Friday, February 24, 2006

Micro-finance and the Need for Understanding Society

I am giving a presentation on micro-finance in the Udai SJC today. The first important thing I want to convey is how any social initiative should understand the nature of society and culture in order for it to be successful and involve the people better. With regards to successful micro-finance initiatives, some points are as follows:
- People value trust
- People value their social status
- Solidarity based on caste and income levels is still prevalent
- Respect for hierarchy exists
- People take pride in their identity
- People are inherently entrepreneural

The second important thing I want to convey is how such initiatives can serve as conduits to push other ideas and philosophies, like family planning, satination, civic sense, and education. We are trying to follow the same principles for our research work here with tetherless communication, by developing applications to turn rural kiosks into community centers and media/awareness depots with location specific broadcasts.

Unselfish Technologists

Keshav pointed to me the earlier RedHerring article on Profits with a Conscience, and that got me started on this blog and on social entrepreneurism. Here is another brilliant and warm article, not on social entrepreneurism per se, but about do-gooders, who out of their simple motivation and dedication are making a big difference to the world. The article talks in detail about 6 such technologists.

- Orlando Bonilla from Columbia became rich, but he did not waste his wealth on thrills and frills like other rich people pursuing high status symbols. He invested his money in the people, by empowering them and helping them to set up new ventures and get good education. In his words: "Parquesoft is more than a regular business incubator, it is a big social project about social inclusion, a kind of social Trojan Horse. My dream, which I am certain will come true, is that these actions will multiply in a spiral of startups that can generate wealth for us all".

- Mac Dearman ran a wireless ISP in Louisiana. When evacuees from Hurricane Katrina was harboured in a closeby church and they did not have access to telephones to contact their loved ones, he set up a simple wireless link for VoIP communication to help them. But that was just the beginning. It worked, and then he moved further south with some volunteers to set up similar wireless links in Lousiana, which also worked. The ranks swelled, and eventually there were more than 800 PCs and 400 phones in hundreds of locations around Gulfport, Mississipi, and Louisiana. "After setting up PCs in a shelter, I watched an elderly woman who had languished for several days with no news from her family discover on a Red Cross web site that they were alive and looking for her. That’s what drove us for the next 10 days".

- Hamish Fraser was the Director of Partners in Health, a Boston based non-profit organization, when one of the clinics' was robbed and all the medical records were destroyed. This was a turning point, and Hamish went on to make a web-based software that would keep regular backups of the records, even in cases of power failure or poor Internet connectivity. The system is now not just in use by Partners in Health, but organizations in Phillipines and Rwanda are also using it.

- Robert Maranga from Kenya was raised by his single mother after his father died, and his education became possible only through the small loans that his mother would take from scattered MFIs and money lenders located in the area. He is not 30, realised the benefits of MFIs a long time back, and has dedicated himself to writing software to help MFIs improve their functioning. "It’s not simply about better bookkeeping. More accountability will lead to more money flowing to micro-financing institutions".

- Oviemo Ovadje from Nigeria has developed an absolutely novel blood cleansing system that avoids the need for frequent blood tranfusions. He is currently having difficulty in getting funds to popularize his invention, but he says that he would rather spend time in saving lifes than run around to VCs for money.

- Lee Thorn once bombed Laos during the Vietnam war, but he has come back after 40 years with a message of peace of friendship. He has set up the Jhai Foundation, a non-profit organization that has helped villagers build schools, sources of drinking water, and a co-operative for local coffee farmers. It has also created the Jhai PC, an innovative, built-from-scratch computer designed to help low-income communities become financially viable. "I wanted to give back to these people not out of guilt, but because I wanted to share in the compassion that they had. I wanted to be like them, be able to forgive and work with people who had hurt them".

We have a lot to learn from such people.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Turning out gadgets for a $2-a-day multitude

I loved the last few lines of the article: "MBA students, who 10 years ago said they wanted wealth, now say, teach me to make a difference".

But it's not just MBAs. Technologists and innovators have done simple things that have made a big difference. The article talks about a few of them:

- Drip irrigation was invented to water fields in an economical way: do not flood, only release water whereever required. A great step, but it was unaffordable by poor farmers. Along comes innovation, don't use pumps, use gravity. The prices dropped, and this improved farm produce by three times - an enough margin to propel farmers from the lower income class into the middle class.

- A straw was invented with seven layers of filters, which purified the water and even made regular standing pond water drinkable.

- A solar powered lighting system allowed artisans and craftsmen to work late hours in the night as well, increasing productivity and income. Solar rechargable LED lamps became a substitute for fume producing kerosene lamps.

- Bicycle extenders allowed loads of up to 100kg to be carried to and from villages.

These are not all. There are many more innovations, but they need to be popularized by appropriate technology transfer. Hopefully, we will be able to collect enough information as a part of Udai to facilitate this process.

