Low-tech smarts
Entrepreneurs cast a fresh eye on some old problems

Solar disinfection is not new - researchers discovered its effectiveness about 30 years ago. But if  
it's so easy, why isn't it more widespread?" The problem is; it's so simple, people don't think it's  
going to work," says Charlie Matlack, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at the University of  
Washington. Matlack is also president of Pota Vida, a start-up that aims to increase the use of this  

He designed an inexpensive device, the Pota Vida, that attaches to bottles. The small solar-  
powered circuit measures how much light comes through the bottle, and it has an LED indicator to  
monitor the disinfection process. "It's like using the guts that you would find in a solar- powered  
calculator," he says.

Matlack and his team are still refining Pota Vida's design so people will know how to - and want to -  
use the device. A team member brought a mechanical mock-up to Nicaragua last summer and found  
that local residents had questions of their own. "People want to know, 'Does it make me look rich,  
do people want to steal it, does it fit in culturally:" Matlack says.

"Ir's critical," he notes, "to not get too focused on a technological feature that you think will solve the  
In many places, the simplest needs - clean water, efficient sanitation, sterile medical equipment -  
can he the most difficult to meet. Take a look at three start-ups that have embraced practical  
designs that cater to people without reliable access to electricity and other infrastructure, offering  
smart yet low-tech solutions to high-stakes problems.


Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Sanergy is tackling sanitation issues in developing nations with a multi  
step approach: building a network of clean toilets, finding local entrepreneurs to manage them,  
collecting the waste, and converting it to fertilizer that can then be sold.

"In the slums, it's common for people to pay 3 to 5 shillings [about 3 to 5 cents, in US. dollars) per  
toilet use - even for pit latrines," says David Auerbach, a Sanergy co founder who graduated from  
the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The entrepreneurs  
who operate Sanergy's toilets (under the brand name Fresh Life) will continue to charge a fee, but  
toilet users will enjoy a more hygienic experience.

Unlike pit latrines, Fresh Life toilets will be emptied daily and offer toilet paper and hand-washing  

Cleanliness wasn't the only requirement for the Fresh Life toilet's design. The team knew it had to  
be inexpensive and compact. ("Space comes at a premium in a slum," Auerbach notes.) In 2010,  
Sanergy installed two prototype toilets, which cost less than $200 each to construct, in Nairobi's  
Mukuru slum. The company has trained people to work as Fresh Life franchisees, and Auerbach  
expected that by now, it would be building 60 toilets in Nairobi to serve 5,000 residents.
Sanergy received the grand prize in MIT's $ lOO K Business Plan Competition last year, along with  
the $5,000 Audience Choice Award. It also won the $12,500 grand prize in the University of  
Washington's Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition as well as that competition's prize for  
social impact, worth $1,000. To be eligible for that award. Sanergy's founders met with the Rotary  
clubs of Nairobi Park-lands and Cambridge, Mass., USA, which led to an unexpected benefit: Anju  
Paunrana, a member of the Nairobi Park-lands club, works in her family's mining business, which  
has a cement division. "We've been able to buy cement at wholesale prices, even though we're  
quite a small operation," Auerbach says.

Though he's happy about the awards, Auerbach knows that the people who use Fresh Life toilets  
will decide whether Sanergy succeeds. So the company is also working on a better way to dean out  
pit latrines, which can be up to 13 feet deep; waste is often scooped out with shovels and buckets,  
an unpleasant task. Sanergy is testing a bicycle-powered pump that would suck the waste out of the  
law~ "Our goal is to take people who operate pit latrines and convert them into Sanergy toilet  
operators," Auerbach says. "But in the meantime, we need to show them the value of what we're  
doing. And part of that is if you have a cleaner latrine, you'll have more customers,"

In rural areas, sterilizing medical instruments can be difficult because an autoclave requires a  
reliable source of electricity. "They're so energy intensive that it's nor practical to run them on a  
generator,· says Anna Young, research and development officer for International Laboratories of  
Innovations in International Health at MIT.
Two years ago, Young joined forces with electrical engineer Ted Liao at MIT to design Solar clave,  
a solar-powered autoclave. It's essentially a modified 4-liter pressure cooker insulated with  
fiberglass and covered by a bucket. Dozens of small mirrors angle toward the base of the vessel,  
which is painted black to help it absorb heat. After' 30 to 60 minutes, the Solar clave reaches 121  
degrees Celsius, the sterilization temperature recommended by the US. Centers for Disease Control  
and Prevention. From there, the Solar clave can sterilize instruments in 20 minutes.

