Asian Factories Starting to go Green

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

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Media headlines have recently highlighted the growing air pollution crisis in Asia’s expanding cities. This is caused by a mix of factors – the growing number of vehicles, coal-powered factories, people burning dirty fuels to heat their homes, and poor enforcement of standards – and has severe consequences for human health. If it’s not tackled, more and more countries will see large rises in respiratory problems, cancers and early deaths from pollution-caused illnesses (

The World Health Organization (WHO) says air pollution is the world’s largest environmental health risk, killing 7 million people every year. Asia has the largest number of air pollution deaths in the world, with 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution (Clean Air Asia).

While most of the Asian countries where this is a problem are also aggressively growing their economies in order to get richer and raise living standards, there is a rising awareness of the need to balance a modern, industrial economy with human health and the environment.

One solution is to adopt green and sustainable building standards when constructing new factories. This is more than just a public relations exercise: the energy savings possible from building smart pay off in the long run. And green factories not only pollute less, they save lives and the environment.

Asia plays a critical role in producing the world’s consumer products, from the small and simple to the highly complex components used in 21st-century computing technologies.

Intel (, the manufacturer of electronic devices and the computer chips that go inside them, is trying to lead the way. It has built a US $1 billion manufacturing plant 16 kilometers outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and it is designed to exceed Vietnamese environmental and sustainability guidelines and laws.

Opened in 2010, it boasts the country’s largest solar power system. It is also currently working on a water reclamation system to reduce water consumption at the plant by 68 per cent, according to The New York Times. It is hoping to receive certification from the US Green Building Council (

It is all part of a wider trend that is starting to reverse the damaging, short-termist approach of the past. More and more Western multinationals and their Asian suppliers are building environmentally sound factories in the developing world.

According to the US Green Building Council, around 300 manufacturing facilities in Asia are either certified or are awaiting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The LEED certification recognizes the building has met certain standards in becoming a ‘green’ building.

Going green is more and more part of corporate policy for companies that want to avoid the bad publicity of disasters such as the garment factory collapse that killed 1,135 people in Bangladesh in April 2013.

But it is not just driven by a desire to avoid bad publicity: large corporations that build factories in the global South are also realizing there are big financial savings to be made.

Intel has been able to reduce its global energy costs by US $111 million since 2008. It did this by investing US $59 million in 1,500 projects to boost sustainability across its facilities worldwide. The projects have reduced carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the amount produced by 126,000 American households per year.

Intel’s solar array in Vietnam, which cost US $1.1 million, offsets the equivalent of 500 pollution-belching motorbikes every day.

How effective are LEED-certified buildings? The New York Times reported that a 2011 survey compared a typical shoe factory with a LEED factory run by the American sport shoe maker Nike. It found the LEED factory used 18 per cent less electricity and fuel and 53 per cent less water.
And this trend is creating a new economy unto itself. As an example, a new marketplace for industrial efficiency upgrading is developing in India. Power outages are frequent in India, so finding a way to save electricity and alternatives to dependence on the national power grid is attractive to any economic enterprise.

Prashant Kapoor, principal industry specialist for green buildings at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), believes demand for upgrades is strong enough that various companies can specialize in this field and profit from it.

And things are also happening in the notoriously smog-choked cities of China. By the end of 2012, China had certified eight factories and 742 buildings as LEED, according to the China buildings programme at the Energy Foundation ( in San Francisco.

Damien Duhamel of Solidiance (, a firm that advises businesses on how to grow in Asia, believes avoiding risk caused by environmental accidents or scandals is heightened by the growing presence of social media, which amplifies negative publicity.

“The next battle will be here” for higher corporate environmental standards, Duhamel believes. “This is why some smart companies – Intel, for example – took the steps of being proactive.”


1) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED): LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. Website:

2) US Green Building Council (USGBC): Its mission is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life. Website:

3) Dwell: Dwell magazine is focused on demonstrating that modern design can be both functional and comfortable. Website:

4) Inhabitat: Design for a Better World: is a weblog devoted to the future of design, tracking the innovations in technology, practices and materials that are pushing architecture and home design towards a smarter and more sustainable future. Website:

5) Solidiance: Singapore-based consulting firm specializing in Asia’s green-building sector. Website:

6) Clean Air Asia: Clean Air Asia was established in 2001 as the premier air quality network for Asia by the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and USAID. Its mission is to promote better air quality and livable cities by translating knowledge to policies and actions that reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transport, energy and other sectors. Website:

7) Southern Innovator Issue 4: Cities and Urbanization: This issue is packed with ideas on to how make cities and urban environments greener and reduce air pollution. Website: and here:

8) Better Air Quality Conference 2014 and 8th Regional Environmentally Sustainable Transport Forum in Asia:  From 19 to 21 November 2014 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, BAQ is the leading event on air quality in Asia, covering the key sectors of transport, energy, industry and climate change, with a particular emphasis on government policies and measures. Website:

9) Tianjin Eco-city: The Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city’s vision is to be a thriving city which is socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient. Website:

10) Songdo: Songdo International Business District (IBD) officially opened on August 7, 2009 as a designated Free Economic Zone and the first new sustainable city in the world designed to be an international business district. Website:

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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Banning of Plastic Bags and Containers Brings New Opportunities

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


This month, Uganda bans plastic bags, outlawing their import, manufacture and use and joining a growing list of African countries seeking to sweep cities of this menace. Uganda’s ban follows similar moves in Kenya and in Tanzania, where even plastic drinks containers will soon be banished. Rwanda, also a member of the East African Community, has gone further – in 2005 the country banned any products made of very thin plastic below 100 microns. The thinner plastic found in plastic bags (under 30 microns) is particularly troublesome because it is easily blown around by the wind. The proliferation of plastic bags and plastic containers across the developing world has not only become an eyesore, it is also an environmental catastrophe that is poisoning the land.

In Uganda’s capital, Kampala, discarded plastic has combined with toxic waste management practices to make the problem worse. While Kampala has 30 companies dealing in solid waste management, the process is mired in corruption. Poor areas of the city receive no service because it is more profitable for the companies to target wealthy areas for the user fees they collect to remove rubbish.

Scavengers in the municipal dump of Kampala earn 50 Ugandan pence a day collecting plastic bags. Most plastic bags do not make it to the dump, ending up blown around the city by the wind, washed into drains and water courses. Worse, the rich soil around Uganda’s towns and villages is now covered in plastic bags. A new layer of polythene and contaminated soil has formed in many areas, with an impenetrable crust that stops rain from soaking through. It leaves water stagnating in pools gurgling with methane gas bubbles.

For entrepreneurs, tackling the mountains of plastic waste is an opportunity – as is providing a replacement once they are banned. A boon time is emerging for the market in recycled and reusable materials and biodegradable alternatives.

The So Afr-Eco Community Upliftment Project for Rural Women in South Africa is a common example. A project that proves money can be made from recycling discarded plastic bags into useful items. Based in the Obanjeni district in Kwazulunatal, it was founded by Jenny Kirkland, who was disgusted with the proliferation of plastic bags littering South Africa’s countryside. She decided to do something that would also hire rural women and give them an income. The plastic bags are cut into strips of twine and then woven together to make hats, bags, doormats and waistcoats. Run as a for-profit business, it now employs 132 families and exports products to 19 countries, including Australia, the USA, the UK, Canada, Sweden and Poland. South African schools are now provided with sun hats and companies order hats for use at conferences. The profits made from sales are significant by local standards. For example, the sale of one beach bag can feed a small family for two weeks, a hat feeds a family for a week, and a doormat for a month.

Anita Ahuja, president of the NGO Conserve, has set up a business making fashionable handbags, wallets and shopping bags from recycled plastic bags in New Delhi, India. Begun in 2003, the project collects plastic bags on the streets and keeps 60 women employed. The recycling process does not require additional dyes or inks and is non-toxic. The bags are sold in London, UK and will soon be sold in Italy by the Benetton clothing chain.

