research on the internet to find out which designs worked well and what were the latest trends in footwear.
This research formed the basis of her range of shoes, which have catchy names like Class Act or Gruuv Thong. The sandals and flip-flops are either cotton-covered or leather covered. The Urban Runner shoe sells best and is inspired by the Converse All Star sneaker.
SoleRebels has a regular supplier of old truck tires and inner tubes and has women weave and dye the cotton, jute and hemp uppers for the shoes. Almost all materials are locally sourced. Old army uniforms are cannibalized for their camouflage pattern.
SoleRebels has also been canny in seeking Fair Trade certification (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk) to help with marketing and selling the shoes.
To increase the market for the shoes, Alemu bombarded American retailers with emails and shoe samples to pique their interest. Because of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (http://www.agoa.gov), soleRebels' shoes can be imported into the United States duty-free: a big price advantage in the U.S. marketplace which has helped grab the interest of retailers like Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters.
This interest soon snowballed, and people were placing orders through the soleRebels website (http://solerebelsfootwear.weebly.com/index.html). Orders come by courier from Ethiopia in about a week to the United States.
With all this interest building, Amazon, the leviathan online retailer, decided to become a customer for the shoes. Online retailing has been a huge boost to the growth of soleRebels. According to Alemu, it has enabled the company "to understand the market needs and demands in real time" -- a huge advantage to a start-up company far away from its markets.
There is another advantage to using the web to grow a business: it has enabled soleRebels to take greater control of the whole process. The company negotiates directly with retailers, handling orders and credit collection, and this makes sure most of the profits of the business return to Ethiopia.
Making soleRebels quickly profitable has been a benefit to its workers. Starters at the company make US $1.92 a day, while experienced shoe-makers earn US $11 a day (a good wage in Ethiopia).
"In Ethiopia we have become used to taking money from the West, to always getting help," Alemu told the Guardian. "That does not make for a sustainable economy. We need to solve our own problems."
And what does success enable them to do? SoleRebels are now building a solar-powered factory to replace their current workshop.
And there is a steely pride in the firm's success: "People buy soleRebels because they are good, not just because they are green or from Ethiopia," Alemu said. "Our product speaks for itself."
Cool Food for the Poor
A whole wave of high-tech, innovative products are now being developed and marketed for the world’s poor. These products are designed to raise the quality of life of poor people and treat them as a market with real needs, rather than a mass of people to be ignored.
One of the major challenges of the 21st century is finding ways to make these products affordable for the poor – bringing significant development gains in health and quality of life - without increasing the burden on the world’s environment. In India, this vast new market is rapidly coming alive, with new marketing channels reaching deep into the country’s slums and aided by a lively media scene turning people on to new products.
India is turning its large number of well-trained engineers and product designers to the task of making relevant products for the country's millions of rural poor.
An Indian refrigerator – the ChotuKool fridge (http://www.new.godrej.com/godrej/godrej/index.aspx?id=1) – is designed to stay cool for hours without electricity and to use half the power of conventional refrigerators. Priced at US $69, it is targeted at India’s poor – a population of over 456 million, almost half the total Indian population (World Bank).
Manufactured by Godrej and Boyce and weighing just 7.8 kilograms, it is designed around the stated needs of the poor, who wanted a fridge capable of cooling 5 to 6 bottles of water and 3 to 4 kilograms of vegetables. Portability was crucial as well, since it needed to be moved when large family gatherings take place in small rooms.
As a video shows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtCRlynp0bM), the fridge looks more like a drinks cooler than the typical large refrigerator. It works by replacing the standard compressor motor found in most fridges with a battery-powered heat exchanger.
A group of village women was involved in the design process from the beginning. The fridges are being distributed by a microfinance group.
While people in developed countries take it for granted they will have both a refrigerator and a steady supply of electricity, the world's poor have few options for keeping food cool.
There is a strong economic advantage to refrigeration: many farmers have to throw away vegetables or sell at high discounts because they are quickly spoiling in the heat. By refrigerating, they can keep them fresh and get the higher price. For somebody living on less than US $2 a day, this is a big economic boost.
Keeping food cool also comes with health advantages: it slows bacterial (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacteria) growth, which happens at temperatures between 4.4 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius. This is called ‘the danger zone’, when some bacteria double in just 20 minutes. But when a refrigerator is set below 4 degrees Celsius, most foods will be protected from bacteria growth (USDA).
Through refrigeration, the poor not only can avoid food poisoning, but also benefit from better quality foods, more dietary variety, and better take advantage of buying and storing food when prices are lower. For example, eggs in a refrigerator can last for up to five weeks. Fresh fish can be stored unfrozen for up to two days.
The quality of life improvements from refrigeration are obvious. But with conventional refrigerators costly and dependent on a steady supply of electricity, the poor will not buy them.
An Indian government survey in 2007/08 found daily pay in rural areas ranged from 45 rupees a day (US $1) to 110 rupees a day (US $2.40). This means the ChotuKool fridge costs between one and two month's wages for a rural worker.
Some argue even the cost of the ChotuKool is still too prohibitive to many poor people. And there are other initiatives out there to offer low-tech solutions to cooling food.
In Nigeria, grassroots inventor Mohammed Bah Abba has designed a cooler called the Zeer (http://practicalaction.org/?id=zeerpots). It works like this: two ceramic earthenware pots of different sizes are arranged one inside the other. The space between the pots is filled with wet sand and kept moist. The user then places their drinks or vegetables inside and covers with a damp cloth. As the water from the moist sand evaporates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evaporation), the air inside the centre pot is cooled several degrees, enough to preserve some foods and drinks.
Another Indian innovation is also targeting the rural poor consumer: a water filter. Called the Swach water purifier (http://www.tata.com/article.aspx?artid=TtOdcdNuSRk=), it is aimed at households and stands just less than 1 metre (just over 3 feet) in height. The filter is designed to do bulk water purification and is the result of 10 years’ research. It is aimed at the one billion people in the world who do not have access to clean water. It will sell for 1,000 rupees (US $21.50).
It is very slick and modern in design, with a mix of white and clear plastic, resembling the commonly used Brita (http://www.brita.net/) water filters found in many homes. It works by using ash from rice milling to filter out bacteria. The ash is impregnated with silver particles to kill germs that cause diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid. It is able to purify 3,000 litres of water before the cartridge needs to be replaced.
It is manufactured by the Indian industrial giant Tata.
"It was the pressing need of people trapped by the effects of natural disasters such as the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami that saw the deployment of one of the earliest versions of this product," said Tata vice chairman S. Ramadorai. "A key part was the insight that a natural material like rice husk can be processed to significantly reduce water-borne germs and odours when impure water is passed through it."