Software for NGOs

Something that is absolutely necessary, but is not there as yet. Mifos is supposed to a microfinance open source software with development efforts headed by the Grameen Bank, but the software is not available online as yet. Panacea Dreamweavers from Chennai, India are slightly better off and provide two paid applications: automation of school activities, and NGO accounting software. They also provide a free Self Help Group (SHG) managing software, but the functionality is only limited to loan management, and the source code is completely undocumented.

There is serious need for a good MFI software, because it is not just good account maintenance that is needed, but accountability makes it easier to improve the money flow to an MFI. If any geek wants to make some real impact, then this is what he or she should work on. Or, leave the geeks aside, why not you or I? And why not Microsoft or any other company for that matter?

On the same track, NGO In A Box and the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative are trying to assemble together software commonly needed by NGOs, such as email clients and web browsers, and provide pre-loaded systems so that the NGOs do not have to spend a lot of time in overcoming the technological hassles. These organizations are presently putting together generic systems, but plan to develop profile systems for specific categories of applications as well very soon.

Rural FMCG sales outrun towns

C.K.Prahlad's vision of serving the Bottom of the Pyramid is actually happening. Shampoo, Chyavanprash, soaps, hair color, all the teeny-weenie sales articles that we traditionally used to think villagers would never use, are actually very much in use! The problem so far had been that of reachability of retail services into the villages, and appropriate pricing and packaging of the items. But the HLL Shakti initiative solved the reachability problem to a big extent, and the realization that sachet packaging was more appealing to the rural people solved the pricing problem. But this is only the beginning. New products developed especially by keeping the rural environment and culture in mind will be the next growth area.

As C.K.Prahlad puts it, rural people are very brand concious, they are connected and word of mouth advertising is of fundamental importance, and they accept advanced technology readily if it is easily usable. Companies have to keep these principles in mind when they develop new products for the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid market. But the rural market should not be viewed entirely as a cash cow. The philosophies of Amul should be followed, who are trying to market pizza to the villagers that not only has funk value but is also protein enriched, and icecream which is not just tasty, but has a high calcium content.

Designing better shelter

Worldchanging has a very interesting entry on temporary housing shelters, especially for disaster relief activities. Even more than one year after the tsunami, many people on the coastal areas still lack basic shelter and live in apalling conditions. The blog has links to many organizations that are trying to develop innovative solutions to provide temporary shelter. Right from assembling cardboard boxes, to the use of on-site available bamboo sticks to string together foldable tarpulin and ceramics, the possibilities are quite enormous.

Sulabh International

Did you know that the dozens of Sulabh Shauchalayas that we see in the Indian cities are actually the work of one single organization! I did not know until when I read this article about an Indian NGO asked to build model toilets in Kabul.

Sulabh International was started by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak in 1970, and now has over 35,000 volunteers on its rolls to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, health and hygiene, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education, training and awareness campaigns. The technology behind the Sulabh Shauchalayas is unique. It needs less than 2 litres of water to flush the excreta, does not require the service of scavengers (typically, youth from backward scheduled castes and tribes) to clean the toilets, provides manure on the spot, can be easily connected to a sewer line whenever it comes up in the area, and the pits can be cleaned easily to transport the waste to biogas generation plants. They have set up waste water treatment plants, facilities for electricity generation from biogas, production of manure, and even vermi-composting plants. Their expertise is now sought after by WHO, UNDP, and the World Bank.

Rural practice must for doctors

The government is likely to pass a law that makes it mandatory for medical graduates to take up a year's posting in rural areas. The goals behind this are clearly very noble, but I am not sure whether having a compulsory service is the right way to go about this. History has shown repeatedly that compulsory military service in countries like Germany, Lebanon, and Iran has been criticised by its own citizens, and so much so, students migrate (read, run away) abroad for studies and never come back because they fear that they will waste valuable time in the military service. India has never had such a law, and this reflects very positively on the democratic characteristics of the country. Besides, forcing anybody to do anything makes it lose its value and importance.

In my opinion, this should be made into a voluntary service, and candidates should be selected only on the basis of merit and honest dedication to the cause. In the long term, this will actually make rural medical service a prestigious activity, for which students will be given certificates of appreciation, and awards for their contributions. For example, somebody who helps in the setup of a new rural clinic should be much highly ranked than somebody who just serves in an existing clinic for a year. And somebody who helps in other initiatives like campaigning for the promotion of clean sanitation and hygiene will be even higher ranked. Last but not the lease, if recruitment into hospitals can be based on whether somebody has served in a rural area or not, then this will be even better.

Disaster warning pilot project

The National Disaster Information System has launched a pilot project to send warning messages to coastal areas over SMS and dynamically generated voice messages, whenever the meteorological department senses the occurance of a natural disaster. The information broadcast is not to take more than 33 seconds. This will later be integrated with the Tsunami Warning System as soon as it is complete.