“We braided them and tried weaving them, but the plastic would come loose. Then we hit upon the idea of pressing them to make sheets,” Ahuja said.

But this issue can be more complex than it first seems. After South Africa banned plastic bags of less than 30 microns in 2003, many poor entrepreneurs have complained that it hit hard their making of hats, handbags, purses and scrubbing brushes from them – something that had become a good livelihood.

After the bags are banned, environmentalists say the best option is to use reusable bags made of materials that don’t harm the environment during production and don’t need to be discarded after use.

Alternatives to plastic bags include traditional African baskets or kiondos as they are known in Kenya. Made from sisal and sometimes with leather or wooden handles, the handmade bags support many local women (

In Kenya, entrepreneurs have also stepped in to offer alternatives to plastic and kiondos. Supermarkets and shops in the country distributed 11 million plastic shopping bags a year, so Joseph Ayuka of Greensphere Enterprises has begun to market cotton bags for their easy portability. “People don’t want to carry bulky bags to the supermarket”, he said.


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Design Collaborations Revitalize Traditional Craft Techniques

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Keeping alive traditional craft techniques and methods in the age of globalization is a tricky balance to get right. As countries seek to increase living standards and income, traditional craft-making methods are often jettisoned in favour of attracting manufacturing and other high-value activities – meaning rich and potentially lucrative skills can be lost.

One promising new initiative is bringing craftspeople in the global South together with established and well-known designers in The Netherlands to create the market incentives to continue using traditional techniques. It is establishing a brand and a business model to sell unique and original craft products into the European marketplace. By doing this, it hopes to open up new markets in Europe – and in time, the rest of the world – for craft makers from the global South so they can continue to earn an income using their traditional skills and techniques.

The brand is called Imperfect Design ( and was founded in 2011 by Monique Thoonen, formerly the managing director of Dutch Design in Development ( – a matchmaker between Dutch designers, producers in developing countries and European importers. Imperfect Design takes the idea a step further: It is a brand dedicated to creating high-value, well-designed craft products for the European marketplace.

The idea began to percolate in Thoonen’s mind in 2010. She received a good response from some of the Dutch designers she approached – who were keen to work with craft workers in developing countries – and this gave her the confidence to launch Imperfect Design.

“We saw that many designers were very interested to work with craftsmen/small workshops in developing countries,” she explained, reflecting on her previous experience working with Dutch Design in Development. “The designers and the crafters learned a lot about the inspiring cooperation and it resulted often in good quality products/collections. However, it was hard to find good sales channels for the products. In 2010 the idea came about to set up an own brand.”

Thoonen was seeking a business model that could be sustainable and rewarding for all the participants along the value chain (

“The cooperation is inspiring for Dutch designers,” Thoonen said. “The craftsmen will learn a lot about product development during the project and will earn money from the orders. The idea is to build up long-term relations with producers in three countries in three continents – each continent one country.”

For Thoonen, the business model approach is at the core of Imperfect Design.

“The idea of my business model is not doing good. It must be a profitable business model, otherwise it can’t be sustainable. Making it profitable is a big challenge and also forces us to keep the commercial aspect every day in mind.”

The criteria for selecting the designers includes a resourcefulness and creativity that can shape a high-quality craft product with the resources and tools at hand for the collaborating craft workers in the developing country. It is also crucial they understand how to shape the craft product into a high-value item that can command a high price back in Europe.

According to Thoonen, “the products must be differentiated from the market, otherwise it can be copied easily by large producers in China. It is really important to create new things, as the prices are in general higher than from mass production, so the consumer must understand why the price is higher.”

So far, Imperfect Design has begun working with craftspeople in Vietnam and Guatemala, and it is currently selecting a country in Africa. Craft workers can contact Imperfect Design about collaborating but the number of people it can work with is limited at this stage. Imperfect Design places emphasis in taking the time to build sustainable relationships.