If a mirror breaks, health-clinic workers can make a replacement by covering a piece of glass with  
Mylar from the inside of chip bags. It won't be as efficient as a mirror, but it will work, Young says.  
The ability to carry out their own repairs, however MacGyver like, makes workers more comfortable  
with Solar clave, she says, which is essential in places where mechanical problems often doom  
high-tech devices: "One screw falls off, and everyone is afraid to touch it. It becomes part of an  
equipment graveyard."


The sun can also help purify the most basic necessity: water. All you need for solar water  
disinfection, known as SODIS, is a transparent bottle made of PET plastic (the material used for  
most disposable beverage containers). Fill the bottle with water, leave it in direct sunlight for at least  
six hours, and the one-two punch of UVA rays and heat will destroy harmful bacteria. Studies show  
that when used to purify drinking water, this process can significantly reduce the occurrence of  
diarrhea. That will have a profound effect: Diarrhea results in more than two million deaths each  
S. A. Swanson writes about science, health, and technology. Her work has appeared ill publications including
Chicago magazine and

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BRCK, a portable Wi-Fi router and a backup power generator for the internet, is expected to  
alleviate problems that African Internet users face daily such as high communication costs and  
unreliable electricity.

Ushahidi, a not-for-profit technology company based in Kenya, has invented a cloud-managed,  
portable Wi-Fi router that consists of a mobile modem, which can also be used as a backup power  
generator for the Internet during electricity blackouts or in situations of limited network coverage.

Out of adversity can come innovation.

Called BRCK (pronounced as "brick"), experts are already recognising it as an ingenious solution to  
Africa's intractable power problems. The BRCK is rugged and water-proof and compatible with any  
device that requires between 3 and 17 volts power supply.  It weighs 510 grammes and it is ideal for  
use in particularly rural areas. It can be charged on readily available power sources such as a car  
battery or a solar panel. When the electricity goes off, BRCK automatically switches to battery  
mode, which can then last for eight hours.

In addition, currently available modems in Africa don't meet local needs.  They are designed  
primarily for use in more developed regions, particularly the West and Asia, where there is mostly  
uninterrupted access to electricity and Internet.

The gadget can switch between Ethernet, Wi-Fi and mobile broadband connections, and deliver connectivity for up to 20 devices at the same time  
through multiple sim cards, thereby allowing users to stay connected at a relatively low cost.

Ushahidi is optimistic about the device's potential to help small business owners in Kenya and other  
parts of Africa.

"Out of adversity can come innovation," said Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi's executive director, at a  
presentation at the TED Global Conference in Scotland last year.  Rotich emphasized the  
importance of connectivity and entrepreneurship for Africa's digital economy, and highlighted the  
BRCK's role in keeping Africans connected.  Last July, BRCK's creators were invited by eLimu, a  
Kenyan tech company, to consider delivering an e-learning to schools in remote locations. The  
BRCK has also been stress-tested successfully in rural Kenya and during the Rhino Charge, an  
annual off-road motorsport competition.

Launched last July in Nairobi, each BRCK sells for $199. Africa's ongoing information and  
communication technology (ICT) transformation makes BRCK a potentially popular device.

Ushahidi (meaning "testimony" or "witness" in Swahili) was originally founded in 2008 as a website  
to map reports of violence in Kenya in the aftermath of the disputed 2007 presidential election.

Since then, the company has evolved into a leader of the technology community in East Africa.

From the above article information taken from Ushahidi's own website below.