Energy efficient water purifier

The Grameen Bank has partnered with Dean Kamen of Segway for manufacturing and distributing an energy efficient water purifier. Kamen invented a really cheap method to purify water through distillation, where the purifier can be efficiently powered by a generator that can run on cowdung. At manufacturing and distribution costs of under $1000, this could really be a new tool to put into the hands of local entrepreneurs because the job does not end at just making good water, but safe storage and bottling of water is important. Value addition like carbonation to make cold drinks or squash can further be relevant.

PCOs book 500 cr private call

PCOs have certainly revolutionized telecommunication and reachability, and have been cited as one of the best examples of social entreprenurism, but things are not so hunky-dory with the whole thing. PCO owners are typically given 20 to 35% of their revenue as commission, but these owners use the PCO for making their own private calls, which actually translates to losses of over 500 cr for BSNL. What could be a solution to verify whether a customer is genuine or not?

Smart card based dialing could be one option, where each call is tagged with the customer ID on the smart card and monitored centrally, or cryptographic mechanisms are used to increment sequence numbers on the smart card to support prepaid or postpaid billing. This would however require changes in all the PCO instruments. A more practical option could be a phone card based approach, where customers will have to dial in a secret ID as a pincode before making a call, and the ID would get tagged on to the call for centralized monitoring and even billing.

Awareness about health and hygiene

The Unicef is running a campaign to innoculate over 33.5 million children in Bangladesh against measles. Apparently, measles kills over 20,000 children in Bangladesh each year. But vaccination is not the only solution. Awareness about civic sense and maintenance of a hygienic environment are just as crucial. And various vehicles can be used for this:

- Microfinance initiatives can impose prerequisites about family health and hygiene habits, and use their activities as a conduit to reach out to the people with better developmental philosophies. The Grameen Bank is already doing this.

- Rural kiosks can be developed into active community centers, and educational videos or documentaries should be shown to the people through this channel. This is something we are trying to do in our research group with new location specific broadcast applications on the tetherless communication architecture.

- Existing distribution infrastructure like that of the PDS or retail agencies can be used to piggyback educative information to people about health issues. HLL is already doing this to some extent, by organizing teaching clinics in villages as part of its Shakti project.

Food crisis

What could be worse than 2.5 million people in northern Kenya facing acute food shortages? Weakened by hunger, children are dying due to diarrhoea and malnutrition. Cattle and livestock have also fallen victims to the drought and dwindled the economic lifelines of many people. Even though there has been a bumper harvest in western Kenya, but poor governance systems have failed to convince the people to distribute their share of production to the famine stricken population. An exodus has already begun, but how far can these people with sunken cheeks and shrivelled legs walk in search for rain and water? What could be a solution? Irrigation? Rain water harvesting? Drought resistant agriculture? Food supply from the richer nations?

It is all of those. Irrigation is of fundamental importance, which is why the green revolution that helped eliminate famine in India, has so far been a failure in Africa. According to the report by Director-General of United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, only 7% of the arable land in Africa is under irrigation, and over 50% of the sub-Saharan and 50% of the African population are suffering from hunger.

Scientists say that millions more could be starving by 2015 if enough research is not done on agriculture. Each dollar invested in argicultural research improves farm incomes by $6 and produces additional $15 of economic growth in the society as a whole. Therefore, not only is agricultural research necessary for eliminating hunger and poverty, but it is even more important for a healthy economy. According to Indian PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the second green revolution should be all about agriculture in drought prone areas, and catering to the needs of small and marginal farmers. His targets include watershed development, ground water replenishment, inter-linking of rivers, use of science for improvement in seeds, resilience to lack of water, productive livestock and poultry, soil enhancement, improved opportunities for marketing of produce, granting credit to farmers, and mechanization of harvesting and post-harvest grain processing.

Updates as of Feb 23rd, 2006: The crisis looks worst than ever. The UN says that there is no time now to make pledges of aid, but to send aid in the next couple of weeks. The crisis will not take time in turning into a disaster and then into a catastrophe.

Philanthropist Google has pledged $1.1 billion to promote ventures that try to solve the problem of global poverty. The Google Foundation supports a number of organizations:

- Acumen Fund, which is a VC to help non-profits develop sustainable business models.

- TechnoServe, which promotes entrepreneural talent to turn good ideas into thriving businesses.

- Water Research, which is researching into alternatives for water purification to provide safe and healthy drinking water in Kenya.

- PlanetRead, which seeks to improve literacy in India by subtitling movies and other educational videos.

They have appointed Dr. Larry Brilliant as the Director of the Google Foundation, who has had a very wide and varied successful career, from founding companies to funding companies, starting NGOs, and Time and Wired even called him a technology visionary. Worldchanging has a neat blog on his activities. Let's see how well Google and Dr. Brilliant can live up to the vision.

PCs for the poor

An interesting article that compares various options to bridge the digital divide, including the MIT Media Lab's 100$ laptop and Microsoft's cellphone PC. I have 2 cents of my own to add.

