I love high-tech stuff. I can always find an excuse to buy the latest whatever. I even feel helpless if I leave the house without my iPhone in hand. Many of us feel the same way, and for a good reason – new technologies tend to make our lives more productive. But are high-tech tools the best solution for less developed regions?
Compatible Technologies International doesn’t think so. I had the chance to witness a presentation of theirs a few weeks ago, in which they demonstrated some very “low-tech” solutions for helping the impoverished. Think of CTI this way: if you dropped MacGyver off in the middle of Africa for a month, he’d come up with just the sort of contraptions that CTI develops (but perhaps without the chewing gum and paperclip):
Compatible Technology International (CTI) is a nonprofit organization that alleviates hunger and poverty in the developing world by designing and distributing simple, life-changing food and water technologies. …
CTI’s promotes food security by building and deploying devices that address the post harvest side of the food chain. Many organizations focus their efforts on seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation for cultivating crops, but few consider farmers’ post harvest needs. CTI’s devices help farmers process, store, and sell their crops—improving nutrition and providing economic opportunities for the rural poor.
Browse through the devices they’ve developed, and you’ll find things like hand-powered grinders, potato slicers, shredders, and grain silos, all conceived to address real issues that rural, impoverished people face in obtaining food security. The inventions aren’t so much labor saving devices as they are ways of allowing people to harvest, store, and process food in the first place. Here’s an example of a breadfruit shredder, designed to turn this common Haitian fruit into a shelf-stable flour:
These machines don’t any employ any fancy technologies, but they’re made to be durable, usable, and low-maintenance – perfect for users who don’t have access to reliable electricity or formally trained engineers. A phone call to MacGyver isn’t even necessary; they’re simple enough to be maintained and repaired without special training or parts. CTI even goes open-source by providing free instructions on how to make many of these devices yourself, using easily-obtainable materials and tools.
So do low-tech devices like these matter? Are they truly effective way of achieving results, or are they just a way of romanticizing simpler times? My own bais is that this approach is one of the most appropriate ways to drive change. There is certainly an appropriate place for technologically-advanced solutions (see post #2 in this series), but I’ve also heard too many stories of overly sophisticated solutions used in the wrong context, with a poor result.
I’ll leave it to you to answer those questions for yourself. In arriving at your own conclusion, take a look at CTI’s project pages to see how these technologies are applied in the real world.