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MIT Technology Review

Humanitarians (2013)

For our 13th annual celebration of people who are driving the next generation of technological breakthroughs, we’re presenting the stories in a new way. We’ve grouped them by categories that reflect the variety of approaches that people can take to big problems. Humanitarians are using technology to improve the lives of people around the world.
  • Enrique Lomnitz

    Age:
    30

    A design student returned to his native Mexico City after college in the United States to help the megalopolis overcome its water crisis.

    “When I was at the Rhode Island School of Design, my friend and I worked on a project to develop sustainable housing for low-income sectors of Mexico City. We realized that access to water was getting worse, whereas telephones, pavement, security—all the other infrastructure—was improving. We became convinced that the city needed to develop an alternative way to get water. 

    About 70 percent of Mexico City’s water comes from the aquifer, and the water table drops something like a meter a year—it’s super stressed. The actual ground of the city sank more than 10 meters in the 20th century due to extraction of water. About 30 percent of the water is pumped 1,000 meters uphill from 150 kilometers or so away, which is just insane. They say it consumes as much electricity as the city of Puebla [which has 1.5 million people], and it takes up a major portion of the city’s budget. But by harvesting rainwater, you could achieve a massive systemic shift. Even with small cisterns, people could go for six months of the year just with rainwater, which is abundant during the rainy season. 

    Our initial challenge was to make a relatively low-cost system, which gives water of a certain quality using a simple filtration system, that you can retrofit onto existing houses. We interviewed this one woman who lives in one of these mountainside neighborhoods on the southern periphery of the city. My friend and I put one system with a cistern up at her house using about $1,000 out of our own pockets. Then I moved pretty much across the street from her and we started putting rainwater harvesting systems in the neighborhood, building this concept. Our rainwater systems hook up to cisterns, pumps, and the header tanks on roofs that feed water by gravity into a house.

    We’ve installed close to 1,300 systems in four years, but we’ve been through many iterations, and it’s not something I ever see ending. We sell the systems; we’re starting to be able to offer philanthropic microloans, we have government funding, and we get donations, mostly corporate donations. We need to fish in a lot of ponds.”

    —as told to Martin LaMonica

  • Caroline Buckee

    Age:
    34

    Cell phones can become a weapon against disease.

    In her work as an epidemiologist, Caroline Buckee thinks a lot about malaria—but the same could have been said when she was six years old. “There’s a story my dad tells about my dinnertime conversation when I was little,” she says. “I often used to say things like, ‘What’s your favorite disease?’ And it turns out my favorite was malaria.”

    The obsession never quite waned, because malaria is caused by “a fascinating organism,” says Buckee, now an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s really a shape-shifter. It evolves very quickly to anything we throw at it. It’s a clever parasite.” And most disturbing, she says, even though it is treatable and preventable, malaria is still among the biggest infectious-disease killers of children.

    In 2006, during a research trip to Kenya, it occurred to her that work her husband, Nathan Eagle (himself an Innovator Under 35 in 2009), was doing with data about cell-phone use might be employed in the service of malaria prevention. What if, Buckee wondered, location data from cell phones were used to intuit a malaria outbreak’s point of origin? Locals might then be warned via text messages to avoid the area or use bed netting. Health officials could know where to concentrate their mosquito-spray efforts.

    Indeed, when Buckee pored over data from 15 million Kenyan cell phones, telltale patterns emerged. People who had made calls or sent messages through a certain phone tower were extremely likely to later visit a region near Lake Victoria where malaria wound up erupting in force. The area near that tower was probably the original hot spot—and thus where health officials should focus.

    Buckee and her colleagues are still figuring out the best way to use this data (which was one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2013). But the results so far give her confidence that she’s found a crucial tool for her work in epidemiology. “The ubiquity of cell phones is really changing how we think of diseases,” she says.

    Timothy Maher

  • Rebeca Hwang

    Age:
    33

    Many innovations can’t happen without the right connections.

    Rebeca Hwang thinks the insularity of Silicon Valley stifles innovation. To fix this, she’s become what she calls a mega-connector, trying to make it easier for entrepreneurs anywhere to find opportunities.