Innovation: Cairo’s Green Technology Pioneers
One thing is ubiquitous to every country, community and society: garbage. It's a social and environmental problem, but far from being mere waste, rubbish has its uses. This by-product of the goods and foods consumed can also be a source of fuel. As such it has many advantages, including providing free fuel to cash-strapped households, independence from unreliable municipal services and a way to dispose of waste.
An enterprising Egyptian man is showing his community how it is possible to lower the cost of gas and hot water while also avoiding the service disruptions common with municipal utilities. In the process, he is pioneering a local green innovation model that can be replicated elsewhere.
Biogas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biogas) generators -- which can transform organic household waste into fuel -- have been very successful in India and China. It is estimated there are 20 million small-scale urban biogas digesters in China and 2 million in India.
Hanna Fathy’s roof in the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood, home to the Coptic Christian Zabaleen community of Cairo – the city’s traditional garbage collectors and recyclers – is now a utility system, providing biogas and hot water.
The area is made of narrow streets and makeshift houses. Residents live cheek-by-jowl in a neighbourhood that is home to tens of thousands of people.
The community was badly hit when the 300,000 pigs the Christian residents have kept for the past 30 years to eat Cairo's vegetative waste -- an effective garbage-disposal system -- were slaughtered under government orders to prevent the spread of swine flu (H1N1) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swine_influenza).
One woman told U.S. National Public Radio about the hard life in the neighbourhood: "I'm working all the time. My hands get dirty, there's no water. The price of food is too high. The gas has gone up to seven pounds (US $1.28) a bottle, so it's expensive to heat.
"Everything is so expensive, and I have to live like this?" she said.
Fathy plops kitchen scraps, stale tea and tap water into a jug which he pours into a homemade biogas maker on the roof of his house. The stew of waste mixes with water and a small quantity of animal manure used to start the process, and overnight makes biogas, which is then used for cooking. The digester is able to provide an hour’s worth of cooking gas a day in winter months, and two hours in the summer, from around two kilograms of waste. The remaining waste by product becomes liquid organic fertilizer for the garden.
Fathy has been developing the biogas digester with the NGO Solar Cities (http://solarcities.blogspot.com), which provides designs, technical advice and support to Cairo citizens keen to embrace green technologies.
What is interesting is not only the technology but how that technology is being developed. The approach is to innovate and adapt the technology to local resources and skills. This increases the chances of take-up and buy-in.
The designs for the digesters and heaters have evolved through experimentation, brainstorming and availability of local materials.
Each biogas system costs about US $150 for materials, a cost that is being picked up right now by donations. Solar Cities believes there are only eight biogas digesters in Egypt so far, most built in 2009.
Solar Cities’ founder, Thomas Culhane, points out many urban dwellers do not believe they can generate biogas and associate it with rural systems that use animal manure. But the abundance of urban kitchen waste is in fact an excellent source material for biogas.
Culhane believes the biogas digesters are an excellent solution to two problems: the vast quantities of garbage piling up in Cairo, which has had its traditional disposal system disrupted by the slaughter of the pigs, and the city’s emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Fathy has one goal: to be completely self-sufficient. He has been also prototyping a solar heater on his roof as well as the biogas digester. The solar water heater makes use of items that can be easily found: it recycles black garbage bags, has an aluminium frame and a glass cover. The whole thing rests on a Styrofoam block and uses copper tubes. The water is stored in a bright blue barrel.
Biogas, solar power and other forms of green energy face many obstacles if it is to expand further in Egypt. The average cost of each unit will need to come down to match the income of the users and compete with the government-subsidized energy sector.
Fathy has also found neighbours are skeptical and can’t believe biogas can be made this way.
Another man, Hussain Soliman, had both a solar water heater and biogas digester on the roof of his apartment building before the crumbling building collapsed.
The complete solar water heating system designed by Solar Cities can be assembled for under US $500. It uses two 200-litre recycled industrial shampoo barrels for the holding tank and back-up water supply. The solar panels need to be kept clean from dust every week, but other than that, Culhane insists the heaters require little maintenance.
Now in temporary government housing, Soliman is still enthusiastic about the technology and is re-building a solar heater and biogas digester for his new home.
"I'm planning to collect the organic waste from restaurants in the neighborhood to increase my gas output," he told IPS News. "I'll give the restaurants plastic bags and they can separate out the organics, and I'll collect the bags at the end of each day."
Innovation in Growing Cities to Prevent Social Exclusion
The largest movements of people in human history are occurring right now, as vast populations relocate to urban and semi-urban areas in pursuit of a better quality of life, or because life has become intolerable where they currently live.
For most, this process is chaotic, unplanned, and fraught with risk, hardship, poverty and stress; yet, because so many are also able to dramatically improve their life chances, many millions follow this path because they hope life will get better.
How to improve this new world being shaped before us is hotly debated.
A new book launched during this year’s World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil highlights ways in which urban residents across the South are defining how they would like their cities to evolve, refusing to accept social exclusion and demanding a "right to the city."
"A lot of social initiatives based on the right to the city are coming from these 'new cities of the South,'" said one of the book’s editors, Charlotte Mathivet of Habitat International Coalition in Santiago, Chile. "The book highlights original social initiatives: protests and organizing of the urban poor, such as the pavement dwellers’ movements in Mumbai, India where people with nothing, living on the pavements of a very big city, organize themselves to struggle for their collective rights, just as the park dwellers did in Osaka, Japan.
"Another innovative experience came from the children’s workshops in Santiago, Chile, aimed at including children in urban planning in order to make a children-friendly city."
The book’s publisher, Habitat International Coalition (HIC) (www.hic-net.org), focuses on the links between “human habitat, human rights, and dignity, together with people’s demands, capabilities, and aspirations for freedom and solidarity."
HIC works towards the creation of a theoretical and practical framework for what it calls a “right to the city." This first edition of Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, comes in three languages – English (http://www.hic-net.org/document.php?pid=3399), Spanish (http://www.hic-net.org/document.php?pid=3400) and Portuguese (http://www.hic-net.org/document.php?pid=3401) – and is intended as an additional source of inspiration for people to live in peace and dignity in every city.
As the book says, "we give the word to the actors who fight for the right to the city in the world in many different ways, all towards the same goal that another city is possible."
The cities of Africa and Asia are growing by a million people a week. If current trends continue, megacities and sprawling slums will be the hallmarks of this majority urban world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 72 percent of the population lives in slum conditions. And by 2015, there will be 332 million slum-dwellers in Africa, with slums growing at twice the speed of cities.
