Innovative Mobile Phone Applications Storm South

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The pace of change in information technology in the South is impressive, and nowhere has it been more rapid than in the take-up of mobile phones. In the past three years China has become the world’s largest exporter of information and communications technology (ICT), and home to the same number of mobile-phone users (500 million) as the whole of Europe. According to India’s telecoms regulator, half of all urban dwellers now have mobile- or fixed-telephone subscriptions and the number is growing by eight million a month. In Tanzania, mobile phone use grew by 1,600 percent between 2002 and 2008. In Nigeria it grew by almost 7,000 percent over six years, from 5 percent of the population 140 million in 2002, to a predicted 34.3 percent by the first quarter of this year.

But it is the Philippines that has become a global leader in mobile phone commerce. A whole panoply of banking tasks can now be done by mobile phone: transferring funds from one person to another, making small purchases, or paying fees.

“The most significant lesson learned so far,” said Shawn Mendes, lead author on a report titled The Innovative Use of Mobile Applications in the Philippines Lessons for Africa. “Is that m-Banking, rather than more altruistic applications such as m-Health and m-Education, has delivered the greatest benefits to people in developing countries.”

Access to basic banking services is vital for the world’s poor: The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) found that over 3 billion poor people lack access to even the most minimal banking services to manage their lives.

But mobile phones have come to the rescue as the fastest growing consumer product in history. Portio Research estimates that between 2007 and 2012 the number of mobile subscribers will grow by another 1.8 billion, mostly in emerging economies like India and China.

The Philippines is not alone in introducing so-called m-Banking (mobile phone banking) Africa’s leaders include the Democratic Republic of the Congo (CelPay), Kenya (M-PESA), South Africa (MTN MobileBanking and WIZZIT) and Zambia (CelPay).

“Safari-Com’s M-Pesa in Kenya has grown rapidly from start-up in early 2007 to well over 1 million accounts today,” said Mendes, the report author. “In May of this year Vodacom launched M-Pesa in Tanzania for their 4 million subscribers in that country. I expect very rapid growth of this service in Tanzania where less than 10 per cent of the adult population have conventional bank accounts. There are numerous other examples such as CelPay in Zambia and the Congo but I have been watching the success of M-Pesa in East Africa most closely.”

But the Philippines has taken m-Banking the furthest, with two great models for other countries: G-Cash and Smart Money. And the country has shown that it is possible to make these services attractive to the poor, not just the wealthy.

A combination of a good regulatory environment and an atmosphere of innovation brought mobile phone costs down, and made this possible. The mobile phone innovations were also successful because they mimicked existing consumer habits of the poor, piggy-backing on the extensive retail network of small village shops or “sari sari” stores. Poor Filipinos usually buy “tingi” or “sachets” of products like shampoo, fish sauce or soap. And it is in these shops that credit top-up centres were set up and prepaid phone cards sold.

Cleverly, mobile phone operators in the Philippines at first offered free SMS (short message service) text messaging. This was key to how m-Banking took off. As Smart Money’s Napoleon Nazareno said: “there must be an existing SMS habit.”

This should bode well for Africa, where an SMS habit has taken hold because it is so much cheaper than voice calls. Another important habit was prepayment. People learned how to use prepay cards, call numbers and how to enter codes into phones to purchase credits. They learned how to check their credit balance and to electronically load credit on to their phone. This habit made m-Commerce much easier and fuelled its growth.

In South Africa, m-Banking services are revolutionizing daily life. Hair salon owner Andile Mbatha in Soweto used to have to travel for two hours by minibus to a bank to send money to his relatives. But by setting up a bank account with a service called Wizzit, he no longer needs to keep stacks of cash in his salon (and risk robbery), can send money to his sister in Cape Town by phone, and receive payment for hair cuts by phone from his customers. “This has taken out a lot of stress,” said Mr Mbatha.

For Southern entrepreneurs looking to get the most from mobile phones, another recent development will help. Mobile phone companies are following developments with computers and turning away from using only proprietary software, to allowing open source software. Over the next six months, this will mean small-scale entrepreneurs can get in on making applications for mobile phones on a massive scale. Two software companies are now involved: Symbian, which provides the operating system for most of the new generation mobile phones with web access, and Google’s Android open source operating system for mobiles. In Sub-Saharan Africa and East Africa, these applications will help to bypass the lack of internet bandwidth.

In India, poor rural farmers are using mobile phone text messaging to get an advantage over the commodity markets. With so-called “agflation” and “rising prices for food ” it is crucial farmers keep on top of fluctuating commodity prices. Over 250 million Indians rely on farming for survival. But the pressure on farmers is severe and suicide rates are high.

