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The Accenture Economic Development Award
Alexander J. Field
The Economic Development Panel received 64 applications this year. The largest share was in information technology, broadly defined, including both hardware and software innovations involving computers, mobile phones, and the Internet, as well as projects to extend access to underserved individuals.
The second major category, directly related to the U.N. Millennium goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, involved projects to increase agricultural output and incomes through better irrigation, new crop choices, or better means of agricultural processing. Energy, again broadly defined, was the third main area, with nominees working on alternative ways to produce electricity (biomass, wind, hydro) and to use it to provide light. Projects in other areas, such as business incubation, transport equipment, microfinance, construction, and new materials rounded out our nominee pool.
The economic development panel may well receive the most varied range of applications among the five Tech Awards categories. Unusual nominations included an individual who had constructed and marketed a bamboo bicycle, and another who had developed a low cost machine for making paper out of agricultural waste. We read inspiring stories, such as that of a young African student who built a wind powered generator from spare junk and electrified his home even though he lacked any formal training.
Ultimately we had to make difficult decisions, which involved striking a balance between the technical innovativeness of a project, the extent to which it was already off the drawing board and directly impacting individuals’ lives, and the degree to which it had potential for further impact. Our choices, as in prior years, were never easy. Our five finalists are profiled below.
DESI Power: Decentralised Energy Systems –– IndiaOnce one can count on food, clothing, and shelter, access to electric power is a key aspect of improving lives. Because of economies of scale in the design of turbines and generators, most of the developed world has an electrical system based on large power plants (with coal, oil, natural gas, geothermal or nuclear fuel making steam to drive turbines) combined with an electric grid carrying power over high voltage lines across long distances, where it is stepped down at local transformers and distributed to final users. This type of system, augmented by large hydropower projects and a smaller smattering of alternate power sources such as wind, works well in areas that are densely populated, but getting electricity to sparsely populated rural areas has always been an economic and logistical challenge. Even in the United States, it took the New Deal program of rural electrification to complete the electrification of the country.
In low-income countries such as India, the developed country model of electricity diffusion has worked poorly. Hundreds of millions of people live in rural villages. Electrification in these areas has required subsidies because income and development levels in these villages have been too low to provide sufficient demand. Although subsidized power from the national grid was available in the past in the province of Bihar, India, this is no longer true, due in part to failure adequately to maintain the system.
In spite of the economic attractions of the central power station/ high-voltage transmission line model, access to the electrical grid in many rural areas is expensive, unreliable, or nonexistent. Nevertheless, as the cost of inexpensive diesel generators has fallen, many villagers acquire these machines, which use more nonrenewable fuel and generate more pollutants per kilowatt hour than a large coal powered central power station.
Small hydropower installations work in some areas, but water flow may be seasonal, and traditional silicon based photovoltaic panels have risen in price as developed world demand in countries like Germany has gone up. Solar panels are also subject to breakage, and batteries can be difficult to ship.
The approach taken by DESI power is unusual, not so much because the technology is unique (although biomass gasification has attracted more attention in recent years), but because they have developed and implemented a well thought out plan to increase both the supply of and demand for electricity in rural villages. The integrated aspect of their work commands our attention. The business plans of the IRPP (independent rural power producer) and the potential energy using small enterprises are developed together.
The power generation technology itself involves biomass gasification, a technology that traces its roots to manufactured (town) gas plants in the nineteenth century. This technology was developed by many municipalities as a way to turn a by-product of the coking process into a piped fuel that could power streetlights or fuel home ranges. Emerging process improvements have made running a complex chemical process more feasible and reliable within a village context. DESI power uses as its main feedstocks rice husks or a nitrogen fixing weed called dhaincha. Dhaincha is fast growing (10 feet in four months, with a stalk three inches in diameter) and has no other use as food.
DESI power operates in Bihar, perhaps the most economically underdeveloped state in India, with more than 40 percent of the population living in poverty. The Employment and Power partnership program, begun in 2006, aims to expand the supply of and demand for electric power in each of 100 villages in the province of Bihar.