"The consequences have produced a deeper gap between the city and countryside and also within the city between the rich and poor," said Mathivet.
Joseph Fumtim, author of an article about Cameroon in Cities for All, writes that in a city like Yaoundé, "it is shocking to observe the contrast between, on the one hand, the construction of paid parking lots and the expansion of roads and highways, and on the other hand, the prosperity of capitalist centres of accumulation and exchanges compared with less-marketable areas (poor neighborhoods).”
Cities for All details African experiences from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and South Africa. According to Mathivet, “one common topic affecting these countries is the problem of forced evictions, due to the rural exodus and growing urbanization. It is therefore very important for the right to the city to include a perspective of linking the struggle between rural and urban movements, because problems in cities and the countryside are closely connected, especially in Africa.”
The book argues that cities aren’t automatically a solution to the plight of the poor. Cities need to be worked on, and many of the problems faced by the South’s fast-growing cities stem from a power imbalance.
"In my understanding, urban growth is not haphazard or poorly planned in 'developing' countries. Rather, I think that urban 'planning' or lack of planning is done with a goal of generating more benefits for powerful interests and fewer benefits for poor people,” said Mathivet.
The book argues for a two-way relationship with the people who make up the majority of these fast-growing cities. And it says each city will have to customize its solutions.
"I do not think that there can be a miracle solution and it is very difficult to apply social innovations to other countries without understanding the history and the social, economic, cultural and political context," concludes Mathivet.
"Hope comes from learning of different experiences. For example, if a social movement in South Africa successfully avoided an eviction from a slum, it may help another social movement in Brazil to strengthen its own strategy. One of the book’s goals was to articulate the various South-South experiences and enhance the links between different regions."
African Health Data Revolution
A pioneering tool for gathering health data now being used in Kenya could herald a revolution in the way diseases are tracked and defeated around the world. It uses mobile phones to better connect patients with medical and health personnel, and allows data to be gathered in real-time and used to track health and improve the delivery of services, especially to remote and under-serviced areas.
In the past couple of years, Kenya has become a hotbed of mobile phone and information technology innovation. The now-famous Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform (www.ushahidi.com) is just one example. Social enterprise Data Dyne (www.datadyne.org) – with offices in Washington DC and Nairobi, Kenya – is offering its EpiSurveyor application (www.episurveyor.org) free to all to aid health data collection. It bills itself as "the first cloud-computing application for international development and global health … Think of it as like Gmail, but for data collection!"
EpiSurveyor claims to have more than 2,600 users around the world and is currently being upgraded to a second version.
"With the touch of a button I can see what’s going on across the country in real time," Kenyan civil servant Yusuf Ibrahim told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. "It is amazing."
Ibrahim works in Nairobi as the Kenyan Ministry of Health liaison to Data Dyne.
He uses maps and charts on mobile phones to track deadly disease outbreaks and vulnerable pregnancies.
The EpiSurveyor application works simply: A user logs into the website and builds and creates the sort of form they want. They then download it to a phone and start collecting data straight away.
Ibrahim gathers this data from mobile phones used by health care workers across the country.
"It used to take days, weeks or even a couple of months to find out about an outbreak of polio on the other side of the country," he said. "Now we know almost instantly. The speed with which we can now collect information has catapulted healthcare and prevention to another level. It has completely changed healthcare and saved countless lives."
He proudly points out Kenya’s mobile phone data collection system is "probably better than what they’ve got in the West."
"Although we are a third world country, I’m pretty sure we’ve done this before
Western countries. While they are still collecting information in hard copy on clipboards, we are getting it instantly."
Packed with data processing power, mobile phones are capable of an immense range of tasks and applications. Some see phones as key to a revolution in how healthcare is provided: the mobile phone becomes one-part clinic, another part mobile hospital dispensing advice and transmitting vital information back to healthcare professionals and scientists in hospitals and labs.
Despite dramatic improvements to the quality of hospitals in Africa and the number of qualified doctors, the continent’s healthcare services are still a patchwork, with rural and slum dwellers poorly served and the stresses of treating patients with contagious diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria pushing resources to the limit.
The United Nations has a number of initiatives partnering with mobile phone manufacturers, networks and software developers as part of a global campaign to reduce HIV/AIDS, malaria and deaths in childbirth.
EpiSurveyor is being used by more than 15 countries’ ministries of health and is the adopted standard for the World Health Organization (www.who.int) (WHO) for electronic health data collection.
It began as a partnership with the United Nations Foundation, The Vodafone Group Foundation, WHO and the ministries of health of Kenya and Zambia in 2006 to pilot test the software for EpiSurveyor.
At the United Nations Foundation (www.unfoundation.org), chief executive Kathy Calvin equates the impact of mobile phones on global healthcare to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin.
"Instead of building clinics and roads to remote towns and villages so that people can access healthcare, we are bringing healthcare directly to the people via mobile phones. You get a lot more healthcare for your money," Calvin told the Telegraph.
South African Wine Industry Uncorks Opportunities
Wine-making is one of South Africa's oldest industries and plays a key part in the country’s economy. And now both wine making and production are being transformed and creating new economic opportunities. Once seen only as the preserve of the country’s white minority population, wine is slowly becoming a black thing too.
With exports growing from less than 50 million litres in 1994 to more than 400 million litres in 2008 - year-on-year growth of 17 percent - it is an industry that would be remiss if it didn’t share the profits of this success with the 80 percent of the country’s population who are black.
Since the end of the racist Apartheid regime (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Africa_under_apartheid) in the mid-1990s, various government and industry initiatives have begun to reverse the iniquities of the country’s wine-making industry – and in turn, introduce more black South Africans to the pleasures of drinking this fine local product.
One product of this shift in sentiment is Zimbabwean Tariro Masayiti. A vintner for the prestigious South African winery Nederburg, he made history by being commissioned to create two of the three selected official wines for the World Cup of football held in South Africa this year. His Sauvignon Blanc and Dry Rose were drunk while fans watched the competition.
He says his introduction to the world of wine-making came about by chance.
“It was by accident really,” he said. “My brother used to work at a farm close to the Mukuyu wineries in Marondera (Zimbabwe). During my days at the university he recommended I do general work at the winery as I needed pocket money and something to help my family with.
“It was here that I got interested in winemaking. I used to see visitors from all over the world and some of them encouraged me to take up winemaking as a career. I applied and was accepted for a place at the University of Stellenbosch where I studied Viticulture and Oenology (winery),’ Masayiti told SW Radio Africa news.
