One of the challenges of innovation in the developing world is getting innovators to work on the right problems. This is especially tough when trying to work with folks in the developed world on developing world innovation - often a potential innovator’s intentions are excellent, but s/he doesn’t understand what’s realistic, possible and needed in a developing world context. When I worked on Geekcorps - an NGO that sent computer geeks to work with IT businesses in the developing world - it often took volunteers more than a month before they could be really useful to their partners - it takes a long time to get a sense for what local conditions, needs and possibilities are.
This is what’s so impressive to me about Dr. Amy Smith’s work. Smith runs the D-Lab at MIT - a lab focused on building appropriate technologies for use in developing countries. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Smith understands the needs and constraints of people who live in developing nations, and she works hard to ensure her students understand as well. If you’re working with Dr. Smith at MIT, prepare to spend a week living on $2 a day before you get the chance to design systems and tools for people who live on even less.
Hearing Smith speak at the TED conference helped convince me that one of the most interesting problems to be solved in the developing world is charcoal. Charcoal is an extremely popular cooking fuel in developing nations - it’s cheap, easy to use and can be bought in very small quantities. (Even if propane cooking gas were comparable in price, the cost of a gas burner and the propane tank would put it out of reach of most poor people.) The downsides of charcoal are numerous, but two factors are especially important: fumes from charcoal kill 2 million children a year and contribute to the respiratory illness of millions of others, and charcoal is exceedingly environmentally destructive, as it produces carbon dioxide when produced and when burned, and causes deforestation.
Making biomass charcoal in Rumangabo, Democratic Republic of Congo
New charcoal technology is something I’m always on the lookout for. So I was thrilled to see a post on Afrigadget today focusing on biomass charcoal production in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The effort focuses on the area around Virunga National Park in Goma, the home to 70 mountain gorillas. These gorillas are profoundly endangered, and illegal charcoal production using wood from the forests has been a major contributor in their loss of habitat. The Wildlife Direct project to end illegal charcoal production in eastern DRC in cooperation with Congolese forest rangers is responsible for introducing some fascinating
(Wildlife Direct, I should point out, is a major innovator in blogging from developing nations. Ndesanjo Macha ran a major story on Global Voices on their efforts to help forest rangers blog from eastern DRC early last year.)
Impressed as I was with the device the Wildlife Direct folks are using in DRC - designed with help from the Legacy Foundation, which is pioneering work in biomass charcoal in parallel to Dr. Smith’s efforts - I was even more interested in the path that led the project to biomass charcoal. It seems like the project began with a plan to use Protos vegetable gas stoves, designed by Bosch und Siemens Hausgeräte GmbH, a joint venture between German industrial giants Bosch and Siemens. Hard to tell why the project moved towards biomass, but reading between the lines of blogposts, it sounds like successful charcoal interdiction efforts led to massive price increases and some serious unhappiness from local politicians. I can only guess that the BSH stoves were too expensive, not numerous enough, or too hard to get people to switch to. (That last factor shouldn’t be underestimated. There have been countless well-intentioned efforts to try to get people to switch to using solar ovens. Unfortunately, for solar ovens to work, you need to keep them closed for a long time - this doesn’t work real well with cuisines based on stirring items in broth for long periods of time, which means that women cooking hate them and don’t use them.)
Reading through the blog is an interesting set of lessons both in the complexities of making biomass briquettes and in developing and deploying technology in developing nations. The briquettes are tough to formulate correctly, and in some formulations, they produce less energy and more smoke than traditional charcoal. But when they do work, they burn clean and hot, turning waste biomass into an inexpensive source of energy… and a job opportunity for hundreds of people who work preparing biomass, mixing, shaping and selling briquettes.
The folks at Wildlife Direct are raising money specifically for their project designed to end dependency on charcoal. If you’re intrigued by this project, please join me in donating to this innovative and important effort.
This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's excellent personal blog, My Heart's In Accra.