On the demand side, DESI Power, collaborating with local village partner organizations and investors, banks, and granting agencies, has worked to establish local industries through investments in electric pumps for irrigation, battery-charging stations, rice mills, flour mills, and briquetting presses. These industries provide additional jobs and also the revenue flow whereby the power project can make profits. Without them, there is little demand for power in this poor and politically unstable region. DESI Power also takes advantage of subsidies associated with the capacity of its biomass processes to lower CO2 emissions relative to other means of power generation. For more information, see http://www.desipower.com.
NComputing –– United StatesNComputing brings a much improved version of 1970s style timesharing to the world of PCs. Desktop computers today are extremely powerful, and the typical user exploits only a small fraction of these capabilities at any one time. nComputing designs and markets devices that enable multiple users to benefit from the computing and data storage capabilities of an individual computer. Taking advantage of virtualization technology invented by Klaus Maier, users have access to a virtual desktop and all the standard software packages that we have become accustomed to running under either Windows or Linux. In a sense this technology returns us to the 1970s days of time sharing, except that at the hub of the system is not a room sized mainframe but an off-the-shelf personal computer. And one can use the latest version of Microsoft Word, rather than a line-by-line text editor like EMACS.
For applications where fixed desktop installations are appropriate, such as instructional settings in schools, this technology allows remarkable savings in installation, operating and maintenance costs per station. Ncomputing devices allow three, six or even more users to tie into a PC using ordinary category five cable. The Republic of Macedonia, a part of the former Yugoslavia, used NComputing equipment to give every elementary and secondary school student in the country effective access to a computer. This has been done by purchasing only 20,000 PCs, along with an additional 160,000 stations made possible by using NComputing devices and virtualization software. Elementary students have access to the stations in the morning, secondary school students in the afternoon; over 300,000 are thereby served.
The economic advantages of sharing PC processing and storage power are striking. Costs per seat drop to about $70 (not counting monitor, mouse and keyboard). Electricity costs plummet – additional users cost one to five watts of power, vs over 100 watts typically for an additional PC. The indirect environmental impact is also substantial, not just in terms of lower electricity consumption (and likely CO2 emissions associated with it) but also because of drastically lower hardware disposal costs. Desktop PCs can easily weigh 30 pounds. NComputing devices weigh about a pound, contain no moving parts, and last ten rather than three years. As the hub PCs themselves are upgraded, the computing experiences of all the peripheral users are as well, without the need for any additional hardware upgrades for them. Over half a million NComputing seats have already been deployed by 15,000 organizations in 70 countries. For more information, see www.ncomputing.com.
Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) –– United StatesIrrigation remains a common challenge for developing countries, whose agricultural sector is typically large. Adequate water flows enable the cultivation of higher margin crops such as vegetables. The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has developed a solar power drip irrigation system. The innovation here is not simply the elimination of the need to burn fossil fuel to produce electricity to power pumps that move the water, but the elimination as well of conventional batteries to store electricity. During the day solar cells produce electricity that drives pumps that move and lift water up into concrete storage tanks, which then provide water flow to a low-pressure drip irrigation system as needed.
SELF has installed three solar powered drip irrigation systems in the Kahale district of northern Benin. The region is 60 miles from a paved road. It has no secondary school or hospital, limited access to communication, and electricity only from diesel generators. Over a third of the children are malnourished and exhibit signs of stunted growth. The 100 participants have increased their household income by up to 50 percent and have also increased their food intake by consuming nonmarketed food. This has all been made possible by a power source generating only one kilowatt.
The pump moves water to an elevated iron and cement cistern as much as half a mile away from the water source; gravity is used to distribute water to the plants. The system has two significant advantages. First, when the need for irrigation water rises because it is sunny, this is precisely the time when the pumps have the most power and can move the most water. So the time pattern of demand on the system and its capability are well matched. One of the problems in the Sahel is the lack of rain for up to six months of the year. Second, to continue to cultivate market gardens, women and children must otherwise haul water for several hours each day. These systems provide a much more attractive solution to the problem of irrigation. Due to the deep and highly variable level of the water table in West Africa, treadle pumps are not an adequate alternative. For more information, see www.self.org.
The Full Belly Project –– United StatesOver the centuries much progress has been made in the construction of labor saving devices that reduce the burden of processing agricultural raw materials and food. Early examples include Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and wind- or water- powered flour mills. Technological progress has in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reduced the tedium of many other tasks.
