Gandhian Innovation and the Race to the BoP
Wheel spinning governments, analytical pecuniary institutions and benign demand-based charities utter the inconsiderate benchmarks for what they consider poverty to be. They overtly say that 4 billion people on this planet live under or somewhere around the so-called poverty-line. A fiscal measure of living on, or below 2 dollars per capita PPP a day. And of course they must know, they are wise after all.
Well, I have been around for 50 years and travelled the world. Yes, much has been at the behest of corporate edicts and generous expenses; but much has been at the will of a rucksack and walking shoes around inner India, Africa and East Asia. And my experiences and definition of poverty is far from merely fiscal. So let me tell you what poverty is: it is complex!
A huge variable condition set by growing populations outpacing productivity ultimately leading to extreme economic margin. In times of crisis it is children and families wasting away; babies shrilling and emaciated souls lying curled up in filthy rags. It is in access to clean water, sustenance, basic medicines and shelter.
But it is the immeasurable lack of voice, resolve and loss of dignity that truly opens up comprehension to poverty. It is subjection to exploitation and exposure to indifference, humiliation and inhumane treatment from not merely the haves; but the public services and instruments from which the poor look for help.
It means emotional pain, server anxiety and fear, and bone deep tears caused by infringement of basic human rights and sensibilities that you the reader take for granted. It is an inability, even curfew to maintain cultural identity, customs, traditions and personal beliefs; an insufferable incapacity to participate in society and breakdown in equality; and not least, it is vulnerability and exposure to dangers, risks and gross uncertainties that whither character and soul.
Hence, the definition of living on under 730 dollars a year does not even begin to break the surface of describing what 4 billion people wake up to every day. On my journeys I have spoken to many trapped in a spectrum of dearth. I asked them to tell me their experiences: ‘I can’t voice my opinion. And when I do speak, they talk over me. I ask for little, but they also have little to give as well. I feel demoralised, anxious and a feeling of second citizen to people I know I should be equal.’
Well, that is real poverty; and a prospective that few in the advanced nation economies get to understand; even when in fact it can be knocking at your door. Because the surprise here, however, is the person I spoke to just above, lives at YMCA in Brighton, my home town in the UK. Not Somalia or Ethiopia. But in one of the highest living standard cities in the world!
So, why am I talking about poverty when my theme of GigaMarket$ is fundamentally about creating billion dollar markets? Well, as I have said many times before: there is plenty of value at the bottom; and yet another market paradox bordering on the ironic. How can a multiple billion dollar markets exist in hopeless poverty? In fact: is this not unprincipled, even immoral thinking?
Far from it! Hopeless poverty is just that, if it is left at that. Because by viewing hardship and living deficiencies as a way to target products and services that relieve such deprivation, then that is yet another strategy for ending poverty! And this is something we must take exceedingly serious, because in terms of population growth, by 2030, Asia and Africa will account for ~87 percent, where the majority of world poverty resides.
Yet under this extreme inhuman context necessity is often the mother of invention. A reality that goes back before language was even invented: put people’s back against the wall whether in a slum city or rural out back; and ingenuity will spring fourth.
Now take this context in the broad world of corporate reality! Often the only necessity of invention is to meet a trite mission statement, a quarterly profit target or the ego of a brow beating boss. Not much stimulation for innovation when compared to some young person starving on the streets of Calcutta.
This is further compounded by bureaucratic practise and norms. As ingrained routine can be a very comfortable potbelly. It can lead to delusional and untimely a dangerous poison: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ when over 80 percent of world’s economy over the next 20 years will grow and exist in the BRICS, E7 and E11 nations; together with unimaginable business models and concepts built and distributed at a cost simply unobtainable in the rich potbelled west.
The base of the economic pyramid may well swell to 6 billion by 2040 according to The World Bank, as the majority of new birth wills occur there. Another view is that at least a billion people will rise from the base to lower middle income over the next decade. Yet my view, influenced by the Kurzweilean view is that these numbers may be out by half a magnitude. There will of course always be poverty. Poverty has many varieties, depths and conditions. But the materially poorest – at least as we have abjectly known it – may altogether have disappear by 2030. Don’t forget ‘The Singularity is Near!’
