Winners and losers in low-cost technology

What makes village technical innovation work? Some surprising stories from the NGO/CSO Forum

ROME, 13 June 2002 -- Good ideas for solving daily farming problems without spending a lot of money don't grow on trees. But one idea in Brazil was found at the bottom of a swimming pool.

A small farmer from semi-arid northeast Brazil, driven off his land by poverty, ended up in São Paulo working for a swimming pool company. As he learned how to build the waterproof cement pools, he pondered the perennial health problem of his birthplace -- sickness caused by bad drinking water during the dry season. He invented a low-cost cement-block cistern, half buried in the ground for structural support, that could catch enough pure rainwater off the farmhouse roof to supply a household with drinking and cooking water with for six to eight months.

Today, 60 000 cisterns, which cost only US$250 each, have been built in northeastern Brazil under a partnership involving villagers, the government, church groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), according to Jean Marc von der Weid, head of the NGO Advice and Services for Agroecological Development Programmes, who is attending the Rome NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty this week.

"The secret of the success of the cisterns is that a good part of the labour to build them is in the community and some of the material, too," said Mr von der Weid. "We are now expanding the project to cover 1 million homes. The government has identified 500 organizations, many of them church groups, to take care of 2 000 homes each. They will go out and convince farmers of the importance of clean water and explain what is involved in building the cisterns."

From Kenya, Mercy Karanja, chief executive of the Kenya National Farmers Union, tells a cautionary tale of low-cost technologies that failed because they weren't well thought out.

"We have had sunflower threshers to produce oil and pedal pumps for water, but they haven't caught on," said Ms Karanja. "They are so manual. I have tried to pump water, but I stand on the pedal and it is too hard. Women are the farmers. The men buy the machines, but they don't use them. They work in the city. Why doesn't that sink in?

"It is critical if you are designing a bucket to carry milk that you know who is going to do the carrying," she said. "Sometimes it is a young child who can't even use the bucket because it drags along the ground when it is in his hand."

One low-cost technology has been a hit in rural Kenya, she said. "We tried donkeys to haul things. It really took the drudgery away."

In the Philippines, Sibat (Wellspring of Science and Technology) has a winner with a low-cost turbine powered by falling water to provide electricity.

"We started with one turbine in 1995, and now there are 35 electrified villages, or about 5 000 households, in very remote areas," said Victoria Lopez, Sibat executive director. "The key element of success is that there must be a community organization in the village capable of managing and maintaining the system."

The "micro-hydro" turbines are manufactured in the Philippines, except for the control system, which is imported. Costing US$10 000, a 5-kilowatt turbine can provide 35 houses with light at night and power small appliances, such as rice mills, sugar-cane pressers and metal- and wood-working tools, during the day. Sibat didn't need a communication strategy to spread the technology -- word-of-mouth created a spontaneous demand for the turbines.

"We've been telling our government that money to pay for the turbines and engineers to install them shouldn't be thought of as aid," said Ms Lopez. "People need this infrastructure, and once it's installed, villagers can be more productive."

She adds, "Our position is that efforts by local people with the assistance of NGO service providers should be supported, because we use a community-based approach and we provide 100-percent electrification of villages."
Forum delegates debate issues in the plenary hall

Forum delegates debate issues in the plenary hall

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