“I was headhunted by Nederburg before I even finished my studies.”
Masayiti’s job involves testing the grapes that go into the winery’s product.
“I smell them and at the same time look for specific characters and flavours,” he said. “You improve on the job with training - you just need to taste a lot of wine. You need to love wine and having a science background is useful, so you understand the technical processes. But one thing that serves me well is I am dedicated and passionate about winemaking.”
Another symbol of these changes is Vernon Henn, general manager of Thandi wines (http://www.thandi.com). He worked his way up to this prestigious role in the white-dominated South African wine industry from being an office cleaner. Thandi is the first wine brand in the world entirely owned and run by a black collective.
Thandi (which means "nurturing love" in the Xhosa language) was started in 1995 and became the world's first Fair Trade-certified wine in 2003. It sells cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, semillon, chardonnay and chenin.
"The whole of the industry has been changing slowly,” Henn told the Guardian newspaper. “We can now up the pace of transformation. There's still a misconception that anything from black-owned manufacturing has to be inferior. We have always focused on quality and tried to redress misconceptions about black-owned labels."
Other black-owned labels include M'hudi (http://www.mhudi.com); Ses'fikile (http://www.winedirectory.co.za/index.php/138/sesfikile), led by three former township schoolteachers; and Seven Sisters (http://www.sevensisters.co.za/wmenu.php) – cultivated by seven sisters.
"We are a tiny minority but we are here to stay," said Vivian Kleyhans of the African Vintners Alliance, conprising eight companies led by black women. "So they will just have to accept us."
Another success in the Indaba brand (http://twitter.com/IndabaWines) first launched in the US in 1996, just after South Africa became a democratic republic. "Indaba" is the Zulu word for "a meeting of the minds," or a traditional gathering of tribal leaders for sharing ideas.
The brand was created as a celebration of the democratization process in South Africa, and from its inception the wines have conveyed the spirit of South Africa to the world's wine drinkers.
The Indaba range of wines consists of the Indaba Sauvignon Blanc, Indaba Chenin Blanc, Indaba Chardonnay, Indaba Merlot and Indaba Shiraz.
There is also the 6th annual Soweto Wine Festival (http://www.sowetowinefestival.co.za/About.htm) held in the Soweto township of Johannesburg. Soweto was home to the resistance against the Apartheid regime, and still has a very poor slum area in its midst. But it is also home to the new and rising black middle class. Many parts of Soweto could now pass for affluent suburbs in any wealthy country. Hatched as an idea in 2004, the wine festival is about "introducing South Africa's quality wines to the remaining 80 percent of our population," says Mnikelo Mangciphu, co-forunder of the Soweto Wine Festival. "Wine is not for white South Africans only to enjoy. It should be a way of life for all South Africans."
Mangciphu is also the owner and manager of the only wine shop in Soweto – Morara Wine & Spirit Emporium, which he launched after the first Soweto Wine Festival in 2005.
The idea behind the festival is to shift attitudes in South Africa about wine drinking. Soweto has been the home to many trends in the country, from politics to fashion to pop music. And so it seemed the right place to start shifting attitudes towards wine. The number of participants has grown from 3,000 people to 5,520. Five years after it began, the festival showcases wines from 103 wineries.
Mangciphu had spotted a shift in drinking habits away from just beer and so he opened his wine boutique in Soweto to cater to these new tastes.
The shop is an elegant place with wooden shelves displaying the bottles of wine.
South Africa’s wine industry now employs around 257,000 people directly and indirectly, including farm labourers and those involved in packaging, retailing and wine tourism.
Wine tourism alone employs over 59 000 people. The Western Cape region, home to much of the wine industry, has seen its economy grow on the back of wine tourism.
By volume, South Africa ranks ninth in the world for wine production.
There is a scholarship fund also available to encourage young people to enter the South African wine industry as a career. Mzokhona Mvemve was one of the first awarded the Indaba Scholarship and became South Africa’s first black wine maker in 2001, working for Cape Classics.
Maker Faire and the R and D Rise in the South
The majority of the world’s research and development (R and D) in science and technology is now shifting to the global South. Powerhouses like China boast vast numbers of published papers in peer-reviewed journals and hefty cash inputs into research and development.
China increased its R and D spending in 2009 to US $25.7 billion, a hefty 25.6 percent increase over 2008, according to Du Zhanyuan, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology. China is rapidly closing the science funding gap with Japan: in 2009 it allotted US $37.1 billion for R and D.
The times have never been better for those with new ideas in the global South.
And it's not just big companies that are involved. There is R and D going on at ground level as well. African inventors, innovators and creatives met in Nairobi, Kenya in August as part of the Maker Faire Africa 2010 (http://makerfaireafrica.com). This is research and development on a shoestring, and done in a very practical, problem-solving way. While Africa’s inventors and innovators lack the big budgets of other economies, they are not short on ideas and drive.
The Maker Faire Africa is a family-friendly gathering where the inventors can showcase their work and connect with others. It is a mix of workshops, tips on business skills, awards and a party.
The global economy thrives on innovation and so-called ‘creative destruction’ – as economist Joseph Schumpeter called it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_destruction ) - that takes place as out-of-date technologies and ways of doing are surpassed by better ideas and more efficient methods. The power to innovate is the deciding factor for sustained economic growth.
The philosophy behind Maker Faire Africa 2010 - the brainchild of ‘venture catalyst’ and entrepreneur Emeka Okafor (http://timbuktuchronicles.blogspot.com) – is to prove that innovation doesn’t just happen with computers.
As its website says, "The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations (http://www.afrigadget.com), inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc."
Maker Faire Africa is working with research organizations like Ghana’s Ashesi University (http://www.ashesi.edu.gh/index.html) and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (http://www.knust.edu.gh/pages) "to sharpen focus on locally-generated, bottom-up prototypes of technologies that solve immediate challenges to development."
In the end, the goal of engaging all this creative and inventive energy is to spur Africans towards building "a manufacturing base that supplies innovative products in response to market needs."
This initiative stands out in several ways: it is truly inspiring, it gets to the core of how wealth is created, and helps build communities of innovators and inventors to tackle the problems facing Africa - and humanity.
"We have a broader variety of makers this time around," says Emeka Okafor of the 2010 Maker Faire. He notes makers are bringing more complex systems to the Faire, rather than just single devices. And that they “have more makers who are actually from the region.”
"Maker Faire Africa is essentially a platform whereby innovators, inventers, creative types, across all disciplines, share ideas, showcase their products, interact with attendees and other makers,” he continues. They “begin the process of building what we think is an essential community of what I like to term the productive class. That is essentially where we see ourselves playing a key role. A productive class whose foundation is laid upon building problem-solving systems."
