Hip tech, useful tech

March 2014

An interesting article up at Fast Company, Hugh Whalan’s “Hip Gadgets For The Developing World Won’t Solve Global Poverty: Stop Making Them”:

Every time I see a gimmicky product hailed as the “next big thing” to make a dent in world poverty I want to pull my hair out. There are already enough products in the market to change the lives of every single poor consumer on the planet. Poor consumers don’t need another slick product developed in the U.S., they simply need a product that reaches them in their village. Let me explain.

Many entrepreneurs (incorrectly) think the biggest challenge is actually making the product. They are so pleased they have invented a widget that is more efficient or lower cost or fancier than the other widgets on the market. Since there are 1 bazillion people whose life would be immeasurably improved by getting access to their widget, and their widget is the best, success is a sure thing.

An extreme example is Playpump (now defunct) which was a $14,000 to $20,000 merry-go-round that pumped water when children played on it. In 2010, Laura Bush and Bill Clinton announced a $16.4 million grant to build hundreds of Playpumps in Africa, but the organization struggled to come close to the initial hype because, as a Mozambique government report noted: children are not playing as expected on the merry-go-rounds and adults find it difficult to operate; pumps are out of commission for up to 17 months at a time; and maintenance is a real disaster.

A more recent example of our love of products is Soccket, a company that has made a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy to generate light. Cool right? This company has received loads of press (including here at Co.Exist), and has raised nearly $600,000 from crowdfunding sites. Even Obama and Bill Clinton love it. It is undoubtedly a nifty piece of technology.

The problem? At a cost of $60 per Soccket, it is the most expensive six-watt light on the market. D.Light, for example, produces a high-quality study light with a two-year warranty and similar functionality that retails for $10. The Soccket is also certainly the most expensive soccer ball the customer, presumably kids with no access to electricity, is ever going to see. (A more in-depth analysis of the concerns with Soccket’s approach can be found here.)

Funnily enough, the Soccket actually came out of a Harvard class, ES 20: How to Create Things and Have Them Matter, which is a veritable factory of similarly glamorous gadgets: electric chargers that clip into specially-made running shoes to get kinetic energy, paint that changes color when exposed to hazards, genetically modified bottle-shaped coconuts. I suspect that most of them will run into similar problems in the translational phase. For a class that’s so deeply embedded in the startup scene, it’s surprising how badly they ignore Paul Graham’s edict: “make something people want.”

Then again, I guess they did make something that Obama and Bill Clinton wanted. Maybe at some point the celebrity endorsers will figure out that this kind of thing doesn’t actually work, and then the Soccket and PlayPump creators of the world won’t be able to climb such a tempting but ultimately horrendously misaligned incentive gradient. Or maybe we’ll have to rely on more effectiveness-minded people like Whalan calling them out until they figure out what the real problems are.

At any rate, the skepticism in Soccket is well-justified and the comparison to the PlayPumps debacle is apt. But I think that comparison also highlights an area where Whalan’s analysis misses the mark. Even if PlayPumps’ maintenance worries magically disappeared, kids still wouldn’t have played with them and parents still would have found them uselessly cumbersome to operate. We can distribute Socckets all we want, but they’ll still cost $60. The value proposition is fundamentally not there. The problem isn’t logistics; it’s that these are bad ideas.

Whalan draws the conclusion that the really important things aren’t technological at all:

Thankfully, there are an increasing number of companies focused on the bigger, yet far less glamorous task, of delivering mundane but useful stuff to poor consumers. Honey Care Africa, for example, is building an integrated honey production value chain in East Africa. It does everything from educating smallholder beekeepers, to acting as their buying agent for inputs, to providing financing, distribution, and sales support for the honey. There are now 15,000 beekeepers in Honey Care’s network who are experiencing an increase in household income of up to 50%.

But I think it’s a mistake to ignore the potential impact of tech wholesale just because a bunch of Americans would rather engineer funny-shaped coconuts than get the global poor the money to buy them. As far back as the 1960s, tech innovation saved millions from food shortages. More recently, Africa’s strong cell phone infrastructure has radically changed economies. I have high hopes that today’s pushes for educational technology and broader Internet access will have similarly transformative effects.

The common thread that separates Norman Borlaug and M-PESA from light-up soccer balls may be that the former had real experience working in development. Borlaug worked in Mexico for 10 years, and the strains of wheat were imported to India because the Indian government–not some random American college students–thought it would be helpful. The idea for M-PESA was sparked by noticing citizens exchanging cell phone airtime instead of currency, not by telling some design students to go remake commerce in Kenya. Technical solutions can be helpful–the bad part is the attitude that many people have of looking for a problem.

At a recent Developers For Development meeting, the speaker for the talk we were watching informed us of rule #1 for international development: there are no shortcuts. That’s true, and much of the tech that people try and force into developing countries reeks of misunderstanding this tenet. Most social entrepreneurs are focused on the glamorous-gadget side. But with a bit more wisdom, and experience with the actual problems, tech can play the long game too.

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