Cutting the cables

Developing nations are leveraging smart thinking and the digital revolution to find fixes to tricky social problems. Philanthropy Age explores six applications using off-grid ideas to help drive social change

Technology is enjoying an era of convergence. Declining costs have collided with a proliferation of cheap wireless devices to create opportunity. Reliable cellular networks and low-cost mobiles have revolutionised communication in remote places phone lines have never reached, allowing whole populations to leapfrog the advent of analogue technology and bounce right into the digital age.

However this is just one step toward accessibility to products and services that were once the preserve of the rich, connected and industrialised. Portability and ease of use has cut the cables on everything from medical fieldwork to classroom education. Read on for a snapshot of how wireless technologies are being brought into play across the world, to tackle pressing social challenges.

Digital library

E-books are being used to boost the development of literacy skills in poor nations, through tablet devices and mobile phones.

Shipping paper books to isolated communities is an expensive and difficult exercise, but it is a cost the developing world no longer needs to bear thanks to the growing reach of e-books.

Cheaper tablet devices and mobile phones have coincided with programmes to digitise thousands of existing written works, plus a surge in digital publishing for new content, creating an opportunity to bring reading to the masses in ways not seen before.

It’s a chance that Worldreader could not pass up. The San Francisco-based non-profit has set its sights on delivering digital books to countries and communities where access to reading materials has traditionally been limited. By being device agnostic   – any e-reader or simple mobile phone will do – the organisation is reaching out to a huge audience of phone users with Worldreader Mobile and pushing into schools and libraries with digital books.

Worldreader has made storybooks, textbooks, and all sorts of other reading matter available to people on devices many of them already own, improving literacy rates and underpinning education systems in developing nations.

The programme’s initial focus has been in sub-Saharan Africa, but the mobile phone applications are already having an impact throughout the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Asia, where mobile readers number in the tens of thousands. Worldreader hopes to capture thousands more.

Prescription for success

Tamed in much of the rich world, tuberculosis remains a major public health threat in Asia and parts of Africa. In India, one NGO is using digital monitoring to quash its spread in the country’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a hugely infectious disease that plagues communities in developing nations. No country is harder hit than India, where some 2 million cases of TB occur annually, and two people die from TB every three minutes. Many of the sick are poor, hampered by limited access to treatment and the stigma of illness.

While stigma is being tackled by the likes of high-profile Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan speaking about his own treatment for TB, keeping track of complex drug dosages is key to recovery and to curbing the disease’s spread.

Operation Asha, an India-based NGO, has set out to tackle TB head on, taking delivery of treatment to the doors of the poor and underserved in India’s most blighted slums. To track treatment and ensure that patients take a daily cocktail of drugs, the NGO created a biometric tracking system using small computer tablets, a fingerprint scanner and a cellular connection. The NGO’s staff take instructions from the tablet and fingerprint patients when a dose is administered. Over the course of the treatment, both patient and healthcare worker must enter their fingerprints at the same time, to confirm all medication is given under observation. Any missed dose triggers an SMS alert sent to health workers and the patient, prompting further action.

The results have been dramatic. In South Delhi, the NGO’s longest-standing programme boasts an 86.5 per cent cure rate, while fewer than 3.5 per cent of patients fail to complete their drug courses. In the long battle against TB, digital monitoring has proved a powerful weapon.

Power cut-proof care

Unreliable power from overloaded electricity grids, combined with shortages of essential medical gases, can threaten healthcare at the most critical times.

Anywhere that suffers power outages or a shortage of medical supplies may find itself without the ability to administer vital surgeries. A lack of reliable infrastructure and an inadequate supply of medical essentials can cripple a conventional anaesthesia machine, making any surgery requiring a general anaesthetic impossible.

A potential solution to this key issue emerged in Malawi, where anaesthesiologist Dr Paul Fenton developed a prototype – the so-called Universal Anaesthesia Machine (UAM) – able to operate in blackouts.

Able to work with or without power, the UAM is kitted out with air filters and compressors, capable of turning room air into 95 per cent oxygen at the rate of 10 litres per minute. The system combines a powered option with ‘draw-over’ anaesthesia, where a patient’s breathing powers the gas flow, should the power be out, or nonexistent.