Okafor believes Africa just doesn’t "have enough wealth creation as we should."
"We have things backwards. … One of the essential steps is that you had productive systems that allowed those countries (Asia and Europe) to create wealth. And they had to draw those resources from within.
“We see Maker Fair Africa celebrating resources that we already have, with knowledge from within and outside.
“In many ways the Makers as we see them, epitomise the very sense of problem-solving that as a society acquires more of it, it begins to deal with its challenges very differently. And not look elsewhere in terms of dealing with its challenges. We want to make our Makers sexy, we want to make inventors sexy, innovators celebrities."
Some of the inspiring inventors from this year’s Faire include Norbert Okec from Uganda. His prototype for a solar powered street lighting system comes straight from his frustration with the traffic lights of Kampala, Uganda. Many don’t work and so he has developed a prototype solar-powered traffic light using a mix of recycled local parts and some LEDs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-emitting_diode) brought by a friend from China.
He hopes to produce an e-book on his invention to share with other inventors. He was joined by fellow inventors working on a dashboard for managing wireless networks, how to recycle plastic parts, solar-power torches, water and sanitation products, junk art, community cookers, sculptures, eye glasses, bicycles, and an automatic lighting system for homes.
Okafor is a passionate advocate of the Maker philosophy and how it changes the game: "…building is equivalent to making and making is a joyful thing, it is an interesting thing. It is a very satisfactory thing. It is not work. Most of the individuals around here have the biggest smiles on their faces. They don’t see what they are doing as work.
"The fact they are sitting next to other people like them if anything is one of the biggest take-aways for them. Because for some of them they were toiling away on their own. Now they see others like them. And they realise they aren’t crazy.
"When you build a community and the community begins to get stronger and sustain itself, all the other things come naturally: businesses get formed, partnerships happen: and then everything else people look for first…actually begins to happen."
And Africa’s future prosperity is what is at stake at the Faire: "There is a market for the products. And we believe as more individuals – Africans and otherwise – come into contact with what is on display, they will come to see their own societies differently. "
Chilean Eco-Buildings Pioneering Construction Methods
Across the global South, the search is on for new ways to build without extracting a high price from local environments.
Cambodian Bloggers Champion New, Open Ways
The Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia has had a very difficult history over the past few decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was seen as a glamorous and vibrant place. Dynamic, ambitious and newly independent from French colonial rule, Cambodia embarked on an extensive programme of building that is now called "New Khmer Architecture." It is the most visible legacy of this modernizing time.
The book Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture in the 1950s and 1960s says architects of the period showed "a willingness to expand and incorporate new elements, looking both outside and inside the newly independent nation …. Whether consciously or not, most of their work took up questions of how to create forms that would be recognised as both Cambodian and modern.”
But with the war in nearby Vietnam worsening in the 1970s, the destabilising effect of the conflict gave rise to the Khmer Rouge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge), a radical and genocidal movement under the dictator Pol Pot which killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians. It came to an end when newly independent Vietnam invaded the country to overturn the Khmer Rouge regime and end the genocide that had raged between 1975 and 1979.
By the early 1990s, the United Nations was helping Cambodia make the transition to democracy and redevelop its economy after the trauma of the Khmer Rouge years.
Today’s Cambodia is a country with a fast-growing economy – at 5.5 percent in 2010 according to Prime Minister Hun Sen – but still trying to come to grips with the pain and damage of the Khmer Rouge period.
On the internet, pioneering bloggers are trying to bridge the gap between reluctance to speak out about those years and the need for the country to modernize and open up. In the past, keeping quiet in public was the best survival strategy and outspoken voices could end up dead.
The internet is still in its infancy in Cambodia, with only 78,000 users in 2010 (Internet World Stats) – up from 6,000 in 2000, but still tiny in a population of 14,805,358 (World Bank). Cambodia still has high levels of illiteracy of 26 percent (ILO) and poverty, leaving access to the internet and computers a minority pursuit.
The first connections to the internet in Cambodia were set up in 1994 and internet cafes have been flourishing since the mid 2000s.
One role model can be found at the Blue Lady Blog (http://blueladyblog.com/). Its author, Kounila Keo, blogs about her daily frustrations, passions, and life as a young woman who has been working as a newspaper journalist. Her blog tackles anything Cambodian, from education and politics to lifestyle, press freedom, culture and problems facing the country. She is a passionate explainer of Cambodia’s blogging culture.
She started the Blue Lady Blog in 2007 and in a talk at Phnom Penh’s TEDx in February (http://tedxphnompenh.com/) described how she found blogging has transformed her life in three ways:
And blogging is becoming the new voice of a new generation of youth, allowing them to redefine the country’s development challenges in their own terms.
Keo found blogging altered the challenges facing youth, posing the question “What can young Cambodians do for Cambodia?” She believes Cambodian youth should do something rather than wait for opportunities to come to them. Young people have told her her blog has spurred them into action.
“Cloggers” – Cambodian bloggers – are a group of young internet users championing the use of information technologies in everyday life.
In 2007, the first Clogger Summit (http://cloggersummit.wikispaces.com/) brought together bloggers, webmasters, media representatives and NGOs for the first time to exchange ideas and share and debate. Since then, there has been a proliferation of blogs in the Cambodian language.
Developing a vibrant – and open - information technology sector has many advantages. Pioneering work by the United Nations in Mongolia as it made its transition to free markets and democracy led to the country becoming one of world’s freest for internet use.
A vibrant and free information technology sector enables businesses to quickly modernize, connect with customers and markets around the world, spread information and ideas quickly, react to crises and build market efficiencies.
Honduras, Mali, and Mongolia (http://www.yuxiyou.net/open/) were highlighted as being some of the freest places in the world for the internet in a recent report by Reporters Without Borders (http://en.rsf.org/).
Indonesian Food Company Helps Itself by Making Farmers More Efficient
The current global economic crisis is taking place at the same time as a global food crisis. Food inflation took off at the beginning of 2011. This is having a devastating affect on countries dependent on food imports and experiencing decreasing domestic production capabilities. The least developed countries (LDCs) saw food imports rise from US $9 billion in 2002, to US $23 billion by 2008 (UNCTAD), prompting Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary general of UNCTAD, to say “the import dependence has become quite devastating.”
Garuda Food (www.garudafood.com), one of Indonesia’s leading snack food and drink manufacturers, has been boosting its own productivity by investing in improving the productivity of domestic small-scale farmers. This led to a doubling of crop purchases from peanut farmers between 2007 and 2009. By stabilising the market for peanuts and better guaranteeing income, it has attracted more people into becoming peanut farmers in the region.