A common criticism of craft products sold in many markets is their sameness and sometimes poor and inconsistent production quality. Trying to enter an overseas market and understand what consumers want or desire is a very difficult thing for a craft worker to get right. This is where the experience and knowledge of a designer can make a big difference. Designers can help to hone the craft product, improve the production methods and position the product in the overseas marketplace.

“The workshops have fantastic qualities and materials to work with,” says Thoonen. “When you combine that with the strength of our Dutch designers, you can create products which are commercial, of high quality, and beautiful.”

One of the first collaborations to bear fruit is between Dutch designer Arian Brekveld ( and craft workers in Vietnam. The collaborations have resulted in lacquer tables, trays and candlesticks, ceramic vases, iPad bags and throw cushions – all made using techniques and materials unique to Vietnam.

Imperfect Design allows the designers to select which country they would like to work with. Brekveld’s previous experience travelling widely in Asia tipped his interest towards a country in that continent. He appreciated the friendly and welcoming contacts he had made in Vietnam, who showed a strong interest in collaborating.

Brekveld wanted to bring a “designer’s eye” to the possibilities in Vietnam. He asked: “How could they make the crafts more beautiful and customized for the market in Europe?”

He found Vietnam was not just an interesting place to work, but also a country undergoing significant change. As a result, he found it critical to go and see what was happening in the country and to see first-hand the working conditions in the workshops.

This was a contrast to many of the design briefs he normally undertakes in Europe, where there often isn’t the intimacy of working directly with the craft workers in their workshops.

The time spent in Vietnam was intense and involved visiting multiple workshops to see which would be the best partner.

“We visited four or five lacquer companies to see what their skills were, looking for possibilities,” he said. “It is very special to see by yourself, to really to take a look by yourself, to see what companies do.”

Brekveld was surprised to see that concepts that had been discussed and explored earlier in the day would be presented to him as completed works by the end of the day. The quick work pace and precision really impressed the designer, and the project took months to complete in comparison to the years required by some projects he works on in Europe.

A group of women from the ethnic Catu ( community in central Vietnam weaved the fabrics for the iPad bags and cushions. It was very valuable to work with them in person because he could see what they were – and weren’t – capable of. The fabrics are made into iPad bags and cushions in the capital Hanoi by disabled craftsmen.

Brekveld said visiting the remote workshop saved a lot of time and frustration.

“It was a big difference compared to sitting behind a desk and sending designs. You really see all the possibilities that are there.”

Brekveld is seeking to design products that do not fit in with a clichéd idea of what comes from a developing country.

“If you look you can see the imperfections but they are not obvious. These designs would not necessarily sell in their own country. We try to design products showing the skills they have, using their techniques – not using patterns they would use for themselves. We look at their process and say ‘you can make that and that’. On the other hand, we don’t want to tell them to do something completely different. We look at the technique – a combination of European design language with their abilities.”

But what about quality control? Brekveld says that is an issue he looks at right from the beginning of the design process. “I am a maker, try to make myself – try to think about it before hand.”

He is ambitious for the collaboration to flourish.

“We hope these relations are long-term relations,” he said. “We hope to expand the collection.”

He will present the collections during Dutch Design Week at the end of October 2012 in Eindhoven (

For Thoonen, success will bring many benefits. “If we manage to sell the collection well in the market, then we can give more orders,” Thoonen said. “In short: it will create work, but also development in quality and design.”


1) An online film showing Arian Brekveld’s trip to Vietnam and the craft collaborations. Website:

2) Dutch Design in Development: DDiD is the agency for eco design, sustainable production and fair trade. They work with Dutch importers and designers and connect them to local producers in developing countries and emerging markets. Together products are made that are both profitable and socially and environmentally sustainableWebsite:

3) Dutch Design Week: Groundbreaking ideas, mind-blowing experiments and extraordinary forms of collaboration – that’s what it’s all about during DDW. With the boundless creativity of hundreds of renowned designers and young talents, each year the leading event offers a unique look into the future of design (Eindhoven, The Netherlands: 20-28 October 2012). Website:

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Innovative Ways to Collect Water from Air

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013


World water resources are being depleted quickly as populations grow, urbanize and demand better living standards. Many scientists believe we are reaching peak water – the point at which fresh water is consumed faster than it is replenished.

