Mountain People: Innovative Ways to Help the World’s Most Vulnerable

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Physically isolated and socially and politically marginalized, mountain dwellers are among the most vulnerable in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. A disproportionate number of the world’s 840 million chronically undernourished people live in highland areas — about 270 million mountain people lack food security, with 135 million suffering chronic hunger. Large numbers of additional people in lowland areas also depend on mountains.

In October in Rome, more than 60 representatives from mountain countries around the world called for a coherent approach to sustainable agriculture and rural development in the world’s highland areas to address this crisis. First identified as a problem back at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the degradation of mountain eco-systems and the poverty of those living there, has only worsened with increasing conflict and war. Mountain forests are rapidly vanishing across the globe.

Mountains occupy 24 per cent of the earth’s landscape, and are home to 12 per cent of the world’s people; a further 14 per cent live beside mountains. Most are in the Andes, the Hengduan-Himalaya-Hindu Kush system, and a number of African mountains. Many mountain people are from ethnic minorities, and are often frozen out of political or commercial power. Poverty is common: more than 60 per cent of the rural Andean population lives in extreme poverty, and most of the 98 million Chinese considered to be among the world’s “absolute poor”, are ethnic minorities who live in mountains.

Mountains make up a quarter of the world’s landscapes, and mountain watersheds are critical to water supply – up to 80 per cent of the planet’s fresh surface water comes from mountains. Over half of the world’s population depend on mountains for water, food, hydro-electricity, timber and mineral resources (UN University Mountain Programme).

By their way of life, mountain peoples have expertise in small-hold farming, medicinal uses for native plants, and sustainable harvesting of food, fodder and fuel from forests.

In China, the MinYiYuan company has developed a model to help the millions of impoverished Chinese in the countryside who are being left out of the country’s current economic boom. While many are migrating to the cities to work as labourers, mostly women and children are left behind in villages, with few options to support themselves.

Cai Tingfen saw an opportunity to help the ethnic minority population of Liupanshui City in Guizhou Province. Founded in 2005, MinYiYuan bridges the handcraft culture of the region with the bigger national economy. Its model is unique: rather than buying ready-made handicrafts from craftspeople, MinYiYuan sets the design standards for the quality of the raw materials and sources them itself. This avoids problems with inconsistencies and guarantees customers get a reliably high-quality product. The craftspeople use these raw materials to make handcrafts in their homes, and the finished goods are bought back by the company.

The company buys cotton, hemp and Chinese herbs from local farmers, luring them away from livelihoods that cause deforestation. In 2006, the MinYiYuan Folk Art Centre sold 60,000 (batik) wax prints, 8,000 embroideries, and 20,000 ethnic handicrafts. It made 1.13 million yuan (US $149.319). The company is ambitious, and is already looking to building a research and development base to integrate design, manufacturing, packaging and sales.

Another model that is working is in the Philippines. After the Mount Pinatubo volcano eruptions in the early 1990s, the Aetas people of Luzon found their community was buried under ash and stone. Unable to work the land anymore and live off of the fish and wildlife, the Aetas were close to starvation. Many migrated to the cities to look for work: And without many relevant urban skills, most ended up living in squalor.

One by-product of the volcanic explosion was vast quantities of pumice stone, used in the garment industry to produce ‘stone-washed’ denim. Entrepreneurs were soon turning up to gather the stones.

The Asian Institute for Technology helped the Aeta people organize themselves in marketing social enterprises to gather, market and sell the stones to the many garment makers in the Philippines. By forming cooperatives, the Aeta are able to change the power dynamics with the garment companies: where they had to sell very cheaply to middlemen, the cooperatives enable them to charge more and make a liveable income, allowing them to stay in the community and avoid environmentally more harmful ways to make a living.

In Peru, coffee growers in the mountains have banded together as a social enterprise and use market solutions to increase living standards. The Cepicafe brand in the Piura Mountains, promotes its Fair Trade practices to secure higher prices for the growers. It does this by countering the increasing competition in the coffee market and lower world prices for the beans, with better quality coffee grains and bypassing middlemen to access markets directly.

Cepicafe raises the skills of the growers by providing education to increase productivity and quality, while reducing the farms ecological impact. The premium that fair trade is able to get is then used to improve the farmers’ lives with better housing, new clothes, shoes, better diets, and access to medicine.

They have 51 grassroots member organizations, totaling to 4,800 small-scale coffee producers. Over 18 per cent are women. By introducing a business culture and using radio programmes to further spread knowledge, productivity and quality have increased.

Cepicafe’s access to markets in the US and Europe means it can pay between 60 and 80 per cent more than local buyers.