I don't like the one-laptop-per-child idea too much because even 100$ is a lot of money, and the funding will come in through the government. If the objective of bridging the digital divide is to bring awareness to the rural people, and allow them to communicate, then the rural kiosk model is significantly better. Both in terms of lesser cost which leads to greater reachability, and in building a community around the kiosk for better collaboration and exchange of thoughts and ideas. Furthermore, I and many more can't possibly envision a mesh network of laptops working in a village in India!

Microsoft's cellphone idea seems more practical, but meeting the low costs will be a significant challenge. Even if this is done, it is hard to think of applications that need to be accessed by a personal device, instead of a shared kiosk PC. Cellphones are great for personal voice connectivity, but when it comes to data, I would always vouch in favor of a shared infrastructure for most services required in practice.

Of course, if the objectives are changed slightly, to not just bridging the digital divide, but making an entire digital sphere, then such initiatives would make sense. But that is way long term. There is much to be done to set up shared kiosks which can pretty much completely bridge the divide.

Plastic waste reclying

This is a truly amazing story from GoodNewsIndia. Alka Zadgaonkar is a Chemistry Professor in Nagpur, and by running experiments in the college labs, she managed to figure out a way to recycle plastic and convert it back to fuel. IOC picked up the story and promised 6 crores for a pilot project, but corruption and red tape never let things move forward. Alka and her husband Umesh were not to be deterred however, and they managed to get funding from SBI. They now have a plastic waste recyclying plant that buys off almost 5 tonnes of cheap trash off the ragpickers daily, generates power, and sells it to the local factories. The plant itself is completely power sufficient. They are likely to replicate it in other cities, and even countries like Netherlands are interested in the technology. But technology is not the only thing really. It is the awesome story of dedication and perseverence that is amazingly inspirational.

On another note, WorldChanging has an interesting piece on manufacturing plastic from plants!

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Udai was started at UCSD by some friends, and we recently set up a chapter at Waterloo. I prepared a document to serve as a basis for initial discussions.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
-- by Martin Luther King Jr.

Our vision of India cannot be one that is half California and half Sub-Saharan Africa.
--- by Amartya Sen.

Udai Mission

Promote awareness about social issues concerning India and other places, and provide a platform to synergize active efforts towards their remediation. Influence people to keep social issues in mind while they follow their respective professional activities and make career choices.

Udai mailing list:
Waterloo chapter:

What we can do

This is just a rough list of various possibilities. Lots that can be done, but we need to start small and gradually expand.

1. Hold regular discussion meetings where we discuss books and articles about issues and current developments in India. Status of infrastructure sectors like transport, energy, communication, education, sanitation, and health care. Projects underway for poverty alleviation through rural employment and empowerment. Disaster relief efforts. Scope for social entrepreneurism. Political policies. And much more…

2. Get in touch with grass-root organizations working in India for additional insight about the problems they face. Make a point to visit at least one such organization during each trip to India.

3. Publish these thoughts and information for increasing awareness among the people. Wiki, Blog. Flyers. Posters. Journals, Conferences. Magazines.

4. Promote new ideas. Interesting business models for new projects. New applications of technology. Leverage the local presence of grass-root organizations to push out these ideas.

5. Influence academic research to have a more rural/social development focus. Encourage academicians to float projects at the graduate and undergraduate levels, focused towards technological innovations for social development. Solve specific problems faced by local organizations in India.

6. Assemble content for distribution to graduate, undergraduate, and high-school students to make them aware of impending social issues.

7. Organize seminars and panel discussions by eminent personalities and thinkers.

8. Organize cultural activities to serve as a platform to bring about more awareness.

9. Help grass-root organizations. Give them additional exposure with help in the design of websites and promotions through flyers or other publications. This will prove extremely beneficial for the organizations in the long run. Organize fund raising activities. Arrange donations for them in cash and kind by getting in touch with other related organizations. Give useful information and suggestions that can improve the functioning of these organizations.

10. And keep thinking…

Project ideas

Here is just some random stuff thrown in together, more to serve as a representative set of ideas that are very much possible to work on.

1. Technology

a. Enable technology transfer: Most cooking in rural India is done using kerosene stoves or bio-fuel. Common problems include fuel leakage, unhealthy smoke in indoor cooking, partially burnt fuel, and broken stove pins. Some organizations promote research in fuel-efficient stove design, and have been successful in reducing fuel consumption to almost half. Such technological innovations can be pushed out to organizations in India that promote rural technological innovations.

b. Create new systems: Most of the rural Internet and computer kiosks are dysfunctional because of computers that are infected or have crashed OSes. Simple network-booting systems can be created to make a machine restart from clean state whenever it dies. Edubuntu already supports this, but there is scope for development of new tools in Windows that can do a clean installation of Google Pack on different machines.