According to Ensia (, a magazine showcasing environmental solutions in action, 70 per cent of the earth’s fresh water reserves are locked up in snow or ice, and are expensive to tap and bring to the world’s water-stressed places. Of the remainder, most is in groundwater, soil moisture, swamps or permafrost, while just 0.3 per cent is easy to access in freshwater lakes and rivers.

By far the biggest user of water in the world – accounting for 69 per cent of the total – is farm irrigation. That’s a serious concern when considering the world will need to grow more food to feed an increasing population. Just 1 per cent of water is used for livestock, while 15 per cent is used for electricity generation and 7 per cent for manufacturing. More water is currently being pumped from underground resources than is being replaced from underground aquifers.

The average person needs to consume 0.6 to 1.3 gallons (2.72 liters to 6 liters) of water per day to survive in a moderate climate. For drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation, an individual needs 13 gallons (59 liters) a day (Ensia).

In many places, obtaining water requires a long trek to a well or stream. But non-desert climates have water as a resource readily available all around – trapped in the air. The clue to this resource’s existence is in the air’s humidity levels, the most visible sign of which is the dew that is found covering the grass and leaves every morning when people wake up. The trick is to extract that water from the air and create a steady supply of this essential resource.

Italian architect and designer Arturo Vittori (, a lecturer on aerospace architecture, technology transfer and sustainability, believes he has an answer.

Wired magazine ( reported that Vittori was inspired by a trip to Ethiopia, where he observed the daily struggle to get water. Access to water in northeastern Ethiopia often requires a long walk, which reduces the amount of time left in the day to do other things. Parents often take along their children, meaning the children cannot go to school. The time consumed by gathering water leaves people poorer and unable to dedicate more of their day to income-earning activities.

And there is no guarantee the water is safe to drink or free of chemical contaminants. This situation left Vittori pondering ways of coming up with an inexpensive solution that would eliminate the daily hassle of finding water and guarantee its quality.

The answer was a WarkaWater Tower ( The bamboo structure – which looks like an upended, latticework funnel – captures the dew and moisture in the air and collects it in a basket at the bottom.

The water collector is inspired by the Warka tree, or Ficus vasta ( Native to Ethiopia, it is known for providing shade and as a rendezvous point for traditional gatherings.

A WarkaWater Tower stands 8 meters in height and is made from either bamboo or reeds. Inside, a mesh traps humidity from the air and the water drips down into a basket. One tower can gather around 94 liters of water a day. The water is right there in the community and not kilometers away, meaning time and energy saved for income-generating tasks.

A WarkaWater Tower is constructed in sections, which are assembled and then stacked on top of each other. The construction does not need special scaffolding or special machinery. Once the tower is in place, it can also be used as a solar-power generator.

The tower is still a prototype and Vittori plans to build two towers for a launch in 2015.

In Peru, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune (, another innovative solution to the water crisis has been developed by students at the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) ( The students have developed a highway advertising billboard that can draw drinking water out of the air. Inspired by a campaign called “Ingenuity in Action”, the students teamed up with a local advertising agency to design the billboard. It is capable of extracting water from the air and processing it through a filtration system as it flows down to a series of taps at the bottom.

The water-making billboard is at the 89.5 kilometer distance marker of the Pan-American Highway and has five electric-powered tanks that can hold a total of 96 liters of drinkable water. It is capable of providing enough water for hundreds of families. A true sign of our times!


1) How to Build a Rainwater Collection System. Website:

2) The geopolitical difficulties of access to water covered in The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: A True Story about the Aral Sea Catastrophe by Robert Ferguson. Website:

3) “Earth may have underground ‘ocean’ three times that on surface” from The Guardian. Website:

An article on the impact of the water crisis on food supplies. Website:

5) How to Make Water in the Desert. Website:

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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