Published: November 2007


  • Mountain Forum: created in 1995, it is a great resource for sustainable mountain development and conservation.
  • The Mountain Institute: A non-profit organization dedicated to conservation, community development and cultural preservation in the Andean, Appalachian and Himalayan mountain ranges.
  • Adelboden Group: Established in 2002, it exists as a forum to discuss mountain policies, exchange experience and coordinate planning.

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.

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MOST READ! Southern Innovator Issue 1: Mobile Phones and Information Technology:

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Environmental Public Awareness Handbook: Case Studies and Lessons Learned in Mongolia:

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Cooking Bag Helps Poor Households Save Time, Money

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


For millions of poor people around the world, life is lived on the economic margins and household and personal budgets are tight. There were 1.29 billion people in the world living on less than US $1.25 a day as of 2008 (World Bank), and 1.18 billion living on US $1.25 to US $2 per day. There was only a modest drop in the number of people living below US $2 per day – the average poverty line for developing countries – between 1981 and 2008, from 2.59 to 2.47 billion.

Since the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, the world’s poor have seen prices fluctuate wildly as the international financial system fights the effects of the turmoil. In 2008, this led to the Food and Agriculture Organization sounding the alarm about the harmful effects of rising food inflation.

Increasing hunger led to civil unrest and rioting that year.

Anything poor people can do to make their slim daily budgets go a little bit further means more money left over for better quality food and other expenses, like clothing, shelter, fuel and education. One clever invention from South Africa is trying to tackle household cooking costs and shave the cost of fuel required to prepare the family meal. The Wonderbag ( is a brightly coloured, puffy cooking bag that slow cooks a meal in a pot – be it a stew, curry, rice, soups – to save energy.

“The cost and savings per household are significant,” according to the Wonderbag’s inventor, Sarah Collins.

It has many other advantages, too: it is a time-saver, allowing people to spend the time doing something other than just tending the cooking pot. It can also reduce cooking accidents because less time is spent around the stove or fire.

It is an efficient cooking method that uses less water to cook meals. And it even avoids the risk of burning – and wasting – food.

“20 per cent of all staple food in Africa is burned, due to pots being placed on open fires and unregulated stove tops. With the Wonderbag, no burning happens,” confirms Collins.

To date, the Wonderbag has created 1,000 jobs and is looking to increase this to 7,000 jobs in the next five years.

Wonderbag bills itself as “eco-cooking that’s changing lives.”

Eco-cooking seeks to use every joule ( of energy from the cooking fire or heat source to maximum effect. A pot is placed on the stove and brought to the temperature required for cooking the dish. Then the pot is placed in the Wonderbag. Since the bag is heavily insulated, it reflects back the existing heat in the dish and allows it to continue cooking for up to 12 hours. It can cook rice in one hour and lamb in two to three hours.

It works in four easy steps, summed up on the Wonderbag website: “boil it, bag it, stand it, serve it”.

The Wonderbag claims to use 30 per cent less energy than other cooking methods. According to cost breakdowns on the Wonderbag website, someone with a Wonderbag would use 2.4 litres a week of paraffin – a common fuel for cook stoves – compared to 4 litres without. This works out to a cost of US $2.40 a week with a Wonderbag and US $4.00 a week without.

The trade-off with the savings in money and energy is time – Wonderbag is not suitable for those looking for a quick meal. According to Wonderbag, meat that cooks in 20 minutes on the stove will take five hours in the Wonderbag.

Chicken that takes 15 minutes on the stove takes three hours in the Wonderbag. Vegetables that take five minutes on the stove will cook in an hour in the Wonderbag.

South African entrepreneur and inventor Collins originally developed the Wonderbag for people living in the townships of Durban ( She found many of the residents spent up to a third of their income on fuel for cooking. They would either use paraffin or spend many hours gathering wood or dung.

These common fuel sources for cooking give off toxic fumes and are a health hazard if used for long periods. The Wonderbag means households spend less time inhaling fumes from a stove.

“The Wonderbag will always be a work in progress for me as I look to adapt the bag in line with my consumers’ feedback,” confirms Collins. “For example, we are now about to launch Wonderbag 2, which has an even more efficient insulator than polystyrene and is more readily available and easier to recycle following feedback earlier in the year.”

In South Africa, the bags sell for R170 (US $22) and there are discounts for the very poor. Collins estimates that a family of four could save US $80 a year if they used the Wonderbag two or three times a week.

Collins has used clever marketing strategies to get the Wonderbags out to the public, and 150,000 have been sold so far. One promotion gave away a Wonderbag with every purchase of boxes of curry powder.