New Kenyan Services to Innovate Mobile Health and Farming
Kenya is home to a vibrant innovation culture centred around mobile phones. While not all the services launched will be successful, the flurry of start-ups shows the country has the right combination of technical skills, bright ideas and cash to make a go of new services.
With the number of mobile phone users leaping 28 per cent in 2011, to reach 25 million subscribers out of a population of 39 million (Reuters), the country has a large market for mobile phone-based services. Kenya also has 10 million people with access to the Internet, up from 4 million in 2009.
Two issues critical to the well-being of Kenyans – health services and farming – are being tackled by new mobile phone services. One is a service being run and marketed by a major player in the market, and the other, by a small start-up.
Statistics indicate that in Kenya, one doctor attends to over 10,000 patients. The World Health Organization recommends a ratio of 1:600. There are just over 7,500 licensed medical facilities in the country.
Safaricom, Kenya's largest telecoms operator, is trying to take the pressure off overstretched medical and health systems with a new mobile health service. Its 24-hour health advice and referral service is called 'Daktari 1525' and lets people call and speak with a doctor or an expert to get advice on any health issue. The number 1525 refers to the dialling code which links users directly to the Safaricom call centre. Daktari 1525 is available to the 18 million Safaricom subscribers.
Safaricom has partnered with 'Call-a-Doc' to launch the tool. The new service hopes to relieve outpatient departments in government hospitals and health facilities with its advice and referrals. The Daktari 1525 service does not prescribe a treatment to the callers, avoiding the legal risks of remote diagnosis.
It also offers home remedies and health tips on healthy lifestyles. In an emergency, users can also dial Daktari 1525 if there is Safaricom network coverage.
The partnership is divided between Safaricom and Call-a-Doc. Safaricom handles all the mobile phone network infrastructure, the call centre facility and the marketing of the service. Call-a-Doc takes care of recruiting doctors.
But how does the service use the doctors' time well? The shifts are designed to surge the number of doctors to 15 during peak times, falling to as few as four doctors during off-peak times. The doctors work on a part-time basis and there are currently 50 employed by the service.
Not everyone is convinced the service will work.
"It is a good attempt to venture into the field; however we would like to caution the practitioners involved that they must remain ethical and must at all times uphold professional confidentiality," Medical Practitioners and Dentist Board Chief Executive Officer Daniel Yumbya told Capital News.
Another new service based in the capital, Nairobi, is trying to shake up the world of farming. Its new mobile phone service, "MFarm: connecting farmers" (http://mfarm.co.ke/) calls itself "a transparency tool for Kenyan farmers". It bills itself as a "factory of ideas" looking to find "creative agribusiness solutions." The service is a paid-for web platform that helps farmers keep track of prices in the capital, Nairobi, and claims to have signed up 3,000 farmers in the first year of operations.
The service offers crop prices by sending a text to the numbers 3535 if the user gives the crop location required. As an example, the user texts "price crop location" "price maize Nairobi". Users can also sell their crops, or buy farm supplies.
It also allows farmers to group sell their crops by getting together with other small-scale farmers. This is a crucial service because it allows the smaller farmer to sell into the wholesale markets where prices are better. Farmers can also group buy, benefiting from lower prices by buying bulk from suppliers. It cleverly offers several 'plans' to suit budgets. There is an 'Eco Plan' at the low end, a mid-range 'Pro Plan', and a bells-and-whistles option, 'Biz Plan'.
The service also benefits from its connections with iHub Nairobi (http://ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php), the buzzing "open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in Nairobi." It provides a strong support network to turn to when problems arise.
It seems as if it would be a mistake to enter the African market with any new tech solution without first checking out the scene in Nairobi.
China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation
Since the 1950s, science fiction has been telling the world we will soon be living with robots. While robots have emerged, they have been mostly kept to heavy industry, where machines can perform dangerous, hot and unpleasant repetitive tasks to a high standard.
But China is pioneering the move to mainstream robots in more public spheres. And the country is promising big changes in the coming decade. Robots, strange as it may seem, can play a key role in development and fighting poverty.
If used intelligently, the rise of robots and robotics - itself a consequence of huge technological advances in information technology, the Internet, nano-technology, artificial intelligence, and mobile communications - can free workers from boring, difficult and dangerous jobs. This can ramp up the provision of public goods like cleaning services in urban areas, or remove the need to do back-breaking farming work.
Robotics also offers a new field of high-tech employment for countries in the global South who are producing far more educated engineering and science students than they can currently employ. These students can help build the new robot economy.
China is considered to be in the early stages of competing with robot pioneers such as Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and the United States. And China still has a low penetration of industrial robots per population. In 2011 estimates placed the number of industrial robots in China at 52,290 (International Federation of Robotics) (ifr.org).
In the years ahead, China confronts a double demographic problem. It has the world's largest elderly population, who will need care, and it also has a shrinking number of young people available to work as a result of the country's one-child policy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy). Robots can help solve these problems.
China started its robotics research in the 1970s and ramped it up from 1985. It has already made significant progress manufacturing domestic robots for cleaning. The Xiamen Lilin Electronics Co., Ltd. (http://cnlilin.en.made-in-china.com/) makes vacuum cleaners that are small round robots smart enough to return to their recharging stations when low on power.
Another firm, Jetta Company (http://www.jetta.com.hk/home.htm), has built and sells the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning and floor-washing robots (http://www.irobot.com/uk/store.aspx?camp=ppc:google:products_roomba:G_790612075_1846279957_iRobot%20roomba:roomba_brand&gclid=CMiezMiG8a4CFc4LtAodYE3MKw).
For the heavy duty stuff, there is Ningbo's Dukemen Robot, sold with the slogan "man, technology, robot". The company manufactures arm-like robots for heavy lifting and lifting in dangerous or uncomfortable environments (dukerobot.com/ks/robot-manufacturers/).
A company called Quick specializes in making soldering equipment for manufacturing electronic components and sells robots that can do this with high accuracy and speed (quick-global.com/9-new-soldering-robot-1.html).
Other robotic advances in China include a robot dolphin that swims through the water measuring its quality.
There are also robots in development to do housework and help people who need assistance in the home like the elderly and the disabled. These robots can monitor a person's physical condition and provide psychological counselling and search for, and deliver, requested items. One example is called UNISROBO, and is based on the Japanese robot PaPeRo robot (http://www.nec.co.jp/products/robot/en/index.html).
