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Frugal innovation is future of sustainability in developing world

• Published on 30 Aug. 2014 • Category : Economy • Tags : innovation development

Over the past few years, frugal innovation -- the development of low-cost alternatives to aid poorer communities -- has become a staple of the developing world’s economic makeup. Everything from medical devices to cars to household appliances have been stripped down to their minimum requirements and sold at a fraction of the Western price.


Now, with climate change threatening the health of the globe, many developing nations are once again turning to frugal innovation to help fight their effects while simultaneously promoting sustainability. Let’s look at some of recent low-cost, efficient solutions to various problems threatening the third world:


Preventing deforestation with mobile technology: Mobile was at the forefront of the frugal innovation movement -- as witnessed by their ubiquity in many developing nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa -- so it’s no surprise that  the same technology would also lead the way in sustainability.


In Uganda, one of those sub-Saharan nations where nearly 100 percent of the population uses mobile phones for everything from banking to simple communication, mobile is now a centerpiece of the fight against deforestation. As first reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation, the country -- 24 percent of which is covered with forest -- introduced a forest monitoring system this year, in which any citizen who witnesses suspicious activity in forested areas can send an SMS text describing it. So far, the community-driven system has netted six different cartels.


Low-cost, localized irrigation systems in Myanmar: Myanmar is one of the world’s most economically challenged nations, and one whose output heavily relies on farming. Agriculture makes up 60 percent of the GDP, but still many farmers in the rice paddies and arable land rely on the often-fickle monsoon season to grow their crops. Since this reliance on rainfall is subject to the whims of climate change, one local company devised a solution.


Proximity Designs, a social enterprise company based in Yangon, Myanmar, recently introduced low-cost products to support farmers in the countryside. The products, which include foot-pumps for irrigation, portable water tanks and a simple drip-irrigation system, were devised to help farmers work faster and more efficiently over bigger acreages.


Watch a video diary of Proximity’s impact here.


Innovative flooring helps prevent disease:In the construction of makeshift homes in developing nations, flooring is often an afterthought. But the lack of solid, impermeable flooring can lead to disease, with open dirt or mud flooring attracting harmful parasites and bacteria. But even simple concrete flooring, which can go for $500, can be prohibitive in developing nations.

Realizing the obstacles, a Stanford research team developed a low-cost floor based on the adobe earthen floorplan. That floor uses packed soil covered with a layers of linseed oil laminate. The Stanford research team, realizing linseed oil wasn’t native to at-risk nations like Rwanda, developed a similar covering consisting of soybean oil.


The resulting company, EarthEnable, will microfranchise its floor technology out to local masons, and hopes to reduce concrete’s carbon emissions.


Lighting homes with gravity:For every frugally innovative success, there were many failures along the way. That is the case with GravityLight, a company who recently introduced a light powered by -- you guess it -- gravity. The technicians behind the light wanted a cheap, sustainable alternative to harmful kerosene lamps and expensive solar panels, and after multiple iterations came up with a light that could revolutionize the way developing societies power their homes.


The light works when the user lifts a specific weight (usually 10 kilograms), which powers an LED light from an inexpensive generator. Three seconds of lift for 30 minutes of light. The price tag? Only $6, far less than the 20 percent of monthly income some developing-nation households spend on electricity per month.


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