    Hwang has spent the past few years as CEO of San Francisco–based YouNoodle, which helps run competitions among technologists and entrepreneurs. For example, the Intel Foundation used YouNoodle’s online service Podium to run business-plan competitions in Latin America and Europe. The government of Chile used it to solicit requests for funding from entrepreneurs.

    It’s one of many ways Hwang, who was born in South Korea and raised in Argentina, has tried to link far-flung people or ideas. As an MIT undergrad she studied chemical engineering; at Stanford she cofounded the Cleantech Open business accelerator and pursued a PhD in social-network theory before joining YouNoodle. 

    “I could have chosen to just go the academic route; I could have just done entrepreneurialism,” she says. “But I think I excelled most at the intersection—bringing all these parties together and coming up with solutions that have several perspectives.”

    Rachel Metz

  • Evans Wadongo

    Age:
    27

    Growing up in Kenya, he strained to read by the dim light of a kerosene lantern. Now he’s making solar-charged lanterns and using them to spur economic development.

    Kenya’s unreliable electric grid doesn’t reach Chumvi, a village about two hours southeast of Nairobi, where many of the 500 residents live in mud-walled, grass-roofed homes and eke out a living raising goats and growing kale, maize, and other crops. Yet an economic transformation is taking place, driven by an unlikely source—solar-charged LED lanterns. It can be traced to the vision of Evans Wadongo, 27, who grew up in a village much like this one.

    As a child, Wadongo struggled to study by the dim, smoky light of a kerosene lantern that he shared with his four older brothers. His eyes were irritated, and he often was unable to finish his homework. “Many students fail to complete their education and remain poor partly because they don’t have good light,” says Wadongo, who speaks slowly and softly.

    In Chumvi, Kenya, Irene Peter helps her son with English homework by LED light, which is cleaner and less expensive than ­kerosene.

    As a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, he happened to see holiday lights made from LEDs and thought about what it would take to bring LEDs to small villages for general lighting. After taking a leadership training course from a nonprofit group, he designed a manufacturing system for portable LED lamps that could be recharged by sunlight. While many such lamps are already for sale commercially—and are increasingly making their way into villages in poor countries—Wadongo decided that his lanterns would be made in local workshops with scrap metal and off-the-shelf photovoltaic panels, batteries, and LEDs.

    Each lamp is stamped “Mwanga Bora,” which means “Good Light” in Swahili.

    Wadongo feared that the technology would be less likely to take hold if the lamps were simply given to people who had no financial stake in them. But the lanterns normally each cost 2,000 Kenyan shillings (about $23), which is out of many villagers’ reach. So he uses donations (including proceeds from a recent exhibition of his lamps at a Manhattan art gallery, at which donors gave $275 apiece) to provide initial batches of lamps to villages. Residents are generally quick to see the value in the LED lamps because of the money they save on kerosene. Wadongo then encourages them to put the resulting savings into local enterprises.

    The transformation in Chumvi began two years ago, when a woman named Eunice Muthengi, who had grown up there and went on to study in the United States, bought 30 lanterns and donated them to women in the village. Given that the fuel for one $6 kerosene lamp can cost $1 a week, the donation not only gave people in the town a better, cleaner light source but freed up more than $1,500 a year. With this money, local women launched a village microlending service and built businesses making bead crafts and handbags. “We’re now able to save 10 to 20 shillings [11 to 23 cents] a day, and in a month that amounts to something worthwhile,” says Irene Peter, a 43-year-old mother of two who raises maize and tomatoes. “Personally, I saved and got a sheep who has now given birth.” She also got started in a business making ornaments and curios.

    Christine Mbithi, a mother of four in Chumvi, chops spinach by LED lamplight.

    As profits rolled in from new enterprises like these, the women who got the original 30 lamps gradually bought new batches; according to Wadongo, they now have 150. “Their economic situation is improving, and this is really what keeps me going,” he says, adding that some people are even making enough to build better houses. “The impact of what we do,” he says, “is not in the number of lamps we distribute but how many lives we can change.”

    Wadongo is also changing lives with the manufacturing jobs he is creating. In an industrial area of Nairobi, banging and clanking sounds fill a dirt-floored shack as two men hammer orange and green scraps of sheet metal into the bases of the next batch of lamps (soon to be spray-painted silver). Each base is also stamped with the name of the lamp—Mwanga Bora (Swahili for “Good Light”). The three men in the workshop can make 100 lamp housings a week and are paid $4 for each one. Subtracting rent for the manufacturing space, each man clears $110 per week—far above the Kenyan minimum wage.