Still other robots can perform surgical procedures or even play sport, like Zhejiang University's ping pong-playing robot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BtHYHi7trA).
Even more ambitiously, China is developing robots to send to the moon.
The push to introduce robots into the workplace and wider society is receiving considerable attention in China.
Foxconn, the technology company based in Taiwan, province of China, well-known for assembling products for the American company Apple, maker of the iPad and iPhone - has pledged to deploy a million robots in its Chinese factories in the coming years to improve efficiency.
Some are forecasting that if China starts building robots on the scale it has pledged, then the world's population of manufacturing robots will grow tenfold in 10 years.
China is also broaching one of the trickiest aspects of robotics - getting robots to interact with humans.
The tricky bit in robotics is getting interaction with human beings right and to avoid the experience being intimidating or frightening. One sector that is already ahead in experimenting with this aspect of robots is the restaurant business. One robot being used in restaurants sits on a tricycle trolley laden with drinks. It cycles from table to table in endless rotation allowing customers to choose drinks when they like.
The first robot restaurant started a trial run in 2010 in Jinan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jinan), the capital of Shandong Province. The hot pot restaurant uses six robots to help with the service. The restaurant has also given itself the perfect name for this new approach: Continental Robot Experience Pavilion. Adorned with robot posters, the restaurant is 500 square metres in size and can seat 100 diners.
Diners at the Continental Robot Experience Pavilion are greeted by two 'female' "beauty robot receptionists" dressed in uniforms. Inside, the six robot waiters serve the customers. There are two to deliver drinks and two to serve the small tables and two to serve the big tables.
The robot comes to the table and takes the customers' orders for food dishes and drinks. The robots, designed with sensors to stop them moving when they sense something or someone in front of them, are able to handle 21 tables and deal with the 100 customers at a single sitting.
The robots have proven so effective, the restaurant's staff can stay focused on administration and providing assistance. The cooking is still done by human beings.
This trial run is designed to test the concept and the novelty of having robots attracting customers, the restaurant's manager told the People's Daily Online. The plan is to increase the number of robots to 40 and also to have robots do cleaning and other tasks.
"They have a better service attitude than humans," said Li Xiaomei, 35, who was visiting the restaurant for the first time.
"Humans can be temperamental or impatient, but they don't (the robots) feel tired, they just keep working and moving round and round the restaurant all night," Li said to China Daily.
India's Modernizing Food Economy Unleashing New Opportunities
Increasing prosperity in India is reshaping the country's relationship to its food. A number of trends are coming together that point to significant improvements to India's long-running problems with food supply and distribution. This matters because India, despite its two-decade economic boom - and increasing middle-class population - is still home to about 25 per cent of the world's hungry poor, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
According to Indian government figures, around 43 per cent of children under five are malnourished and more than half of pregnant women between 15 and 49 suffer from anaemia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anemia), a consequence of poor diets (WFP).
Many Indians go hungry despite the fact that the country grows enough food for its entire population. The problem isn't lack of food but a wasteful system that fails to distribute affordable food efficiently and to make participating in the food system a viable income source.
Farming employs as much as 70 per cent of Indians. But many work small plots of land, are heavily in debt and earn a meagre income.
However, a number of developments are improving the efficiency of India's food system and modernizing the way it works.
There are signs that big changes lie ahead: New restaurants exploring foreign cuisines; modern supermarkets; online food shopping services; food academies teaching new skills; food gurus proselytising for new approaches; and a thriving publishing and media sector.
They are creating new jobs, increasing price competition and encouraging more modern delivery, marketing and distribution systems.
In 2011 the introduction of global supermarkets into the Indian marketplace became a hot debate. The Indian government announced it would open the marketplace to global competition and foreign direct investment (FDI), but put the move on hold in December after an outcry by political parties and protests by small- and medium-sized retailers fearful it would harm livelihoods. The Indian supermarket sector is a market estimated to be worth US $475 (The Guardian).
One retailer that is already bringing international methods to Indian retailing is the Best Price chain of wholesale stores. Best Price is a joint venture between U.S.-based Walmart and Bharti Enterprises, one of India's largest business groups. In 2007, Walmart India made a deal with Bharti Enterprises to set up a cash and carry business called Best Price Modern Wholesale. The first store opened in 2009, and by 2012 there were 15 outlets.
By teaming up with Walmart, Bharti Enterprises gets to learn from one of the world's leading retailers and a pioneer in efficiencies, logistics, supply chain management and sourcing.
The stores have all the hallmarks of modern food selling - warehouses, sophisticated inventory control, hygienic conditions and connection to new information technologies (http://www.indiaretailing.com/bharti-walmart-II.asp). Best Price Modern Wholesale employs 3,710 people, and the stores sell more than 6,000 items, a mix of food and non-food products. It claims 90 per cent of the goods and services are sourced locally.
Food is a highly volatile and politicized issue in India. High food inflation - which reached 12.21 per cent in November 2011, according to India's Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee - has led to political tensions. Inflation has driven up the price of staple foods, essential commodities and imported products.
At the same time, India's commerce ministry has forecast that 10 million jobs will be created if foreign supermarkets are allowed to set up in India. Many of these jobs will be in logistics as more efficient, modern methods shake up India's food industry. Poor logistics in the Indian food sector means that as much as 40 per cent of produced food does not reach consumers. This waste comes at a high cost in a country with 50 million malnourished children.
New jobs are already being created in the country's restaurant industry.
While there have always been high-end restaurants in India's cities, the gastronomic scene has received a recent boost from expatriate Indian restaurateurs returning from the competitive London, Tokyo and New York scenes, bringing skills and experience from some of the most demanding kitchens in the world.
One example is Megu, a restaurant in New Delhi's Leela hotel (theleela.com/new-delhi-megu.html) that sells Japanese-influenced food. Such cuisine is being called "elite Indian international gastronomy", according to The Guardian newspaper.
"We are aiming at the affluent traveller or the ultra-rich local," Aishwarya Nair, a senior executive at the Leela, told The Guardian. "The idea is to give people a taste of globalization. In our restaurant you don't know you are in India. You could be in New York, Japan, anywhere."
That appeals to many newly affluent Indians, food critic Vir Sanghvi told the newspaper.
"The food (at somewhere like Megu) doesn't matter so much as the experience and the glamour," Sanghvi said. "There is a lot of money outside the traditional elite now and these people are looking for ways to spend it on something that seems sophisticated."
The new food fascination is also leading families who once would have employed a cook to watch 24-hour TV channels about food. This programming changes habits and encourages buying new foods and exploring new flavours.