Note: From the Editors - Even in the rural USA getting internet and getting efficient and reasonably priced  
internet is not always easy. We believe internet opens doors for many business opportunities for farmers,  
entrepreneurs and small businesses. A two-way open internet also enables either self-education, or traditional  
education with access to language translation programs offered freely and the proliferation of free on-line classes  
in many, many subjects. This is critical  given the difficulties of establishing publishing companies in the  
numerous languages even within one country, particularly in Africa and Asia; the distribution of text books where  
needed and the cost of buying textbooks for a very, very large number of families

A Non-Profit, Open Source Tech Company


We’re a team of software developers, engineers and technologists who are from Africa and live here. We have a  
long history of building things, such as Ushahidi, Crowdmap and the iHub. Our expertise runs from cloud software  
to fingerprint scanners for mobile devices to high-level medical device prototyping and manufacturing.
The BRCK was designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya. We wanted a connectivity device that fit our needs,  
where electricity and internet connections are problematic both in urban and rural areas.
As we laid out what such a device would look like - physically robust, able to connect to multiple networks, a hub  
for all local devices, enough backup power to survive a blackout - we realized that the way the entire world is  
connecting to the web is changing. We no longer only get online via desktops in our office with an ethernet  
connection, we have multiple devices, and mobile connectivity is crucial.
AFRICA - Kenya
Technology: An Internet connection that blocks power cuts

By Ying M. Zhao-Hiemann
Courtesy photo©
The Team - Ushahidi
Bacteria-powered solar cell converts light to energy, even under overcast  

Date: July 5, 2018

Source: University of British Columbia


Researchers have found a cheap, sustainable way to build a solar cell using bacteria that convert  
light to energy. Their cell generated a current stronger than any previously recorded from such a  
device, and worked as efficiently in dim light as in bright light. This innovation could be a step  
toward wider adoption of solar power in places like British Columbia and parts of northern Europe  
where overcast skies are common.

Using bacteria that convert light to energy could be a step toward wider adoption of solar power in places where overcast skies are  
common. Credit: © FotoAndalucia / Fotolia

University of British Columbia researchers have found a cheap, sustainable way to build a solar cell  
using bacteria that convert light to energy.

Their cell generated a current stronger than any previously recorded from such a device, and  
worked as efficiently in dim light as in bright light.

This innovation could be a step toward wider adoption of solar power in places like British Columbia  
and parts of northern Europe where overcast skies are common. With further development, these  
solar cells -- called "biogenic" because they are made of living organisms -- could become as  
efficient as the synthetic cells used in conventional solar panels.

"Our solution to a uniquely B.C. problem is a significant step toward making solar energy more  
economical," said Vikramaditya Yadav, a professor in UBC's department of chemical and biological  
engineering who led the project.

Solar cells are the building blocks of solar panels. They do the work of converting light into electrical  
current. Previous efforts to build biogenic solar cells have focused on extracting the natural dye that  
bacteria use for photosynthesis. It's a costly and complex process that involves toxic solvents and  
can cause the dye to degrade.

The UBC researchers' solution was to leave the dye in the bacteria. They genetically engineered E.  
coli to produce large amounts of lycopene -- a dye that gives tomatoes their red-orange colour and  
is particularly effective at harvesting light for conversion to energy. The researchers coated the  
bacteria with a mineral that could act as a semiconductor, and applied the mixture to a glass  

With the coated glass acting as an anode at one end of their cell, they generated a current density  
of 0.686 milliamps per square centimetre -- an improvement on the 0.362 achieved by others in the  

"We recorded the highest current density for a biogenic solar cell," said Yadav. "These hybrid  
materials that we are developing can be manufactured economically and sustainably, and, with  
sufficient optimization, could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells."

The cost savings are difficult to estimate, but Yadav believes the process reduces the cost of dye  
production to about one-tenth of what it would be otherwise. The holy grail, Yadav said, would be  
finding a process that doesn't kill the bacteria, so they can produce dye indefinitely.

He added that there are other potential applications for these biogenic materials in mining, deep-sea  
exploration and other low-light environments.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

Sarvesh Kumar Srivastava, Przemyslaw Piwek, Sonal R. Ayakar, Arman Bonakdarpour, David P. Wilkinson,  
Vikramaditya G. Yadav. A Biogenic Photovoltaic Material. Small, 2018; 14 (26): 1800729 DOI:  
Cite This Page:
MLA  APA  Chicago
University of British Columbia. "Bacteria-powered solar cell converts light to energy, even under overcast skies."  
ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 July 2018.

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