Innovation Villages Tackling MDGs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


The global economic crisis that began to roll across the world in September 2008 is threatening gains made against poverty and hunger all over the South. As Kevin Watkins from UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report told the Financial Times, “With the slowdown in growth in 2009, we estimate that the average income of the 391 million Africans living on less than US $1.25 a day will take a 20 percent hit.”

How well millions of people survive the economic turmoil will depend on how local communities respond. And there are innovating communities across the South that show it is possible to succeed. By studying the microcosm of test villages, where quantifiable results are being tracked, lessons are being learned on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (

The challenge of matching improving living standards and quality of life with environmental sustainability has been taken up by one village in Colombia. The technologies it has developed over the past few decades have been adopted around the country.

In Las Gaviotas, Colombia a unique experiment was hatched at the end of the 1960s: to see if a village could survive – and even thrive – while eschewing fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. It found its first test in the oil crisis of the early 1970s. For Las Gaviotas’ survival, meeting energy needs became paramount.

One of the simple concepts the community applied is a take on the physical reality that energy is never created or destroyed, it just moves from one medium to another. Las Gaviotas believes in using all the sources for energy that can be found in a local area first, before seeking out others.

Founded by development specialist Paolo Lugari,Las Gaviotas( is located in a desert region of Colombia. The area covers a vast territory comprising three-fifths of the country but is home to just 10 percent of the population. To Lugari, the harsh environment is a challenge to be overcome. To begin to reverse the arid environment at Las Gaviotas, the villagers reversed the dry climate by planting trees.

This had the effect of increasing local rainfall by 10 percent, making it possible to do other economic activities.”The only deserts that exist in this world are deserts of the imagination,” Lugari told the New York Times.

The 200 people living in Las Gaviotas have been able to get by without guns, police, a mayor, cellphones, television or the Internet. Nobody uses a job title — instead the adults in the community rotate jobs.

While the villagers do not use many of the technological tools people associate with modern life and prosperity, they do have a culture of invention. The inventions they have come up with include a solar kettle for sterilizing water and a 8,012 hectare pine forest which is harvested for resin to make biofuel for trucks and motorcycles. The resin is also used to make varnishes and linseed oil.

For years Colombia’s ongoing civil war raged around the community. Violent drug traffickers and private armies destabilized the country for decades. But despite this mayhem, Las Gaviotas has attracted rural peasants seeking to double their wages (US $500 a month) and enjoy the quiet life away from the war.

“We try to live a quiet life, depending on nothing but our own labor and ingenuity,” said Teresa Valencia, a teacher who has lived in Las Gaviotas for three decades.

Other products developed by the village included a turbine powered by a small, one metre high dam that produced 10 kilowatts of electricity, a windmill that was able to spin despite light breezes, and a pump strong enough to draw water from the hard-to-reach savannah water table.

Pride of place was the village’s hospital. Despite hot temperatures and high humidity, the hospital used clever technologies like subsurface tunnels and double ventilation systems in the walls to cool its operating theatre. The roof slid off to allow ultraviolet sunlight to disinfect rooms. After healthcare reforms in Colombia, the hospital was closed. Undefeated, the village turned the hospital’s kitchen into a potable water bottling facility, and reduced the need for hospital visits by making sure everyone in the area had access to clean water.

The community’s approach inspired scientists and architects, who came to design homes, laboratories and factories for Las Gaviotas.

One significant success has been the windmill-driven water pumps developed by Las Gaviotas. Invented by Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanical engineering department of Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes, it is a lightweight windmill unit weighing barely 45 kilograms. The blades use the airfoil found on airplane propellers to make the most of light breezes.

In the 1980s, UNDP hired the Gaviotas team to install water and windmill pumps in other places in Colombia. Thousands have now been installed in Colombia and the design has been copied throughout Latin America.

Other inventions include a solar-powered kitchen, a water pump powered by a children’s see-saw, and a zeppelin that floats above the savannah plains to detect forest fires.

While the community has been able to forge a success, it can’t avoid the ups and downs of the global economy entirely. Competition from cheap imports of pine resin have pushed down the price the community can charge.

But in a topsy-turvy world, and surrounded by a civil war, what Las Gaviotas has achieved still seems impressive. “We have survived,” said Andrea Beltran. “Maybe, at this time and place in Colombia, that is enough.”

More recently, a much-publicized experiment is also underway in the Millennium villages. The Millennium Villages ( is a joint project between Columbia University’s The Earth Institute and UNDP, and is a bold experiment working with villages in Africa to identify and test solutions to help in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (

Britain’s Guardian newspaper has also been sponsoring and tracking changes in the villages of Katine sub-county in Uganda ( Comprising 25,000 people, the project began in October 2007, and is conducted in partnership with the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Farm-Africa in Katine.

What is useful to people looking for solutions is the way the project is being tracked in detail on the newspaper’s website.

In India, the Model Village India ( concept pioneered by Rangeswamy Elango, a head of the village of Kuthampakkam near Chennai, has now expanded to 30 model villages. Its approach is about being positive, eschewing griping about problems and instead getting down to work to solve them. Its success is based on an ancient Indian self-organizing model, the Panchayat, and Elango has modernized it to become what he calls The “Network Growth Economy Model” – a direct challenge to the “special economic zones that benefit only capitalist owners,” he said.

Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World – 10th Anniversary Edition by Alan Weisman details further the achievements of the village (


1) Unleashing India’s Innovation: Toward Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, a report by the World Bank. Website:

2) Hosted by the World Resources Institute, it identifies sustainable business models that address the needs of the world’s poorest citizens. Website:

3) Model Village India: Drawing on self-organizing methods used in India since 1200 BC, the Model Village India is based around India’s democratic system of Panchayats: a village assembly of people stemming back to pre-colonial times. Website:

4) Maker Faire: The African Maker Faire has tapped into Africa’s well-entrenched do-it-yourself development culture. It went looking for more inventors like those celebrated on the website AfriGadget (, with its projects that solve “everyday problems with African ingenuity.” The Faire works with the participants to share their ideas and to find ways to make money from their ideas. Website:

5) eMachineShop: This remarkable service allows budding inventors to download free design software, design their invention, and then have it made in any quantity they wish and shipped to them: Amazing! Website:

6) The red dot logo stands for belonging to the best in design and business. The red dot is an internationally recognized quality label for excellent design that is aimed at all those who would like to improve their business activities with the help of design. Website:

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