Market analysts believe these trends are likely to continue. A middle class with spending power has been growing in India for almost two decades, and forecasts see the number of middle class Indians reaching 250 million by 2016.
"With bigger and better restaurants and international food brands coming in to the country, it's only a matter of time before fine dining finds its place among a growing cosmopolitan population," said Siddharth Mathur, manager of the independent Smoke House Room restaurant (facebook.com/SmokeHouseRoom).
Online food shopping in India is also thriving. Research by Juxt found that 65 million people use the web in India, four-fifths of whom shop online. Murali Krishnan, head of eBay India, told the BBC that the country could become one of the top 10 e-commerce hubs in the world by 2015.
Online grocery services include MyGrahak.com, which calls itself "India's Largest Food Store" and offers home delivery of food, toiletries and pet supplies. Another is Greenytails.com, which brings together multiple food retailers into one online shopping website and is based in Bangalore and Hyderabad.
As an example of the spin-offs that can be created from rising interest in food culture, there is the story of Nita Mehta. Considered one of India's most celebrated cookbook authors, Mehta (nitamehta.com) not only publishes recipes but also runs a chain of cooking academies.
As she tells it, her interest in cooking was always there and she started experimenting at home with new recipes for her friends and family. The response was encouraging and she started teaching people how to make ice cream in her home. Curious students flocked to her classes to learn how to make flavours like mint, chocolate chip and mocha.
Following on this success, she started teaching classes in baking, Chinese cooking and what she calls "multicuisine".
The lessons soon turned into a cookbook, which she wrote after doing her household chores. But her battles had only begun: publishers were not interested so she self-published. She called her publishing company Snab Publishers and released her first book, "Vegetarian Wonders”. It was modestly successful but it was with her second book, "Paneer All the Way", that things got cooking. Her publishing company has now produced 400 cook books and sold 5 million copies. She has won international awards, does TV cooking programmes, has established several cooking institutes in New Delhi and teaches classes in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other countries.
With successes like Nita Mehta, the Indian food revolution is well underway.
Battery Business Brings Tanzanians Cheap Electricity
Access to electricity is critical for making substantial development gains. With steady supplies of electricity, it is possible to read and study at night, to run modern appliances, to better use the latest information technologies and to work using time- and labour-saving devices. A home with electricity literally switches the light on modern life and gives a family huge advantages compared to those without electricity.
But there are two potential obstacles to providing electricity for the poor: one is just getting access to a steady supply; the other is paying for it.
In Africa, much of the population suffers from an electricity famine. The situation is worse than on any other continent: the proportion of people in Africa still without electricity is higher - and the rate of urban electrification is lower - than anywhere else. Four out of five rural residents in Africa live without electricity. The rate of rural electrification is also lower than on any other continent and the proportion of Africans who depend on inefficient traditional energy sources is higher than elsewhere (Desertec-Africa).
EGG-energy (http://egg-energy.com) is a Tanzanian company using an innovative business model to bring affordable electricity to rural communities.
Its co-founder, Jamie Yang, said Tanzania has a huge potential market for off-grid energy services. About 85 per cent of the population lacks access to electricity, a figure that rises to 98 per cent of the rural population.
EGG-energy says it is "dedicated to helping low-income consumers in sub-Saharan Africa gain access to clean, affordable energy, using a unique strategy based around portable rechargeable batteries." The company has eight full-time staff based in their Makumbusho office, 6 kilometres north of Dar es Salaam, the capital.
It calls its system the "portable grid," and it works like this: customers have a power system installed in their home that runs on brick-sized, re-chargeable batteries. The batteries are re-charged at a central charging station using power from the Tanzanian power grid, and sent to local distribution centres where customers can pick them up. Customers rent the batteries for a subscription fee, and they last about five nights in a home. When the battery is empty, the customer returns it, swaps for a fresh battery and pays a small swapping fee.
It is a brilliant solution to the problem of getting power from the main Tanzanian power grid to people's homes. According to EGG-energy, most Tanzanians live within 5 kilometres from a power grid line. Yet the majority of the population lack access to electricity.
"After researching the energy situation in Tanzania and other countries with similar electricity access problems, it became clear that one of the primary problems was a lack of last-mile distribution," explained Yang. "The only way to get power from the source into homes and businesses were power lines, and for the vast majority of rural Tanzanians, this was very much out of reach. We saw situations in which power lines would pass right over large populations that were still using kerosene for lighting. We also saw that distributed generation like solar was finding only very limited markets because there was no share or sell power from that source without an affordable way to distribute the electricity."
While EGG-energy is based in Tanzania, it hopes to expand across the developing world.
In order to develop an effective distribution network, EGG-energy partners join with local store owners and delivery businesses to help with distributing the batteries. The batteries are based on those used in the airline industry and are light enough to be held in one hand.
Yang believes marketing is critical to the success of the technology.
"Don't underestimate the cost of sales, marketing, and distribution," he said. "Many companies focus on the technology and in lowering the cost of the technology, while not paying enough attention to the gaps in the distribution channels.
"We have a sales team that communicates what we do through a variety of methods, including door-to-door sales, road shows and village meetings. We also make contact with the local political leaders and offer referral awards to our existing customers. Potential customers come to our charging stations to purchase the system and to connect to EGG."
When a customer signs up with EGG-energy, a technician is dispatched to their home to make sure the electricity system is sound and effective. The company also sells energy-efficient lights, radios and mobile phone chargers to complement the electricity system. It's a wise business model, since having a steady and reliable supply of electricity is a great motivator for customers to purchase other electric-powered appliances.
"We have technicians that have received vocational training through the Tanzanian system and technicians that we train ourselves," Yang said. "We have very standardized electricity installations that are easy to teach, and have more experienced technicians that we rely on for troubleshooting and support."
EGG-energy also makes the claim it can reduce a household's energy expenses by 50 per cent as they make the switch from traditional batteries for radios and kerosene lamps for light.
EGG-energy calls itself a "for-profit company with a social mission." It sees the provision of affordable electricity and energy as a spur for small entrepreneurs to build their businesses, boost educational opportunities through longer study time, and help with connecting families with the outside world.
It uses regular feedback with customers to make sure their service is actually cheaper than other options - a good habit for any business looking to build a lasting customer relationship.
"One of the key deficiencies in the energy supply chain is customer support," said Yang. "We have seen multiple solar installations given by NGOs to community organizations that are no longer functioning because the user doesn't have someone reliable to call or hasn't allotted a budget to maintain the system.
"Customer support is a key component of last mile distribution, and something that EGG-energy is focusing on as an energy services company with a local, physical presence."