Banana farmer Kapil Jachak is using a text messaging service to get the latest on the weather and daily market prices. The service, Reuters Market Light, costs a dollar a month. It’s a for-profit business venture by the global business news service, but helps farmers make money too. It already has 15,000 customers signed up.

This market knowledge gives the farmers a huge advantage when they compete with the traders in the wholesale markets of the city of Pune. “By getting the weather reports we can see exactly how much water our banana plants need,” said Kapil to the BBC. “I keep my cost down, and get the best crop I can.”

“This has increased my profit. I don’t have to make some headache, and go to any market, any shopkeepers, and wholesalers. I can do my marketing easily and get more and more money.” The service has already armed him with the knowledge to fight off banana stem weevils when they were attacking crops. The text recommended a pesticide.

Published: July 2008


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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Next Generation of Innovation for the Grassroots

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Taking inspiration from science fiction sagas like the TV show Star Trek, the next generation of innovation is already taking shape in the South. A group of innovative facilities called Fab Labs (short for Fabrication Laboratory) in Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa and Costa Rica are applying cutting-edge technology to address the everyday needs of people.

Like the futuristic “replicator” in Star Trek, Fab Labs allow people to design and produce what they need there and then. The labs are mushrooming throughout the South as people get the innovation bug.

Originally an idea from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms, which sponsors nine of the labs, Fab Labs let people use digital technology to build physical objects, from eyeglass frames to toys and computer parts. Fab Labs empower local invention by turning education, problem-solving and job creation into a creative process.

Started by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Fab Labs use US $20,000 worth of computers, open source design software, laser cutters, milling machines and soldering irons, letting people harness their creativity to build things they need, including tools, replacement parts and essential products unavailable in the local market.

With minimal training, children and adults are designing and making their own toys, jewellery and even computer circuit boards with the machines. It turns people from consumers into inventors.

“Instead of bringing information technology to the masses, the Fab Labs bring information technology development to the masses,” said Gershenfeld.

In Ghana, the Takoradi Technical Institute in the southwest of the country hosts a Fab Lab, allowing a wide variety of people to use the “replicator” – from local street children to tribal chiefs – to make a wide range of products. The Ghana lab has several projects on the go, including antennae and radios for wireless internet networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. The labs have found that the younger the users, the faster the skills are picked up.

John Silvester Boafo, principal at the Takoradi Technical Institute, is proud of what he calls a fu-fu pounder. “In a Ghanaian home, the main dish is fu-fu,” he told the BBC. “Fu-fu is made of plaintain and cassava, which are cooked. After they are cooked, they are put into a mortar and pounded by hand. People go through hard labour just to get a meal to eat. So, we thought we could fabricate this machine to alleviate the hard labour they use in pounding.”

They are also working on portable hand-held chargeable solar panels for televisions and refrigerators.

In Pabal, in the western part of Maharashtra, India, a Fab Lab was established at the Vigyan Ashram in 2002 and is now working on developing agricultural instruments. They are also testing milk for quality and safety, and tuning diesel engines to run more efficiently, especially with bio fuels. Another lab in Bithoor in the state of Uttar Pradesh (operated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur) is working on 3-D scanning and printing for rural artisans, such as producing wooden blocks used in Chikan embroidery.

In South Africa, officials are in the process of setting up four labs. The first is in the capital Pretoria, home to Africa’s first “science park”. The second is in the township of Shoshanguve, a very poor community with high unemployment.

“We have these very high-tech small start-up companies that are excited by the proximity of the lab,” said Sushil Borde, head of the government agency charged with rolling out the four labs. “The companies say, ‘We have these brilliant ideas, we have these business models, but we don’t know how to get these ideas into tangible products.”

Borde hopes the network of Fab Labs will enable South African entrepreneurs and engineers to test their ideas and “fast track the process of growth and development.”

Seventeen-year-old Kenneth Chauke has been able to build a robot in the Fab Lab in Pretoria, he told the Christian Science Monitor.

IT supervisor Nthabiseng Nkadimeng at the Fab Lab in Shoshanguve, has been encouraging South African youth to dream expansively about new technology. “We want to encourage innovation,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. “A lot of the kids, right now, they’re making toys. That’s okay, it’s a start. But eventually we want them to do things that haven’t been done before.”

“It’s the idea that if you’re somewhere in rural South Africa, and you want something for solar energy, you can go to a Fab Lab and make your own,” said Naas Zaayman, who works for the government on coordinating the Fab Lab strategy.

