The Art and Practice of Engineering Products for the "Bottom Billion"Jean Thilmany | October 01, 2015
A decade ago, Camille George began to work on a simple, easy-to-assemble dryer for use in Haiti that takes advantage of the sun to dehydrate breadfruit. In reflecting on the project, George now says that she and her team “didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
That’s because organizations that are designing engineered tools for use in developing countries often work under a fundamental constraint: they can’t easily test and redesign. After all, their users may be thousands of miles away and often live in a culture that the designers don’t fully understand.
Ten years in, George, who teaches mechanical engineering at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., says she has learned some important lessons about engineering tools and technologies for developing countries. For one thing, it’s important to have a supply chain in place. For another, having instructors who are able to teach how the technology is supposed to work is crucial. In some cases, it even may be necessary to develop a market from scratch.
From cook stoves to mobile phone apps, engineers from economically advantaged parts of the world know that creating engineered tools for use in emerging economies isn’t as easy as it may seem. Often, the engineer must put aside his or her cultural assumptions and professional training in order to design for a culture he or she has not visited and doesn’t fully understand.
Since 2002, George has led the university's partnership with local nonprofit Compatibility Technology International. Together they create “practical food and water tools that empower the global poor to better feed and support themselves,” according to a website description. The partnership, part of the School of Engineering’s “Peace Engineering” initiative, to date has involved around 45 undergraduate and graduate students.
In a 2012 interview, George was quoted as saying that she has grown to appreciate the notion of engineering solutions for the “bottom billion” or the base of the pyramid of world income: “Too often we just think of engineering for Fortune 500 companies or for defense; there are many basic issues (food, water, shelter) that could be addressed by the profession.”
(The phrase "bottom billion" may first have been used in a 2007 book by Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford University.)
Breadfruit Flour and Product Design
In a recent interview with Engineering360, George says “It was kind of interesting to reflect on how little effort we put into the end product,” referring to the breadfruit dryer that she and her students designed. Breadfruit was a readily available, if seldom used, food in Haiti. That's because the melon-size fruit rots quickly once it is harvested. Dried breadfruit, on the other hand, can be ground into flour and used for a variety of staples that can improve diets in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nations.
Problem was, few people in Haiti wanted to bake with or eat products made from breadfruit flour; it wasn’t a part of their cultural tradition. That hurdle needed to be overcome before the dryers could find a place in the food chain, make use of an abundant food source and boost farmer income.
“We didn’t put much time into the end market,” she says. “We just thought, ‘this helps with the processing.’” Local people needed to be educated to realize the value in using flour as part of their diet.
The lessons that George and her students took away are important to pass on. After all, taking on product engineering for developing countries—sometimes called sustainable engineering—has grown in popularity in the United States and elsewhere. “The movement has been driven from the bottom up; student groups were clamoring for it” she says. Indeed, the Sustainable World Initiative, Engineers without Borders and Engineering World Health all were started around the millennium and driven by young people.
For example, Engineers without Borders-USA grew from a partnership much like the one George has with her students. In 2000, Bernard Amadei, a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and eight of his students helped install a clean water system in San Pablo, Belize, powered by a local waterfall. From that experience, Amadei and his students founded Engineers without Borders-USA and went on to complete several other low-tech, high-impact projects in developing countries. By the end of 2002, nearly 100 Colorado engineering students were involved in three projects. Since then, Engineers without Borders-USA chapters have expanded across the United States. The organization as a whole includes almost 16,000 members.
Although George’s students aren’t part of Engineers without Borders, she and her students’ projects function in much the same way.
For example, partnering with local organizations is critical, George says. Her breadfruit project now works with organizations in Haiti that seek to provide food and jobs to locals. Partner organization Trees that Feed is looking to introduce the flour as a substitute for morning porridge in orphanages and food aid centers.
Building a Market
In 2010 a group of Haitian women opened Palmares Bakery to sell products made from breadfruit flour. Over the last two years the bakery has sold more than 80,000 cakes for schools and other social programs, George says. In the process, it’s given Haitian people a taste of products made from breadfruit flour. Customers continue to buy cakes and muffins, thus creating a market for the flour and helping to make it more mainstream.
When she first began working on her breadfruit dryer, George worked with Compatible Technology Inc. (CTI). Also based in St. Paul, the firm was started by a group of retired engineers, food scientists, foresters and scientists. The group has been working on post-harvesting peanut grinders and shellers for about 30 years. Among other products, CTI has introduced the Ewing grinder, which grinds peanuts into paste.
“The original idea from CTI was to get breadfruit flour into the school system,” George says, “but shelf life is a big issue.” Once you bake a muffin, the shelf life of the breadfruit is increased. However, it still needs to be eaten within a month or so, she says.
Back at the drawing board, CTI volunteers created a recipe for an extruded breadfruit flour product that contained nutritional supplements. Perhaps more important, the recipe promised a long shelf life. It resembles puffed rice, a cereal available within the United States, and is proving to be attractive to kids, George says.
The extruder will soon begin processing around 700 pounds of breadfruit flour each day. That’s key, George says. After all, farmers have to know there’s a market to sell whatever they’re growing. “It’s all kind of interconnected and in earlier years at least I didn’t appreciate all the steps to make a project successful for people, profits and the planet.”
George says she is optimistic that the bakery and the extruder have created enough demand for breadfruit flour that farmers can now begin selling breadfruit flour at local markets in Haiti.
Community Cook Stoves
But what about engineering development projects that don’t involve a marketplace, such as cook stoves intended for family or community use? In many cases, these projects must overcome even higher barriers to success.
At Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, the Engines and Energy Conversion lab is now in the final year of a three-year U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop top-lit updraft gasifier (TLUG) biomass-burning stoves. The stoves are designed to produce fewer emissions than low-emission biomass stoves already available from the lab and distributed by Envirofit International.
In fact, the lab spun off Envirofit in 2003 to produce and sell engineered technology created in the laboratory. In 2007, it partnered with Shell Foundation’s Breathing Space Program to prove the market for scalable clean cook stoves.
Today, Envirofit stocks multiple biomass-burning stove models and has sold nearly 1 million stoves in more than 45 countries. It manages manufacturing operations in China, and Eastern Africa and will do so soon in Western Africa and Latin America.
Anthony Marchese, who heads the lab and is a mechanical engineering professor at the university, explains one of the challenges in designing a cook stove.
“As fuel burns out, it transitions into burning charcoal; and if you want to refuel it, you put fuel on top, and this produces a burst of high emissions,” Marchese says. Equally challenging is the fact that “folks will burn whatever fuels they have available.”
The lab has evaluated many different fuel types and moisture content and has tested multiple design configurations. The stove is being designed for use in China and it should be ready to market in about six months, Marchese says.
The partnership with Envirofit--which will distribute the lab’s stove--is vital.
“Folks will design something in the lab without really understanding the market, and that’s why a lot of these programs fail,” he says. Partners understand what the market forces are and not only the range of local fuel types but also the way people cook. “You have to design these stoves in ways people will actually use them.” In part, it’s about technology transfer.
Sophie Brock isn’t an engineer, but she understands firsthand the issues inherent with technology transfer. Brock is executive director of Solar Household Energy (SHE) of Washington D.C. SHE distributes solar ovens in developing communities.
Before she began volunteering and then working at SHE, Brock had an experience that opened her eyes to the drawbacks in introducing technology without adequate training and partnerships. She spent six weeks teaching English in Haiti, and during that time, she lived in a seminary where she coached the seminary’s cook on how to use a relatively straightforward solar cooker. The effort, however, turned out to be more of a learning experience for Brock than for the cook.
The cooker was easy to use and consisted of little more than a cardboard box, reflectors and a plastic bag into which a pot was placed. But the simple technology disrupted the cook’s schedule, which she had adhered to rigidly for many years.
“With solar panel cookers, you have to start cooking earlier than you do on a fire,” Brock says.
What’s more, Brock says the cook did not understand the science behind solar cooking, such as optics, greenhouse effect and so on. “It seems obvious that rays of light come from the sun and go into the solar cooker and reflect back on the cooker, but it’s not that obvious at all” in practice, she says. Some people in the community even attributed the stove’s cooking capability to witchcraft.
The lesson that Brock learned is that “you have to go over small points over and over again.” The cook in Haiti eventually understood the solar cooking process. Without repetition, however, people will nod their heads during training and say “it looks easy” but they won’t use it again, Brock says.
Simplicity when it comes to parts is another lesson Brock took home. A tool shouldn’t be overdesigned or include hard-to-replace parts. “Durable solar cookers are well machined, but if screws fall off and pieces go missing, there’s no way to replace them,” she says. “You can’t just drive to a hardware store.” Even if screws stay intact, a person in the local village should be trained to maintain the solar cooker or other technology to ensure the product enjoys a long life, she says.
Mobile Phone Medicine
That’s not to say that people living in developing areas lack access to other high-tech tools, notably mobile phones. Thomas Larson came up with the idea for his Micro Phone Lens in 2010 as a mechanical engineering major at the University of Washington. The thin lens he designed attaches to the camera of a cell phone and is capable of magnifying images by 15 times; a second lens magnifies images by up to 150 times.
The lenses sell for $15 and $30, respectively, and have been used to diagnose schistosomiasis—a disease caused by parasitic worms--in rural parts of the developing world. Using their mobile phones, healthcare workers send images to medical centers where doctors confirm the diagnosis and prescribe medicine.
“If you’re in a rural clinic in Sudan and you have some pictures and you don’t know what they are, you can attach them to your email and send them to a doctor in New York for diagnosis,” Larsom says. The mobile app could prove disruptive to the more typical process, which is to mail specimen slides in freezer boxes.
Five years ago, when Larson began his work, the usual way to take digital images of microscopically enhanced specimens was with camera attachments that were more like the big barrel lens for a camera. “They were heavy and expensive, and they sort of defeated the whole purpose,” he says. The technology was digital but that was about it.
Larson finds users for his product by marketing like a millennial. He started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, an effort that also helped build interest. Now he makes the Micro Phone Lens that is well known across multiple social networking sites.
In fact, Medroid, a Tanzanian startup that aims to make healthcare affordable, found him by plugging the word “microscope” into YouTube and watching a video of Larson’s app in action. The organization plans to send clinicians to rural villages to screen patients for sickle cell disease. The clinicians will send the results gathered by Larson’s camera to consulting doctors in a nearby city, who can consult with patients on next steps.
“I’m using the mass pollinator strategy of getting 1,000 Micro Phone Lenses out there,” Larson says. “Hopefully, people doing cool stuff with them will come back and tell me about it.”
Limited resources necessitated his social media strategy. As with many engineering organizations that are designing for disadvantaged parts of the world, his venture faces limited resources.
Despite the hurdles, these design engineering ventures continue to learn and refine best-engineering design practices, says George. That may be of secondary importance, however. For most, the process of engineering to benefit the developing world is worth the sometimes-steep learning curve.