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Weza and the Challenge of Leapfrogging Daily Life
Alex Steffen, 28 Jul 06

We've been writing about the challenges of bringing clean energy to the developing world since we started this site We've also written aboutthe Weza and why it looks promising before. Now the Freeplay Foundation is beginning to distribute it:

MUSHERI CENTER, Rwanda — In this remote village of dirt-floor homes, recharging a cellphone has long meant bicycling 25 miles to the nearest town with power, or 4 miles to the closest charged-up car battery.
So the excitement was palpable when aid workers showed up with the first test model of what may be an energy revolution for Africa: the Weza, a foot-pedal power generator.
Originally created to give an emergency kick-start to stalled boat engines, the sleek little South African-designed machine, pumped with one foot, can charge a cellphone battery in five minutes or a car battery in half an hour.

Devices like the Weza are a special subset of leapfrogging technologies. We're familiar with thinking about the mobile phone, open source telecentros, tropically tolerant software, ad-hoc wireless networks and the One Laptop Per Child computer as being revolutionary. Technologies like the Weza remind us that leapfrogging doesn't stop there, though.

As Vinay wrote in his essay Envisioning a Leapfrogged World, many of the most potentially revolutionary leapfrog technologies have to do with changing the way people meet their basic needs and respond to their environment -- technologies like the Watercone, the Lifestraw, rainwater harvesting (or even water-purifying nanotechnology); irrigation tools like the Moneymaker or the elephant pump; new breakthroughs in the provision of shelter (if you're interested in this subject, you really ought to run out and grab a copy of Design Like You Give a Damn); innovative health care ideas like Dimagi and solar-powered hearing aids; cooking stoves, refrigerators, street lamps and lighting systems; bicycles and wheelchairs; barefoot engineers; new models of urban planning even new ideas for providing banking, insurance and money transfer services.

Obviously, the provision of power -- whether through solar technologies, bicycle generators, microhydro turbines, biomass or innovations like the Weza -- rises pretty close to the top of the list.

As Dina wrote in her survey of Indian village-level innovation,

What can be more worldchanging than solutions creatively crafted by people who need them the most? Solutions that ease the burden of day-to-day life. Solutions that make use of limited resources available. Solutions that work, despite little encouragement, aid and 'technical' know-how. Solutions that are adapted to the environment and, in most cases, are eco-friendly.

What we often forget, because to almost everyone reading this site electricity is ubiquitous and cheap, is that energy is first and foremost a substitute for human work. Energy lets hard-working people get more done and waste less. Energy increases the ability of regular people to craft solutions that ease the burden of day-to-day life. That's why breakthroughs like the Weza (and we need more and better solutions like it) are so important -- they are bringing energy to the work of the billions of people out there who are trying to build better lives.

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All these technologies are cute, but wouldn't it be better if all those aid workers tackle the only issue that really matters, which is structural, global social reform?

Every time I read about another cute technofix for the poor, I feel like reading about the 19th century, where the bosses handed out saucages to their hungry workers. It's so passe, isn't it?

Posted by: Lorenzo on 28 Jul 06

Global social reform is extremely important and there are groups that are focused on that, but there needs to be a multifaceted approach to solving all the different issues of the world. We can't rely just on Global social reform. Especially when that may not be the best way to give cheap accessible energy to people in remote areas. We need to have companies, groups and indiviuals working to put out innovations like the WEZA. It is important that we hit all the problems from every angle.

Posted by: Jason S. on 28 Jul 06

Lorenzo, what exactly do you mean by structural, global social reform?

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 28 Jul 06

Well, techologies has proven -not always but sometimes- to be a very good trigger for social chages. There's on very good proof of this right here :

Posted by: jpm on 28 Jul 06

Of course larger changes must happen to solve the root of the problems, but in the meantime, these breathing, living people could use some help.

I think we can do more than one thing at once.

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 28 Jul 06

It's most often the technology that introduces social change. Saving someone (usually a woman) many hours to charge up a cell phone will have an enormous effect on society.

Posted by: ewo on 29 Jul 06

A "cute technofix" can provide a huge improvement in quality of life, not only because of the relatively significant (small and "cute" to most of us) increase in income or time of the user. It spurs further innovation by users, especially if the techonology is simple enough for individual understanding and deconstruction.

Of course, structural and systemic problems are important to fix. Can you not see innovations like this as "chipping away" at these goliaths? I certainly think they do exactly that.

We won't stop working at policy at tax structure, but realistically speaking, before the great turnaround in structural paradigms, things like this show us part of the whole we are working for.

Posted by: Beatrice Misa on 30 Jul 06



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