2. Education

a. Bring awareness about new methods: A lot of research has been done in evolving better models for classroom teaching and computer based pedagogical adaptations, like the use of games, pattern recognition, and speech recognition. However, most of this has not touched NGOs that support schools for slum children and villages. Such NGOs can be promoted here to help them buy discounted systems from companies, or acquire used books and teaching aids like Lego/Mechano sets from schools, or educational content developers in India can be encouraged to make equivalent local language based systems.

3. Economics

a. Propose new ideas: Traditional arts and crafts from India like pottery, statuettes, paper-mache, embroidery, mats, and chikan-work, are very popular in North America and other places. Some organizations try to promote this globally in a non-profit manner by investing all their profits into the development of schools and other socially relevant projects. However, their marketing outreach is very limited. What is the best way to improve this, so that the benefits can directly go back to the people? Help create an online store for them? Or help them piggy-back on various sales and supply chains that already exist around the world? Or promote fresh ventures based on the ideas of shared ownership of the venture by artisans and craftsmen, much like the Gujarat Milk Cooperative? Social entrepreneurism needs to meet globalization.

4. Analysis reports

a. Reflections: Disaster relief was fast to come for the tsunami in S. E. Asia and the earthquake in Kashmir, but most of the efforts were unfocussed and not integrated with each other. New boats were given to the fishermen, but ice factories for cold storage of the produce were not redone. Schools were reopened, but clogged ports were not cleaned up for better hygiene and sanitation. Food supplies were dropped off in the mountainous terrains, but tarpaulins and clothing were not supplied to protect the survivors from the harsh winter. What can we learn from this so that the same mistakes are not repeated?

b. Survey: There are almost 250,000 NGOs in India! They are all doing great work, but if these small initiatives can be tied in together into a bigger whole, then even greater impacts can be made. In agriculture, shared ownership of mechanical tools for oil-seed crushers and chaff separators can be promoted through micro-finance organizations, to bring post-harvest processing closer to the source. Rural Internet kiosks can be used not just for e-governance and education, but also to create community centers and hold promotional events like awareness on hygiene and sanitation, movies, and cultural events. A survey of different NGOs will bring out new ideas on how their activities can be tied in together.

c. Politics: Growth surely and steadily takes place continuously in a democratic society, but selfish political measures tend to slow down the development process. Is the government taking proper and adequate steps for the eradication of poverty through the Bharat Nirman program? Is sufficient focus being placed on alternative sources of energy? What kinds of educational and labor reforms are needed to have the outsourcing industry grow even faster? What needs to be done to promote rural employment and small-scale industries?

5. Events

a. Promotional activities: Like-minded people are surely around, and promoting the activities of Udai at conferences like IDSC can bring them all together.

b. Bring awareness: Indian dances are very popular. Organization of charity concerts can help in not just fund raising, but also in bringing awareness to the people. It will be even more wonderful if the dances themselves can be choreographed to project the ills of global warming, and the benefits of school education.

What new initiatives do I see Udai getting into

- Understand: Develop contacts with grassroot organizations like Dhriiti, Sristi, and Aavishkaar, and use them to get in touch with social entrepreneurs and NGOs to understand their problems and working conditions better.

- Tell: Make posters and flyers about developed India, developing India, and under-developed India, along with information about different organizations working in these areas. Showcase these promotional activities at conferences, concerts, and other public events held at the University.

- Help: Leverage our presence and awareness we create to help local NGOs like schools and health organizations by collecting useful donations in cash and kind, and send them to the NGOs.

- Promote: Make the research community aware of the technological problems faced by NGOs, and encourage them to do socially relevant research. Also, transfer knowledge of useful research to the NGOs.

- Analyze: Review the business and working models of NGOs, and do a cost-benefit analysis to improve their functioning. Suggest synergies between different NGOs.

All of us are quite confident that we will be able to make a big difference through Udai.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Quoting from Worldchanging: Hippocrates is a medical information search engine, providing one-click links to a variety of data sources about diseases and treatments. The search engine focuses on the "deep web," the dynamic content used to produce on-the-fly pages, which is generally invisible to traditional search methods. The data presentation is structured to make it easy for non-specialist users to find needed information quickly."

This can certainly be a first step towards delivering telemedicine to remote rural areas, but it is not a diagnosis tool as yet. The vision should be one of enabling nurses or operators partially trained in medicine to be able to query the search engine through rural Internet kiosks by specifying a set of symptoms, and get back instructions to administer first aid or quick medical attention to patients.

Citizen journalism

Worldchanging has had a series a posts on how communications, and especially cellphones, can revolutionize media. The thoughts are amazingly similar to the Global Brain project that I am working on.