To date, the UAM has helped doctors perform more than 23,000 surgeries in Malawi, the UK and Nepal. Among others, the machine has seen service at the United Mission Hospital Tansen, which serves more than 5 million people in 10 districts across western Nepal and northern India. There, two UAMs have been in service since 2010 and 2011. According to manufacturer Gradian Health Systems, the hospital performs three to eight procedures a day using the kit, and has become a teaching site for other Nepali hospitals.

A bright solution

Solar panels have plummeted in cost in the last decade, while their efficiency has risen, creating a dynamic market where creative ideas are starting to tackle problems from new angles.

The founders of Bboxx, a solar systems developer, saw an opportunity to use cheap and efficient solar panels to the advantage of communities where the power supply was either unreliable or didn’t exist.

Bboxx created ‘plug and play’ solar systems – essentially do-it-yourself solar power kit sets – in a bid to improve access to power and energy across the developing world. Since it was founded in 2010, the company says it has sold more than 41,000 Bboxx products across 35 countries, bringing power to some 205,000 people.

Not only has the company taken on the whole supply chain, from design to distribution, it has combined this with financing options and NGO support to get the products into the hands of those who need them most.

Using what it calls Smart Solar, Bboxx is giving off-grid customers in rural areas the ability to buy electricity monthly – no upfront spending on the technology itself – at costs that are kept the same or below what consumers would normally pay for kerosene or other inefficient, unhealthy fuels.

The system allows local agents to monitor and manage battery performance remotely, as well as to adapt each component to extend its life. Potential problems are identified early and the service agents pointed to the right location, with or without street signs.

Fertile groundwork

Capturing detailed information about soil quality across the expanse of Africa may seem a vast and difficult task, but one creative project is making it happen.

The Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) is in phase two of its massive project to develop continent-wide, near real-time digital soil maps. It has just won funding to cover its next four years thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Run through Columbia Global Centers, the AfSIS project is marrying existing information with data gathered from new surveys, drones, remote sensing equipment and geographic information systems. The aim is to update and improve available information about soil conditions, to help farming communities boost yields.

Focused on the sub-Saharan countries of Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia, a critical element of the AfSIS project is developing modern national soil information services within its partner countries. Among its early achievements has been shifting soil science from the ‘wet chemistry’ of sample testing to the rapid ‘physics’ of testing with spectroscopy.

“It allows us to analyse potentially thousands of soil samples a day,” says Andrew Billingsley, project director, Columbia Global Centers. “So in the future, countries will be able to take spectroscopy machines into the field and do the analysis in places where it would have been very difficult in the past.”

While still in its early stages, the project has already had an impact. In Ethiopia it worked with the government and the African Transformation Agency to develop EthioSIS, an Ethiopian soil information system, something CGC’s Billingsley describes as “an enormous achievement”.

Information from EthioSIS has changed the way the country looks at fertiliser use. Where once blanket recommendations were made, now specific fertiliser blends are identified for particular areas, boosting crop yields and improving productivity.

Get the message

Mass communication to remote corners of the globe can be used to drive health and education campaigns through the most basic of phones.

When the world’s largest democracy, went to the polls recently, Indian citizens were armed with more information than ever before. Anyone with even the simplest mobile phone could text a candidate’s code number and in return get an answer on anything from their education and views, to personal assets.

Set up by India’s Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the initiative was made possible by a clever mobile messaging platform, Vumi, which makes it easier for mobile networks and databases to ‘talk’ to each other.

“Vumi provided access to information in the democratic process in India that really introduced a new level of accountability,” explains Simon de Haan, chief engineer at the Praekelt Foundation, the technology’s makers.

Developed out of a text alert service prompting patients with chronic diseases to keep up their medication, Vumi has the potential for more, says Gustav Praekelt, the foundation’s CEO.

“We believe in the use of technology – especially mobile technology – to scale the impact of non-profit organisations and government, to help deliver lifesaving and inspirational information services to those at the base of the pyramid, or the most vulnerable elements and parts of our society,” he says.

“We build the types of tools that make it possible to deliver information to each and every single person that has a mobile device.”

Next up is mobile money, a phenomenon pioneered in Africa, as philanthropists turn their attention to the unbanked.

“It should be possible to build a new range of products that really enable users to make transactions; transactions that can make their lives easier,” Praekelt explains.

Illustration credit: Mark Makhlouf