IS IT POSSIBLE ?
Entrepreneurs cast a fresh eye on some old problems
BY S. A. SWANSON
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
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 ScientificAmerican.com.
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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
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
http://www.ushahidi.com/product/brck/ 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
THE NEW AFRICA
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
The Team - Ushahidi