Living at the bottom of the global economic pyramid today is an indictment upon mankind. It is wrong beyond words. But as the numbers show, throwing never-ending zero-sum aid at the problem alone only creates yet more demand for yet more aid. Relief is just that. Ultimately aid is merely a Band-Aid. It fills a hole for a time only leaving a more intense heartache.
Many dearth regions are immensely hot, arid or humid. Often sodden with floods or monsoons. Drinking water is regularly and suddenly sparse or spoilt. Hence the second leading cause of death in children under five – everywhere – is lack of access to clean water. Vast waves of helpless families and forsaken children dehydrating away. Across these menacing worlds are ranges of killer Bactria thriving in spoilt waters trigging diseases like Diarrhoea and Diphtheria. And even if you survive you often face a 20+ mile hike to the river, again often spoilt by toxins and waste.
Even in the face of the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people with in-access to safe drinking water by 2015, the WHO and UNICEF ‘Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation’ recently reviled an estimated ~900 million people in the world - ~37 percent of who live in Sub-Saharan Africa - still use unimproved sources of drinking water.
Frugal Innovation Possibilities.
But what if you could cleanse filthy water instantly, cheaply, reliably, and under such sparse conditions? I do not merely mean dirty, I mean viral-bacteria. That would be a feat. This is where the new likes of Slingshot comes in. A vapour compression distillation system that runs on very low levels of electricity. Through boiling and evaporation, this ingenious gadget can clean and purify anything from ocean water to raw sewage. A single Slingshot unit can purify up to 300,000 litres of water a year or enough daily drinking water for about 300 people. It is hoped that by the end 2014, distribution should extend to India, the Middle East and Asia. Slingshot’s mass is about 200 pounds, can fit in the back of a truck, and when placed in a kiosk it will run on solar power or biofuel.
And if your tribe or pod is on the move, then there is an enlivening piece of non-chemical nanotechnology - by the extraordinary water-treatment inventor Michael Pritchard - called Lifesaver Bottle: a hand-sized, portable, flask-like system that filters out any contaminates down to 15nm, which essentially gets rid of anything that could harm you (the smallest virus is 25nm). So you are out in the bush, you find a murky pond; undo the top and bottom caps. Find/devise a vassal to scoop the dark water into the bottom end receptacle. Put the bottom cap, work the internal pump to compel the mucky water through the nano-filter. Then a gush of fresh, uncontaminated, crystal clear water spurts out the top for instant sustenance. This idea, this wonderful life saving gadget came to Pritchard during the double tragedies of the Hurricane Katrina and Asian tsunami. The live broadcasts of multitudes of desperate refugees waiting for days for a simple drink of clean water set the marvel inventor on an inexorable mission: clean water anywhere and time!
Clearly natural disasters happen unpredictability. But 100+ degrees summer heat is a sub-equatorial norm. People living in the zone often have slightest resources. Ordinary extended families sustaining in such heat, with little chance to earn income have been faced with unearthly challenges. But a new category breaking gadget came about that more than brings hope: ChotuKool (‘the little cool’). A very portable 45 litre capacity refrigerator, weighing less than a new born baby, designed with only 20 working components, running on 12-volts DC or battery, remaining cool for hours without any charge. The cleaver bit of fridge is the design has replaced the customary compressor with a turbo-fan not unlike the ones found in the back of a PC interfaced with some ingenious heat exchanger channelling.
The whole notion is about addressing basic refrigeration demands of rural families. In fact, about 80 percent of Indian households lack basic appliances such as fans, aircondoning, even lighting in many cases. Yet in the face of this dreadful reality, Mumbai established Godrej and Boyce (G&B) - of mechanical typewriter fame - decided to reinvigorate growth in its honoured household appliance markets. Co-designed with rural villagers, G&B began to imagine living in a home without a fridge. A clear problem is that electricity is either unavailable or unreliable in many rural parts. Then there is the fact that 100-million Indian extended families live on under $2,000 a year that can ill afford any such domestic appliance. But a problems can mean opportunity!