Organizations like Witness have been encouraging sousveillance since 1992 by supplying video cameras and communication gear to allow people around the world to document abuses of human rights, partnering with human rights groups in many different countries. Sousveillance is the opposite of surveillance, that is, to monitor things from the bottom through the people, rather than from the top through an elite group of a selected few. Finally, and not very late, Witness has realized that they need not supply video cameras to activists, because practically everybody now already has digital cameras and cellphones that can take pictures and record videos of their surroundings. Tools such ComVu are also available for live streaming of videos from cellphones. The daunting task that now lies ahead is to organize this information to present it well, plus to take care of security and privacy issues to prevent incorrect propaganda, all of which are the objectives of the Global Brain project. Technology can amazingly simplify a lot of such things in a decentralized manner. Witness has started a forum to discuss these issues. Here's a link to Jamais Cascio's article on the participatory panopticon that summarizes a lot of the philosophy behind all this. Other organizations with similar objectives are OneWorld TV, which hosts blogs about development activities in different countries and different languages; and OurMedia and Video Bomb, which are video blog sites where users can post videos, add tags, and collect RSS feeds on the tags. And the latest was the report of an African filmmaker, Aryan Kaganof, who successfully made a movie using only cellphone cameras!

Jamais then extends the same idea to what he calls the Earth Witness project, where he proposes to use cellphones to monitor the environment. This again, is exactly the same idea as what I am working on with wireless monitoring using cellphones! Interesting, researchers from UC Irvine have similar ideas with mounting stripped down cellphones on the backs of pigeons to monitor temperature and pollution data, along with photographs, all tagged with GPS locationing. More in a speech by Jamais.

And the applications do not stop here, but go into health care where SMSes can be used to alert people about disease outbreaks, information can be collected through Voxiva like mechanisms, aggregated into websites like, and even fed into project monitoring tools to prevent medical corruption. Sarah Rich, also from Worldchanging, reported about Garbagescout, which uses the same principles to create a Google maps mashup about recyclable waste or resale articles lying around in your garage or in the neighborhood.

Mobile phones for detection of breast cancer

These infrared cameras mounted on mobile phones use two techniques, both of which have proven effective in diagnosing breast cancer: one which analyzes temperature differences in different parts of the breast, while the other analyses oxygen flow to areas of the breast. These pictures can be transferred to a processing center to determine if additional checks are required. Not only that, instantaneous biofeedback suggestions can be given to patients. Biofeedback is a therapy which trains a patient to control certain bodily functions which are usually unconscious, such as blood pressure or heart rate. Infrared cameras can be used to get data about the patient's physical state, and software can give immediate feedback on how to modulate the heart rate for example.

Even if such technology is not made available on a large scale, having similar diagnosis instruments in rural clinics, schools, and Internet kiosks, can certainly improve access to health care facilities.

Airborne wind power

Again pointers from Worldchanging, some interesting projects under development are focusing on airborne wind power. The logic is that the higher up you go, the stronger and steadier the winds become. Sky Windpower plans to put power generators that are lifted into place much like propellors lift helicoptors, and then remain tethered to the ground to send back energy. Magenn plans to put helium blimps into the sky instead. And Laddermill imagines a series of kites strung together, which rotate around a pulley system to drive a turbine.

All the ideas are super interesting, but they can be useful only if translated into practically maintainable systems, which do not crash when storms come, or when the winds go silent.

India's first community power plant

A 200 kWh hydro-electric power plant has been commissioned in a village in Nagaland. Running and maintenance of the plant has been left wholly up to the village councils - a surely positive move towards self empowerment. A gassifier unit has also been commissioned on a similar basis in another village, to produce electricity out of firewood. Gassifiers, although expensive, leave zero residue upon consumption of raw materials - another clean energy production method. Can the same techniques be used for gassifying garbage heaps, instead of the traditional methods for sludge treatment and biogas power production?

Sustainable agriculture

Worldchanging has a story on how sustainable agriculture can be more productive than industrial agriculture. So, what's the difference between these two approaches? Industrial agriculture is the form we commonly know, that is, the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and power driven irrigation pumps. However, sustainable agriculture can improve productivity by 79% in 4 years! Researchers from the University of Essex have identified 7 key methods for this. Quoting:

- Integrated pest management, which uses ecosystem resilience and diversity for pest, disease, and weed control, and seeks only to use pesticides when other options are ineffective. Brazil has pioneered the use of bio-pesticides and inter-cropping for pest management.

- Integrated nutrient management, which seeks both to balance the need to fix nitrogen within farm systems with the need to import inorganic and organic sources of nutrients, and to reduce nutrient losses through erosion control.

- Conservation tillage, which reduces the amount of tillage, sometimes to zero, so that soil can be conserved and available moisture used more efficiently. For example, after harvest, the crop residues are left on the field as protection against soil erosion. Similarly, rotation farming is done to never leave the oil uncovered, and suppress weeds.

- Agroforestry, which incorporates multifunctional trees into agricultural systems, and collective management of nearby forest resources.

- Aquaculture, which incorporates fish, shrimps, and other aquatic resources into farm systems, such as into irrigated rice fields and fish ponds, and so leads to increases in protein production.