    A worker hammers scrap metal to form a lantern housing.

    Some of the lamps are completed in the kitchen of a rented house in Nairobi. Three LED elements are pushed through a cardboard tube so they stand up inside the lantern’s glass shade. The LED elements, photovoltaic panel, and batteries are sourced from major electronics companies. Overall, the devices are rugged; the steel in the housing of the lantern is a heavy gauge. If a housing breaks, it can be serviced locally—and the electronic parts are easily swapped out.

    Wadongo now heads Sustainable Development for All, the NGO that gave him his leadership training, and he is focusing it on expanding the lamp production program. It has made and distributed 32,000 lamps and is poised to increase that number dramatically by opening 20 manufacturing centers in Kenya and Malawi. Wadongo says that teams in those centers will independently manufacture not only the lamps but “any creative thing they want to make.”

    David Talbot

  • Amos Winter

    Age:
    33

    Some problems aren’t apparent until you ask.

    “It bugs me sometimes the way people think about technology for the developing world,” says Amos Winter. “People think you can cobble it together from scrap parts, and undergrads can make it in a semester, and you can give it away for free. And none of that is necessarily true.”

    Winter is lately renowned for having created a wheelchair specially tuned to the needs of people in poor countries: sturdy enough for uneven terrain, nimble enough to negotiate the indoors. The idea emerged when he was an MIT grad student visiting Tanzania in 2005; within three years he’d worked up a prototype to take back for a test run. That’s when his real education began. The chair was too heavy, users complained. It was too unwieldy to use inside. It wasn’t stable enough on hills.

    Winter learned an important lesson: “We can’t just sit in this lab and make something on the lab bench and bring it to Tanzania and think it’s going to work,” he says. “It never works that way.”

    Now a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, Winter applies that lesson to other projects. In a cluttered back room of his lab, he holds aloft a prosthetic leg and points to a locked metal coupling, which is, he says, the most commonly used knee joint in poor countries. “When you walk with this, you walk with a peg leg,” he says. “In most developing countries there’s a stigma associated with disability, and walking around with this is a clear sign that you’re disabled.”

    Winter’s goal is to make a low-cost leg that copies the natural gait of $50,000 advanced prosthetics. “A lot of it just comes down to ‘Let’s make something that performs as good as the rich-world technology, for a small fraction of the price,’” he says. That typically means cheaper materials, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Those new materials need to be readily available in the country where the product will be made. They are likely to weigh less, or more, and behave differently under stress—producing a whole new set of engineering challenges. Winter describes, with great enthusiasm, the massive amount of calculation required to get the torque of the knee just right at every point in the walker’s stride.

    He’s more than a year away from a working prototype, but he has already asked potential users in India what they might hope to do if they had a better leg. “The highest-ranked thing was to be able to sit cross-legged,” he says. “With existing prostheses, you just don’t get the rotational twist you need. And I never would have guessed that. This is why it’s so important to get there on the ground.”

    From left: 1. Winter, with welding torch, builds prototypes by himself and with graduate students. 2. A knockoff of the popular Jaipur prosthetic foot. Winter is trying to design a better foot. 3. The single-axis, exoskeletal prosthetic knee forces those who use it to walk with a peg-leg gait. Winter wants to make a low-cost leg that affords a more natural stride. 4. The speed control of the lathe in Winter’s lab.

    Winter’s lab has the feel of a clubhouse; his students cheerfully mill about, and models and prototypes litter every tabletop. At the back end is a machine shop strewn with aluminum chips. You wouldn’t gather, at a glance, that these prototypes might touch anyone outside this room, but Winter talks about the “monumental potential for impact.” He gestures toward a mockup featuring a couple of plastic bins and some tubing: an experimental model of a drip irrigation system. To compensate for the often spotty power grids in poor countries, Winter’s version would use only a tenth of the pressure required by conventional systems and thus consume much less electricity. His system relies on an engineering trick involving plastic tubing that mimics the action of bronchia in lungs.

    “If we crack this, and I think we’re going to, this is a billion-person problem,” he says. “Megafarms in Iowa can use this technology as well.”

    Timothy Maher