So what G&B did is go on innovation safaris using the jobs-to-be-done methodology hunting for ideas around rural India. They observed the lives and routines of far-flung villagers. They worked with Harvard Professor Clayton ‘Disruptor’ Christiansen and his consulting firm Innosight. They observed how bucolic consumers acquired, prep, cook and stored provisions. People needed an affordable way to keep milk, vegetables and leftovers cool. And this in a country where – according to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development – a third of all food is lost to spoilage. Then, in a blinding flash of the inobvious the ChotuKool concept was born, creating a new product category, at frugal price tag of $70. Inspiring news of hope and access to new possibilities!
Poverty, of course, has many colours, many extremes, and many circumstances. But the shear masses of people living in makeshift townships the world over is one like no other. Unlike a tsunami crisis, fleeting famine, and even major epidemical contagion, it is ultra-long term and you are stuck there. UN figures revile the 2 billion people live in squatter communes. Try to imagine it! Visualise (and smell) what it would be like to live among millions of people in mock constructions, no better than the construction and technology that you use to make your children’s Tree House. Again, no running water, no electricity, and equally no sanitation and access to what we in the west take for granted even as we shop on busy study afternoon
Imagine you are in one of the squatter cites, and just outside your window (if you have one) is a great mound of human faeces, piled 20 foot high, with excrement poring and flowing down a stream of stinking acrid urine. Welcome to Kieran, a Kenyan slum city not unlike the 100 thousand of these place around the world. Well like yourself, your Kieran neighbours have no choice but to defecate in bags, then turn them into a flying toilet over a fence onto an ever-mounting mass. Picture the situation? A heaving, breathing pathogen-lab right outside your home, raising the probability of outbreak of lethal epidemic diseases such as cholera!
Precisely, that breathtaking nightmare is a reality for ~2.6 billion people whom have little or no access to modern toilets; 70 percent live in without proper sanitation. Lack of sanitation causes environmental pollution, social problems, unsafe surroundings and substantially more potential for epidemics. Indeed, one child dies every 15 seconds as a result of consuming water polluted with human excreta…. So?
Let us turn the tables and imagine something that could make positive of all this. That living mound of waste is in fact mineral rich, and high nitrogen in content. What about using all that muck to grow a garden? In fact, why not multiple beautiful gardens throughout this sprawling provisional metropolis? In fact, let us get practical. These people live more than frugal lives. So what about micro agrifarms outside the doorstep. In fact, with a robust GM crops, we just might well be able to yield something like a fair percent of local produce needs? So what game changing GigaInnovation could we think up to do just that?
Enter PeePoo a personal, single-use, self-sanitising, fully biodegradable toilet bag that prevents faeces from contaminating the immediate area and surrounding ecosystem. Inventor Anders Wilhelmson says after use, PeePoo turns faeces into fertiliser via the urea coating on the inside of the bag. Once it is filled and buried, enzymes in faeces naturally breakdown the urea into ammonia and carbonate. This raises the pH level in the bag, killing any pathogens. Once the urea decontaminates the waste, the bag biodegrades, and the remaining ammonia fertilisers the soil…Bingo! You have got your starter kit for you micro farm. Most importantly, because these problems affect the poorest 40 percent of the world population, the toilet bag is cheap.
By producing the PeePoo bags so inexpensively, Wilhelmson has a billion dollar goal amongst the poorest nations. Again reinforcing the now evidential fact that it is possible to gain value from ending poverty. Not just monetary value, but true human value. The world market for low cost toilet and sanitation systems runs into the 100s of billions dollars.
The powerful out-crop here is that if a once expensive technology like a flushing toilet and especially municipal water works can be reimagined into ultra-low cost products - al a Slingshot, Lifesaver Bottle, ChotuKool, PeePoo - then it can be done – and I say this – to every technological product, service, process, et al, on this planet!