- Water harvesting in dryland areas, which can mean formerly abandoned and degraded lands can be cultivated, and additional crops can be grown on small patches of irrigated land owing to better rainwater retention. Various methods like contour grass barriers, contour ploughing, and green manures are used to prevent soil erosion.

- Livestock integration into farming systems, such as dairy cattle and poultry, to feed on crop residues and minimize wastage and waste management.

Not only are these methods good for environmental reasons, but even more practical with better productivity! A similar effort is on with the use of biotechnology for non-GM techniques. The report focusses on four types of non-GM biotechnology: tissue culture, molecular markers, diagnostic techniques and microbial products.

A related article about how the farming practices in Africa have led to a rapid depletion of the soil nutrients.

Ocean power

One fifth's of UK's energy needs can be fulfiled by harnessing ocean energy. There are two broad approaches: wave based and tidal based. Wave-based devices generate electricity from movements of the sea surface, whereas tidal stream installations sit on the sea floor and use the regular ebb and flow of tides. The bigger problem however is to transport the energy into the grid, which currently requires power cables to be laid out on ocean floors all the way from the ocean power plants to the grid. Can fuel cells be useful here, with fuel-cell tankers (aka oil tankers) plying back and forth to store and forward the energy...

The South West England Regional Development Agency has initiated a project called Wavehub, that will set up a testbed for experimenting with different wave energy generation devices.

High tech mandis

Complete with air-conditioning and cold storage, the private sector consisting of big names like Reliance, Tata, ITC, Adanis, L&T, Pantaloon, DLF, Rahejas, and Bharat Hotels have promised to contribute 75% of the costs towards the construction of these mandis. This certainly is a step in the right direction for the second green revolution because it will now be easier for the farmers to market their produce. Greater involvement from the private sector will also encourage faster infrastructure development as what was witnessed when ITC's eChoupal initiative became popular. I hope that plans are underway to use the same infrastructure for other food services like fish and poultry.

President Kalam at the CII Summit

President Kalam gave this speech on the inauguration of the CII Summit. The point I found most interesting was his clear vision of how societal transformation and economic growth are interlinked, and what is needed to turn this linkage into a positive feedback.

"Knowledge societies enrich information society through innovation. Information society enriches agriculture and manufacturing through value addition. The whole purpose of education in a country is to develop and enhance the potential of our human resource and progressively transform it into a knowledge society."

Our society's steady (but slow?) move towards a knowledge society has been evidenced by a shift in the country's GDP from a predominantly agriculture based economy to a services based economy, and the decrease in agricultural employment. This decrease became possible with the availability of mechanised systems, better fertilizers, and more efficient pest control. To sum up, the move towards a knowledge based society was strengthened by the inter-connectivity between various sectors of the economy, that is, agriculture, manufacturing, and communication. To keep this going, President Kalam has identified four grids that have to be interlinked: knowledge grid, health grid, e-governance grid, and the PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) grid. These grids are as follows:

Knowledge grid: Interconnecting universities with socio-economic institutions, industries and R&D organisations.

Healthcare grid: Interconnecting the healthcare institutions of the government, corporate and superspeciality hospitals. Research institutions, educational institutions and ultimately, pharma R&D institutions.

E-governance grid: Interconnecting the central government and state governments and district and block level offices for G2G and G2C connectivity.

PURA knowledge grid: Connecting the PURA nodal centers with the village knowledge centres and domain service providers. Since this is the backbone for rural development, all other grids will infuse the knowledge into this grid for sustainable development, healthcare and good governance.

Interlinking these grids together will certainly improve the flow of information and accelerate new thoughts towards a better knowledge society.


Having more information about how, when, and where energy gets consumed in household devices, not only encourages people to use energy conscientiously, but can considerably reduce consumption when intelligent algorithms are used to turn devices ON and OFF. The GridWise project is under trial in Seattle and other areas, and will serve as the basis for differentiated pricing of electricity. It will also be useful for promoting green energy initiatives because green energy can typically be obtained more cheaply than buying it off the grid.

Book: Wireless Networking in the Developing World

A group of enthusiasts have written this book about bringing wireless technology to the developing world. It contains a lot of information about setting up outdoor WiFi nodes, mounting them on cheap towers, supplying solar or wind power, aligning the antenna, and many other details. Although the book in intended to allow just about anybody to set up large scale wireless networks, but things can certainly not be so simple, and prior experience will be necessary. However, it is a step in the right direction by having experts assemble information and make this available freely to everybody. I hope that such initiatives will be taken for other aspects of social development as well, like setting up of solar panels, wind turbines, water purifiers, rural Internet kiosks, and other things.