Wonderbag has also partnered with local communities. Swartland Municipality ( purchased 5,000 Wonderbags and distributed them to 4,700 of “the most indigent and deserving households – the poorest of the poor.”

It is also running a promotion in the United Kingdom where, for every Wonderbag bought, one is given to a family in the developing world.

The popularity and success of the Wonderbag prompted the multinational food company, Unilever – one of the world’s leading suppliers of fast-moving consumer goods – to purchase 5 million bags for distribution. According to the Wonderbag website, this could lead to savings of US $1.35 billion on fuel for the users.

“The partnership has also enabled us to scale up and test the Wonderbag in different markets,” explains Collins.

Wonderbag hope to expand to 12 or 15 developing countries in Africa in 2012.

The company says it plans to target developing countries with high poverty, fuel supply shortages, high incidence of health problems from air pollution, and high incidence of injuries from fuel fires.

And for Wonderbag’s success so far, Collins has this advice: “Immerse yourself in your product and the way of life of your consumers. Understand it and them inside out so you can be your best advert. Word of mouth is by far the best form of advertising and the truth out of your own mouth is a great start.”


1) Haybox: Haybox is another variation on the concept of heat retention for efficient cooking. Website:

2) How to build a clay oven. Website:

3) Solar ovens and cookers are another way to cut costs when making meals.This website has many designs and plans on how to build a solar cooker. Website:

Follow @SouthSouth1


Southern Innovator Issue 1:

Southern Innovator Issue 2:

Southern Innovator Issue 3:

Southern Innovator Issue 4:

Southern Innovator Issue 5:

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Press Release 2 | Southern Innovator

Press Release for General Distribution

Fourth Issue of UNDP Magazine Southern Innovator Launches at Expo

United Nations, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 October 2013

  • Fourth issue of Southern Innovator launched at Global South-South Development Expo 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya
  • 60-page color magazine gives snapshot of fast-changing world

The fourth issue of Southern Innovator magazine has launched at the Global South-South Development Expo 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya. Southern Innovator Issue 4 visits the new cities being built to tackle the challenges of a rapidly urbanizing 21st-century world. The magazine also highlights some of the solutions being devised to the challenges people face as the world becomes a majority urban place.

Some innovators are building new cities from scratch, applying the latest thinking and hard-wiring in cutting-edge information technologies and innovative environmental measures to create ‘smart’ cities and eco-cities. Architects are designing and refining homes that are beautiful and functional, easy to build, affordable and conserve energy. Social entrepreneurs are innovating ways to create liveable and socially inclusive urban areas, often in places where planning has been scant and where incomes are very low. All those featured in the magazine were chosen for their focus on improving human development and their ingenuity and fresh thinking.

Southern Innovator champions a 21st-century global innovator culture. The magazine profiles and celebrates the innovators across the global South finding new ways to tackle poverty, create wealth and improve human development and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In its first issue in September 2011, Southern Innovator featured the people who are re-shaping new information technologies – from mobile phone apps to Internet technologies. Many of the innovators profiled in that first issue came from Kenya.

SI ( is based on intensive research and produced by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation in UNDP (UNOSSC) (formerly the Special Unit for South-South Cooperation in UNDP). UNOSSC organizes an annual Global South-South Development Expo (, a roaming celebration and gathering of Southern innovators previously held in New York, Washington, D.C., Geneva, Rome and Vienna. This year’s Expo is being held in Nairobi, Kenya (28 October to 1 November 2013) and is hosted by the UN Environment Programme (

SI is being distributed through the United Nations’ network and partners and reaches some of the world’s poorest and remotest places, as well as the vibrant but stressed growing global megacities. It is hoped the magazine will inspire budding innovators with its mix of stories, essential information, facts and figures, images and graphics.

We hope you enjoy the magazine and find its content interesting and illuminating: a snapshot of a fast-changing world awash, as we found out, with
innovators, creators and do-ers making their world a better place. It is possible to sponsor issues of the magazine, either through helping to fund its print run, or through sponsored inserts covering that issue’s theme with relevant content for our readers.

For more information on Southern Innovator, contact Cosmas Gitta at

Press Release 1

Press Release 3

Online archives: southerninnovator.org Follow @SouthSouth1

United Nations General Assembly: Sixty-ninth session, Item 24 (b) of the provisional agenda, Operational activities for development: South-South cooperation for development, 17 July 2014.
The research informing Southern Innovator Magazine played a part in the formulation of the UN’s post-2015 development agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


© David South Consulting 2022