But in poor and developing countries, many of these tasks remain unmechanized. One of these is shelling nuts. The Full Belly project offers a universal nut sheller that reduces the labor required to dehusk peanuts, coffee, shea, Neem, and Jatropha. Some estimates suggest that in Africa over 4 billion hours are spent annually shelling peanuts alone. Women and children provide most of this labor.
The machine, a modification of a Bulgarian design, was invented by Jock Brandis. It consists of a rotating concrete cone within a stationary concrete cone. The space between them is adjustable, allowing the accommodation of different sized crops. The rotating cone spins the nuts against the exterior cone, and gravity draws them down to the point where friction removes the husk; the shelled nut is spun out the bottom. The device can be made locally and requires neither electricity nor fuel to operate. Brandis has taken no intellectual property in the nut sheller, and encourages its diffusion and local manufacture. The machine, which can be produced for about $50 locally, can shell nuts ten times faster than by hand, at least doubling their value. In Kenya, the nut sheller can convert a 50 kilogram sack of unshelled coffee beans (which sells for $250 when shelled) in 25 minutes. Thus the Universal Nut Sheller can rapidly return its cost of manufacture and repay the investment in building one.
The Full Belly project collaborates with NGOs and Community Based Organizations. They are seeking out partner entrepreneurs who agree to make the machine locally and provide quarterly sales reports, provide customer feedback, and share any design improvements with the project. The entrepreneurs pay no licensing fee.
The Full Belly project has lightened the burden of shelling nuts among women and children, increased the value of processed crops, provided entrepreneurial opportunities for machine manufacturers, and increased the supply of high protein foodstuffs such as peanuts, contributing to the reduction of malnutrition. For more information, see www.fullbellyproject.org.
The Portable Light Project –– United StatesThe Economic Development panel sees many applications involving the use of solar power. The Portable Light Project is unusual in that it involves the embedding of flexible photovoltaic panels in textiles.
A portable light unit consisting of an integrated flexible solar panel, digital circuitry, and sewn-in batteries and light emitting diodes, generates about four watts of power and 100 lumens of white light. The panels are durable and waterproof. The solar cells themselves are manufactured from copper indium gallium diselenide, which is not quite as efficient as silicon cells in transforming solar energy into electricity. However, it has a great advantage: by spreading a thin layer on another material (plastic), one can produce a flexible, rollable, foldable solar cell. Cell phone (lithium-ion) batteries, which store more power per ounce than other batteries and retain their charge for long periods, are also woven into the fabric. Digital circuity connects the solar panels with the batteries and the diodes. Because light will strike different parts of the fabric at different intensities during the day, digital circuitry directs the power flow generated by the sun to the batteries that can most benefit from a charge. Finally, LEDs, about a millimeter apart, are sewn into the fabric on the opposite side from the solar collectors. The whole unit weighs under a pound.
Because the panels are incorporated into textiles, they can be carried as a handbag; or by integrating the panels into traditional clothing, they can be worn. After charging for three hours, the reflective white panels unfold and the LEDs can light a room after dark for up to five hours. After four and a half hours of charging, they will provide light for ten hours. When folded or rolled, the glowing reflective white fabric can provide concentrated task lighting. The fabrics can also be used to charge a cell phone or, when connected in series with several other units, to charge a laptop computer battery.
In a pilot project, 130 prototypes were distributed to Huichol Indians in the Sierra Madre Mountains in New Mexico. In addition, the project developers delivered “Flex Kits” that consisted of key components: a control pouch, the solar panel attached to cloth, and an HBLED (high brightness light emitting diode assembly). The kits allowed local women to incorporate the components into traditional textile crafts such as handbags. The results represent a melding of first- and third-world technological and aesthetic sensibilities. For more information, see http://www.portablelight.org.
ConclusionThe Awards criteria suggest that we showcase compelling stories and reward brilliant accomplishments. We also, however, aim to honor projects that are somewhere between an idea in the early stages of development and a technology that is so commonplace that it has become the standard of practice. It is perhaps inevitable that we find ourselves pulled in different directions by these sometimes conflicting imperatives. It remains a great privilege to consider these many worthy endeavors.