Anandan is a teaching institution based in Calcutta, and aims to provide all-round education to slum children. What does all-round education really mean? Rather than simply literacy skills, Anandan extends it to what it calls, the excitement of knowledge. And this is what the children really need - the ability to think and reason and dream. Education cannot be simply restricted to knowledge of A, B, C... Anandan does it by welcoming children of all ages, engages them in interesting games and playing with toys, and even uses computers as a teaching medium. What can we do to make things even better? Maybe by donating Mechano sets and Lego building blocks, or by encouraging local companies to develop better teaching aids through computers, or by sending coloring books with washable colors...

On a related note, Intel is planning to train 10 million teachers across developing countries so that the teachers can expand into the use of computers as better teaching aids.


A brilliant story from GoodNewsIndia about M.P.Vasimalai and the Dhan Foundatioin started by him. He grew up working in the fields, did a course in agriculture, and gave the CAT exam "in a fit of absent-mindedness" to qualify into IIM-A. But he did not take the normal route of going into the corporate world to chase high salaries. He instead applied the keen analysis skills the MBA programme helped him develop, and joined an NGO, ASSeFa (Association for Sarva SEva Farms).

When he visited his village, he realised that drilling wells and installing water pumps was not the answer to the water shortage problem, but rain water harvesting was needed to restore the depleting water levels. This required him to organize the people of the village, and that proved to be the turning point in his philosophy. When the people could be organized to think together, a lot more became possible. He started DHAN, a microfinance initiative, which has now grown across 6,000 villages and inspired many more NGOs to set up SHGs (Self Help Groups). Not only does DHAN look into water management and women empowerment, but it is trying to use the same philosophy of unified thinking to democratize the village Panchayats. So far, Panchayats have functioned only as implementors of the government schemes, but the DHAN clans belives that they need to do much more.

Friday, February 03, 2006

World of Good

World of Good partners with cooperatives, NGOs, and nonprofit organizations in developing countries to bring traditional arts and craft products to the US market. Not only does this directly benefit the artisans and craftsmen, but a part of the profits are spent towards the promotion of free trade policies and funding of social development projects. They use grocery stores, bookshops, yoga studios, and other places as outlets for these products. In their first year, they sold over 100,000 handmade items crafted by 133 artisan groups in 31 countries directly benefiting the lives of over 2,500 artisans and their families. This is true social entrepreneurism!

Other organizations on the same track are the League of Artisans, Seven Shores, Ten Thousand Villages, Blue Moon, and WorldStock, where you can shop by country (from Afghanistan and Bosnia to South Africa and Thailand) or by product line, including furniture, jewelry and even fair trade coffee from Colombia. We at Udai are trying to look into more details about these organizations and see how we can help them.

Promotion of products from rural areas is not just restricted by arts and crafts, but innovations in mechanical design of post-harvest processing machines like those promoted by Shristi, and the recent plan to commercialize health drinks made by local herbs in Bengal.

Microsoft would put poor online by cellphone

I am not sure whether this is all about politics, or actual practical facts, but Microsoft belives that cellphones can be cheaper alternatives to bridge the digital divide. By using specially configurable cellphones that can connect to a television screen and an external keyboard, this really might be the killer, instead of Negroponte's hand-cranked laptop. I personally agree with this view as well because cellphones are portable and usable for many other things, the most important being communication. We have already seen how communication can revolutionize information access and accelerate economic growth. Plus, the cellphone market is likely to be entrepreneur or consumer driven (which typically springs faster and better innovation), rather than the one-laptop-per-child project which has to be government supported.


Waterleaders is an organization with the aim of providing safe water to all the people of the world, in a sustainable manner, one by one. They have started with trying to set up water purification systems at schools to provide safe drinking water to the students while they are attending the school. Apparently, good and cheap solutions are possible with simple methods like carbon purification and treatment with sunlight. If solar panels can be set up boil the water, it's even better then! However, this in one place where good research is needed to bring down the costs of RO (Reverse Osmosis) solutions, with low power consumption, and robustness to operate in dusty and electronic unfriendly environments. Technological solutions for the poor cannot be poorly designed, but they need even more research and practical engineering.

Fishermen in Kerala

One of the most famous innovations brought about by cellphones was with the fishermen in Kerala. Excerpts from the article by economist Swaminathan Aiyar:

Fishing boats came ashore early every morning and fishermen auctioned their catch to traders at dozens of shore points. The auctions had to carried out rapidly since the fish were highly perishable. However, neither fishermen nor traders knew how much fish would be landed at which point. One consequence was that the price of fish could vary by 50% between two shore points just 15 kilometres apart. Due to uneven distribution, there would be a surplus at some places leading to wastage, and a shortage at other places. With the arrival of cellphones, fishermen began making calls to traders while still at sea, and the earlier lack of information that bedeviled both traders and fishermen was bridged. Many fishermen even began selling their catch on the phone while still at sea, and then steered their boats to the shore points where their respective buyers were waiting. The result was that the volatility of fish prices fell dramatically, and wastage was reduced. Even the consumers benefited with reduced fish prices.