Flurry of Anti-poverty Innovations

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Innovation is key to transforming the lives of the world’s four billion poor. And it is at the core of much of the new thinking these days. While the world’s poor can’t rely on political developments, or wider macro-economic events to go their way, they can harness the power of invention, innovation and self-reliance to make big changes in the quality of their lives and increase income – and so can those who want to help them. New York Times journalist and author Thomas Friedman put it like this: “Africa needs many things, but most of all it needs capitalists who can start and run legal companies. More Bill Gateses, fewer foundations. People grow out of poverty when they create small businesses that employ their neighbours. Nothing else lasts.”

In the 1940s, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote that “the function of entrepreneurs is to reform or revolutionise the pattern of production.” Schumpeter’s definition remains at the core of an entrepreneurial approach that focuses on innovation and enterprise as a means of addressing social needs. “Social innovators” are pragmatic and embrace innovation to tackle social problems through both for-profit and non-profit models.

International Development Enterprises India (IDEI) is a non-profit that uses product invention to transform the lives of the poor and tackle hunger and malnutrition. Its approach is to take existing technologies and adapt them, reducing costs and improving effectiveness. By constantly evolving the design, they can focus in on making it cheap and relevant.

One innovation is the Treadle Pump: a foot operated, water pump for small plots of land. It enables crops to be grown in winter and summer – no need to rely on rain. And since women are key to farm life, it is physically easy for women to use. So far more than 350,000 small farms are using it. It has been calculated the pump increases household incomes by a minimum of US $100/year.

Another of their innovations is the Affordable Drip Irrigation Technology Intervention. While drip irrigation systems have been for sale in India for the past 15 years, they were not relevant or affordable for small and marginal farms. IDEI adapted these technologies during trials from 1997 to 2000. Existing technologies suffer from two drawbacks: they are complicated to maintain and they are expensive to buy. A big challenge was demystifying the idea that crop irrigation methods were for only the big orchards. The irrigation systems are sold as kits and are scalable so that farmers can expand their systems if they want. IDEI has sold over 85,000 of the various irrigation kits.

Both inventions are designed to mimic traditional technologies and are inexpensive, thus maximising take-up by small farmers, who can recover the cost within one season of crops.

They not only do the research and development and product design and manufacturing, but also set up the vertically integrated marketing and sales network and make it viable for the private sector to step up and sell the kits.

Paul Polak, the founder of the global International Development Enterprises, believes progress is only possible if products are sold at a fair market price. “When you give things away, you lack discipline in how you design them because you don’t have to get feedback from the customer,” he said.

In the village of Otse, Botswana in southern Africa, the Godisa Technologies Trust has brought affordable solar-powered hearing aids to the poor. Most of the employees are deaf, and as a non-profit social enterprise, its battery chargers – and its branded Solar Aid digital behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid – are all for use in developing countries. It is estimated over 600 million people suffer from some form of hearing impairment. According to the World Health Organization, 278 million people in the world are affected by moderate hearing loss. Yet the global production of hearing aids does not come anywhere close to meeting the need.

The Solar Aid needs only six to eight hours of sunlight to recharge for a full week. And it is fully compliant with WHO guidelines. Conventional hearing aids and batteries are very expensive and often not locally available. Solar Aid batteries can take 400 charges before being replaced.

The Solar Aid hearing aid was developed through field testing, funds were raised for further design improvements, and it went on to win several awards. But it initially failed to earn back its production costs and so the Godisa Technologies Trust was established to sweat the details on making it sustainable. It was developed in partnership with the Botswana Technology Centre,

“I want to help other deaf people to have access to education training and employment. I would like to use my skills and opportunities to help other deaf people achieve their goals,” said one of Godisa’s technicians, Sarah Phiri. So successful are these hearing aids, there is interest around the world, including in Canada.

Adequate street lighting has been proven to cut down muggings and improve public safety, reduce traffic accidents, and boost business confidence in neighbourhoods because people feel safe going there. StarSight’s street lamps combine solar-powered street lighting and internet access in a wireless configuration, freeing up the lighting poles from needing to access the main power and telephone grids. Each one contains VoIP, wi-fi broadband, CCTV and are being rolled out in Istanbul.

StarSight street lamp poles, designed in Turkey, are also being rolled out in Martinique, Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Cote d-Ivoire. StarSight’s goal is to install 70,000 street lamps by 2011. Malaysia and Indonesia are next.

d.light design is a social enterprise targeting the 1.6 billion people who rely on kerosene oil to light their lanterns, or use candles. There is an ambitious goal behind this business: they want to replace all the kerosene lanterns in the world with their lights within the next ten years. They use light emitting diode (LED) technology and are about commercializing light and power solutions for families living without electricity in emerging markets.

Better lighting has many benefits, including helping children and adults to study and learn during dark hours. Importantly, it will make the air inside dwellings cleaner and the environment safer without the risk of fire. Indoor air pollution is one of the biggest killers of children under five in India. UNDP has found that families with improved lighting see a 30 per cent increase in their income because they can keep doing things at night.

On high beam, the lights last five hours; on low beam, they last for 200 hours without a charge. It can be re-charged by solar panels or by normal electric outlet. They promise consumers can expect to save $150 over five years. They have received additional support from the Acumen Fund to enter the peri-urban and, later, the rural market in India.


  • Rockefeller Foundation Innovation for Development Initiative: It will “spur the development of solutions to the challenges facing poor or vulnerable people around the world.”
    Team leader: Maria Blair, email:
  • Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation: It brings together the entrepreneurial talents of designers, artists and architects with one goal: to link the social entrepreneur with the business of design. Budding social entrepreneurs get start-up support, design help and connection to mentors.
  • E and Co: An investor providing seed funding to energy entrepreneurs in developing countries.
  • SEAF (Small Enterprise Assistance Fund): A global investment firm focused on helping small companies and entrepreneurs in emerging markets, and those underserved by traditional sources of capital.
  • Microplace: An online marketplace to connect retail investors (anybody looking to invest US $100 or more) with microfinance organisations looking for funds.
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