Published: October 2007


  • id21 Insights: A series of articles by the UK ’s Institute of Development Studies on how to make technology and science relevant to the needs of the poor:
  • Biography: Professor Neil Gershenfeld
  • 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!

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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This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


© David South Consulting 2023


3D Printing Gives Boy a New Arm in Sudan

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


3D printing is rapidly going mainstream and is now starting to make a big impact in health care. One innovative solution is using the technology to manufacture artificial arms for amputees harmed by war in Africa.

While large-scale manufacturers use the machines to fabricate products and parts, from aircraft components to furniture, it is the smaller-scale use of 3D printing machines that has been getting many working in development excited.

3D printing ( usually involves a desktop-sized fabrication machine that builds a three-dimensional object following instructions from a digital computer file. It is an additive process, in which material is laid down in successive layers to create an object. The technology has been around since the 1980s but only became affordable for the general public in the past five years. Typically, 3D printers are used to make prototypes — for example architectural models or machine parts — or to manufacture one-off objects without the need to turn to mass production methods. But the technology is evolving quickly and, according to The Guardian, “20% of the output of 3D printers is now final products rather than prototypes.”

For international development, 3D printing offers the potential to close the gap between what is available in developed and developing countries. Just as the Internet has closed the knowledge gap, and enabled people around the world to access news and knowledge at the same time, so 3D printing could make it possible for technological innovations to be available everywhere. Just upload the digital plans for an object, and people can download them and print the item, wherever they are.

Some of the more enthusiastic proponents of 3D manufacturing see it as a game-changer in access to technology. They argue it could eliminate material want and place the power of manufacturing in the hands of billions, in the same way the rapid proliferation of mobile phones and the Internet transformed access to information. That is the dreamers’ dream, but it is closer than many think.

The conflict in the new nation of South Sudan, which separated from the Republic of the Sudan in 2011, continues and involves UN peacekeeping forces ( The violence has killed over 10,000 (International Crisis Group) and injured many more, ruining lives through lost limbs and capabilities. One young boy, Daniel Omar, 16, lost both his hands while trying to use a tree trunk to shield himself from an exploding bomb. Losing his hands was devastating enough, but he was also so depressed at not being of full use to his family that he wished he had died that day.

He is not alone in being harmed by the conflict. In total, an estimated 50,000 people in South Sudan are physically disabled, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Prosthetic limbs are very expensive and so far are not a priority for medical services in the country. Saving lives is the priority, with rehabilitation an expensive luxury.

This is where Not Impossible Labs (, based in Los Angeles, California, came in. The non-profit startup founded by Mick Ebeling specializes in “crowd-sourcing to crowd-solve previously insurmountable healthcare issues.” The solutions are then made public on the Internet and explained in online media to help innovators either replicate the solutions or be inspired to come up with their own ideas.

The lab’s ingenious solutions include BrainWriter – a way to draw using brainwaves and a computer mouse that can allow disabled artists to carry on creating. Not Impossible Labs also developed a high-tech cane for the blind that draws on sonar technology and a laser to navigate the terrain and foresee upcoming obstacles.

Emotionally touched after learning about Daniel’s plight, Ebeling decided to act.
“I’ve got three little boys,” Ebeling told The Guardian newspaper. “It was hard for me to read a story about a young boy who had lost his arms.”

Project Daniel (!project-daniel/c1imu) set out to manufacture artificial hands for Daniel without him having to leave his country and his family. Daniel was living between the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan and his home in the Nuba Mountains.

A team from Not Impossible Labs set up the 3D printing lab in the Nuba Mountains and trained and supervised the local team to print two prosthetic arms. The design for the arm was done in the U.S. at its headquarters in Venice, California and is available for free and is open source ( A “dream team of innovators” were assembled – including the South African inventor of the Robohand (, an Australian MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) neuroscientist and a 3D printing company owner from Northern California – to crowd-solve the challenge of making a 3D-printable prostheses. A precision engineering company, Precipart (, and Intel were also drafted in to support the project.

Not Impossible believe the spirit behind the project will be globally transformative.

“We are on the precipice of a can do maker community that is reaching critical mass,” said Elliot V. Kotek, Not Impossible’s content chief and co-founder. “There is no shortage of knowledge, and we are linking the brightest technical minds and creative problem-solvers around the globe. Project Daniel is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

Daniel’s new artificial arm and hand took a 3D printer several days to make and cost around US $100.

