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The light and dark sides of mechanical aptitude as applied to technological aid efforts.
September 23, 2008

Amy Mueller, director of STG International, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide decentralized solar power and heat to places that lack central infrastructure, described some of the paradoxes of attempting to deploy the systems in the Social Entrepreneurship panel today at EmTech.

The group tries to design with off-the-shelf parts, mostly automotive, Mueller says, in order to lower the cost of the systems they build. One benefit, she says, is that local people will have the context they need to understand how to fix and maintain the systems on their own. Automotive technology has reached the most remote places, she says. For example, her group was driving through a remote part of Lesotho, a tiny African nation surrounded by South Africa, when the transmission failed on their vehicle. Three local men replaced it for them in a matter of days, transforming it in the process from an automatic transmission to manual. These existing skills could help other technologies take hold in the area as well, Mueller says.

But STG also encountered the dark side of that mechanical facility after deploying a hot-water system in a small village in Lesotho. Four to five months after they left, Mueller says, the system broke down after people scavenged it for parts. When the group returned, they were greeted by local women begging them to fix the system. Mueller thinks this situation indicates the importance of providing technologies that have clear value to everyone in the community. In this case, she suggests, the women of the village saw a clear benefit – their daily work was made much easier by the availability of hot water. Others in the village, however, may have seen the technology as more valuable for its parts than for its whole effect.

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