Creative and Inventive Ways to Aid the Global Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Poverty can be a major spur to invention, and invention a route out of poverty – but only if the poor in the developing world can get the recognition, capital and support for navigating the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that will inevitably stand in their way. Thankfully many new initiatives acknowledge this.

Contrary to popular perception, the poor do have buying power, as has been documented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their paper “The Economic Lives of the Poor”. Surveying 13 countries, they found those living on less than a dollar a day, the very poor, actually spent 1/3 of their household income on things other than food, including tobacco, alcohol, weddings, funerals, religious festivals, radios and TVs. The researchers also found that the poor increasingly used their spending power to seek out private sector options when the public sector failed to provide adequate services. As awareness of global poverty has grown in the past decade, a new wave of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs has started to apply their considerable brain power to tackling the everyday problems of the poor.

Afrigadget, a website celebrating African ingenuity and inventions, serves as a goldmine for small-scale entrepreneurs looking for inspiration. All the inventions on the website share something in common: they are grassroots, homemade and handmade solutions to everyday problems of the poor. Examples of inventions profiled on the website include multi-machines, basically a 3-in-1 machine used as a metal lathe, mill and drill press, all built by hand from old car engine parts; a US $100 bicycle motor that gets 50 kilometres per liter made in Kisumu, Kenya; hand-made African wire toys; do-it-yourself telephone handsets which are then used to run roadside phone booths as a small business; and Malawian homemade windmills used to generate electricity for both home use and as a business to recharge mobile phone and radio batteries.

Another African invention tackles the urgent need for inexpensive or free common toilets that are self-financing. In the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, where 60 percent of the city’s inhabitants live, the lack of decent toilet facilities has led to the widespread use of so-called “flying toilets”, plastic bags filled with excrement and then flung as far away as possible. The resulting build-up turns the streets into a foul-smelling sludge in the rainy season and causes disease outbreaks like diarrhoea and typhoid fever. Up to now, conventional attempts to provide communal toilets have failed to resolve the problem, because they charge too much to use. But an innovative solution has been developed: bio-latrines that capture the methane gas produced by the toilets for sale as gas for cooking, heating and lighting, and the sludge for fertilizer. A joint initiative between a Kenyan company, Globology Limited, and the NGOs Umande Trust and Ushirika Roho Safi Laini Saba, it is partly funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The toilets are used by 500 people a day and are self-financing from the profits made by the sale of the gas and fertilizer.

In India, social entrepreneurs have stepped in to help the rural poor navigate the Indian government bureaucracy. Drishtee, an internet service provider – offers a fast-track to government services used by the poor in rural villages through its e-government services information kiosk. Using a franchise model, it has branches spread out through 160 locations in the country and serves 1.5 million people. Drishtee’s niche is that it saves the poor the exhausting and draining time and long travel normally required to access any government services. Drishtee’s “ask a government employee” service brings government to the poorest people.

Operating out of New Zealand and South Africa, Ecologics is an engineering company focused on developing appropriate technologies for sustainable livelihoods in developing countries. All their inventions are built around the principles of low maintenance and costs, and ease of use. Its African operations are based in South Africa and run under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) scheme. It builds step powered pumps, the Step Action Water Pump which works just like a gym step exercise machine and is a highly efficient way to power the pump – for small scale mining and agricultural irrigation. The pumps can deliver 5,000 to 6,000 litres of water per hour, weigh just 11 kilograms, and have been field tested in Fiji, Lesotho and South Africa.


  • Hosted by the World Resources Institute, it identifies sustainable business models that address the needs of the world’s poorest citizens.
  • A paper on social lending via the web: PDF version
  • African Inventors Museum: The International African Inventors Museum promotes positive images and self-esteem in children and adults and teaches people of all nationalities about the contributions that Africans throughout the world have given to society.
  • AU-WIPO Prize: The AU-WIPO is an initiative of the Africa Union Commission and the World Intellectual Property Organization. It is a leading continental award in Africa honoring the scientists and technologists whose efforts are towards addressing critical problems in Africa and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.
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