In November 2013, Ebeling travelled to South Sudan with all the equipment required to “print” Daniel a new arm: 3D printers, spools of plastic and cables.

The plastic arm printed by the 3D printer works by allowing the wearer to flex what remains of their arm to pull various cables that act as ligaments, like in a real limb. When the user flexes and bends, the cables pull back and in turn make the fingers close and open.

It is not a solution for every amputee. “With the technology we currently have it’s hard to help people with no arm left,” said Kotek. “There needs to be at least a little bit of a stump.”

Shy at first, once Daniel saw the arm, he was transformed. “It was a pretty amazing thing to see this boy come out of his shell,” said Ebeling. “Getting Daniel to feed himself was a highlight that was right up there with watching my kids being born.”

Even more impressive has been the quick adoption of the technology by the local doctor, Dr. Tom Catena, who performs all the amputations in the area.

With two 3D printing machines left behind by Ebeling, Dr. Catena has been able to print a prosthetic arm a week.

The machines mostly work at night when it is cool. The printer parts are then assembled by eight local people trained to operate the machines and build the arms.

But how do they ensure, over time, this 21st-century technology doesn’t just fall into disrepair and neglect as has been seen time and again with other attempts at technology transfer? Weekly phone calls are made to check on the project and the plastic used to make the arms is sent directly from Not Impossible Labs.

And then there is community buy-in.

“At first these kids wanted arms that matched their skin tone, because they didn’t want to stand out,” said Kotek.

But in time the youths have been decorating the arms in many colors and customizing them. And the arms have been given a name: the Daniel Arm.

Published: May 2014


1) The pioneer behind developing 3D technology has been the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Fab Labs based in the United States. It has been running experimental “Fab Labs” across the global South for the past few years, experimenting with ways to apply this technology to the challenges of development and to use this technology to turn people on to the power of technology to solve problems. These experiments have explored how a 3D printer could print everything a small community could require but would otherwise be expensive or difficult to purchase through normal markets. Fab Lab is the educational outreach component of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), an extension of its research into digital fabrication and computation. Website:

2) 3D Systems: 3D Systems envisions a future in which 3D printing will return humanity to a heritage of personalized, localized craftsmanship and improve quality of life. A new industrial revolution changing the human experience from health care to entertainment. Website:

3) MakerBot: MakerBot makes a range of 3D printers for consumers. Website:

4) Stratasys: Stratasys manufactures 3D printing equipment and materials that create physical objects directly from digital data. Its systems range from affordable desktop 3D printers to large, advanced 3D production systems, making 3D printing more accessible than ever. Website:

5)  3D Printing and Technology Fund: The Fund seeks long term capital appreciation through focused investment in global 3D printing and technology companies. Website:

6) Digital Revolution: An Immersive Exhibition of Art, Design, Film, Music and Video Games: Running from July to September 2014 at the Barbican Centre in London, UK. Website:

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Mobile Phone Microscopes to Revolutionize Health Diagnostics

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013


Mobile phone usage has increased hugely across the global South in the past five years. In Africa, the number of mobile phone subscribers reached 545 million in 2013, while there are 3.5 billion mobile phone users in Asia and the Pacific (ITU). Some 93 million people in Africa and 895 million in Asia and the Pacific have mobile phone Internet access (ITU).

“Every day we are moving closer to having almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as people on earth,” Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, wrote in its latest report on their growth.

The number of mobile phone subscriptions in the developing world has surpassed 5 billion and the number in the world as a whole reached 6.8 billion in 2013 (ITU), out of a world population of more than 7.1 billion. This compares to considerably lower numbers of people with access to the Internet: 2.7 billion in the world (ITU).

While many people in poorer countries have basic versions of mobile phones, the next generation of smartphones has been growing in number as prices come down ( Examples of these smart phones include the BlackBerry, Apple’s iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, and the Nokia Lumia. Smartphones tend to have enormous computing power and an ability to run complex ‘apps’ or applications – including public transport options, maps, restaurant and store locators, banking services and market information and resources. They can also access the Internet through Wi-Fi, and have camera and video capability.

What people can do with these feature-packed phones is limited by little other than human imagination. With the ability to store large amounts of data and images, using apps that perform a limitless range of services and tasks, smartphones can be deployed as powerful tools to tackle problems.

Science fiction sagas have long fantasized about people being able to walk around with small electronic devices that can do immensely powerful tasks, including being a medical diagnostic tool. But this science fiction dream is rapidly becoming reality in the global South.

Various initiatives and innovators are using mobile phones and smartphones to conduct medical diagnosis and gather data for medical studies in real time.

Some innovations are even turning smartphones into mobile microscopes.

Developed by the University of California, Berkeley in the lab of Professor Daniel Fletcher (, the CellScope ( is capable of turning the camera on a cell (mobile) phone into a diagnostic microscope with a magnification of 5x to 60x. Fletcher’s lab has also pioneered work on needle-free injection technology.

The CellScope can be used for ocular imaging (technologies for visualizing and assessing a range of diseases of the eye) and for detecting tuberculosis, blood-borne diseases and parasitic worms.

Fletcher is a bioengineer and was impressed with how much mobile phone technology has proliferated across the global South.

“You don’t have to put in these copper wires (for phone lines) anymore; you have the (cell) towers. It’s big business,” Fletcher told The Scientist Magazine.

“It’s leaping over the need for infrastructure.”

Fletcher and his colleagues experimented by attaching extra lenses to smartphones. They then used the phone to image cells that had been stained with fluorescent dyes to make them easier to see. The quality of the image was so good, they were able to diagnose malaria from blood samples and tuberculosis from sputum (spit) samples.

With the addition of image analyzing software, the phone was able to automatically count the number of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacilli. They were trying to prove you did not need conventional microscopes to do this sort of diagnostic work.

Fletcher and his colleagues are currently trialling the technology in Vietnam, India, Cameroon and Thailand.

“Technology alone doesn’t create effective health care,” Fletcher emphasizes. “It’s got to be part of a context in which the information is captured and validated and is analyzed in the right way, and treatments are then available in response to information.”

Another group from Toronto General Hospital in Canada ( has ‘hacked’ an iPhone smartphone by placing a 1 millimeter ball lens on the phone’s camera. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, had been investigating parasitic worm infections in children on Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania. Along with Jason Andrews of Massachusetts General Hospital, they had been inspired by a report about how a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis had created a simple microscope out of an iPhone with a 1 millimeter lens. This makeshift microscope was used to take pictures of blood smears at a 350 times magnification and giving a 1.5 micron resolution.

“We thought that was a great idea,” Bogoch told The Scientist Magazine. Bogoch regularly works as part of an international team around the world, often in remote locations.

“We thought … we could take it to the field and see if it accurately works in a more real-world setting.”

Inspired, Bogoch got together with his colleagues and created a similar microscope with a 3 millimeter ball lens and then got to work using it to identify soil-transmitted helminth eggs in stool samples in Tanzania. When examining the stool samples of 199 children in a clinical trial using the makeshift microscope, they were able to accurately identify helminth infections in 70 per cent of the cases. They also found the iPhone microscope did very well at spotting eggs of particular parasites, such as 80 per cent of Ascaris lumbricoides infections ( The success rate dropped significantly, however, when trying to detect whipworm parasites (just over half) and hookworm infections (14 per cent).

But this is early days and an experiment: “Obviously the results aren’t perfect and there’s definitely room for improvement,” Bogoch admits.

What stands out is the potential to completely revolutionize health care by continuing to develop the capability of smartphones. With their portability and low cost, they also have the advantage of not needing a trained physician to operate them, according to David Walker, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, in The Scientist Magazine.

One of the many advantages of combining a microscope with a digital smartphone is the ability to take a picture and send it straight away to someone to make a diagnosis.

Even more exciting, Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu at the University of California, Davis ( is adapting mobile phones to undertake spectroscopy (, using diagnostic test software to analyze samples on the spot. This, when successful, would be akin to the capabilities first mooted in the science fiction television and film series Star Trek ( In Star Trek, the doctor is able to use a small handheld digital device to quickly diagnose what ails somebody.

The potential for this technology in the global South is significant. Aydogan Ozcan at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is also working on mobile phone microscopes, believes this is as significant as the dawn of the personal computer: “If you look at the early computers, they were bulky, they were extremely expensive,” he says.

But now computers “are portable … and almost anyone can afford them. The same thing is going on today (with microscopy). We are miniaturizing our micro- and nano-analysis tools. We’re making them more affordable; we’re making them more powerful.”

It looks like this science fiction dream will soon become today’s reality.


1) World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database. Website:

2) HealthMap: HealthMap was founded in 2006 by a team of researchers, epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children’s Hospital. It is an established global leader in utilizing online informal sources for disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats. Website:

3) A home-made portable microscope: A design developed in the 1970s by Chinese students who fashioned a microscope from a plastic bottle. Website:

4) Ways to make simple homemade microscope lenses. Website:

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© David South Consulting 2022