Archive for July, 2009

Five years on where are the examples of nanotechnology that benefit the poor?

Friday, July 31st, 2009 by

The RS/RAEng report (published five years ago) raised concerns that there was a potential for nanotechnologies to intensify the gap between rich and poor countries.

Practical Action was consulted by the Royal Society working party and the following letter was published in The Guardian (20 August 2004):

“Our concern is that yet another new technology will over-promise and under deliver; that in addition to the already apparent “digital divide”, we may be on the verge of a “nanodivide”. We should ensure that nanotechnologies are harnessed for the benefit of all peoples in the world not just those who can afford to fuel a consumer boom of new products. Many poor people in the world have basic requirements – for water, energy, and food – that are as yet unfulfilled. We need to ensure that nanotechnologies are used to achieve wider social and environmental goals (eg sustainable energy), rather than meeting short-term or developed world “market opportunities” for products such as sunscreen.”

Five years on what progress has been made in harnessing nanotechnology for the benefit of poor people? It is true that there have been further nano-dialogues, including those undertaken by Practical Action in Zimbabwe, Peru and Nepal. Some engagement with scientists in developing countries has been made, for example Practical Action in Peru has been a catalyst for the development of a nanotechnology network. However there is scant evidence of specific applications of nanotechnology being developed for use in developing countries. Some solar power applications have been developed in South Africa and elsewhere and some novel methods of removing arsenic from drinking water are being tested in Mexico but to date few, if any of these innovations have been applied and certainly not at any scale. You might think this position is fine because it is “early days”. But experience suggests that if efforts are not made around a research agenda on social and ethical issues it could be too late to affect the overall business model.

Perhaps of even greater importance is conceiving research projects that will include partnerships in developing countries. Such partnerships should include scientists, NGO’s, Government agencies, and beneficiary communities.

For further reflections on the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report see the Report from the Responsible Nano Forum.

Linking the mobile phone with a microscope for public benefit

Friday, July 24th, 2009 by

The latest “add on” for a mobile phone is not likely to appeal to the market of young affluent professionals who like the latest gadgets.   But in many much less affluent parts of the globe the mobile phone is reaching out as one of the technologies offering the potential to change lives.  For social conversations, for business transactions, remittances, and mobile banking the mobile phone is fast becoming a tool that connects people who live in remote rural locations in developing countries.

The needs of those people go beyond those uses named above, into areas such as health and education.   A paper published earlier this week in the open access journal PLoS ONE holds out the hope that via the combination of a microscope and mobile phone health services might reach into rural areas.  More about this can be read on the BBC Technology News site.

The research team say that: “We expect such a telemedicine system for global healthcare via mobile phone – offering inexpensive brightfield and fluorescence microscopy integrated with automated image analysis – to provide an important tool for disease diagnosis and screening, particularly in the developing world and rural areas where laboratory facilities are scarce but mobile phone infrastructure is extensive.” (Breslauer et al 2009).   This is a welcome opportunity for new technology to help poor people in rural areas but to enable the technology to be used effectively it should also be remembered that there will need to be capacity building for local communities.   The supply of the technology is a start so long as we also work to engage the potential users to gain their buy-in and ownership.   Now is the right time to do that and certainly it should not wait until the researchers have “perfected” the technology.


Breslauer DN, Maamari RN, Switz NA, Lam WA, Fletcher DA (2009) Mobile Phone Based Clinical Microscopy for Global Health Applications. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6320. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006320

Can “high-tec” offer simple solutions?

Friday, July 10th, 2009 by

Today, The Times reports on page 54: “Simple Local Solutions to a Complex Global Issue”. Amongst other case studies the article picks out the work of Practical Action in Zimbabwe. Here we have reached 11,000 people with knowledge which is enhancing their livelihoods. These people live in an area that has no access to electricity, radio, or mobile phone. A “new technology” – an mp3 player – was introduced to enhance the existing ways of reaching people with new information and knowledge.

The technology is certainly “high-tec” but also it can rightly be argued that it is simple. Users have found it simple to use and the solution is relatively cheap.

This initiative is part of a theme of work that uses local content in local voices. Further background to this work can be found by following this link to another page on our website. We are currently working to spread this work to other countries to reach even more people in need.

Climate change diaries: Sudan

Monday, July 6th, 2009 by

Hello, my name is Noureldin and this is my diary of climate change in Sudan.

Sandstorm approaching Khartoum

As the largest country in Africa, Sudan is a land of diversity both in its people and throughout its natural landscape. With a population of more than 36 million, we have a vibrant culture made up of more than 50 groups and 600 tribes each with distinctive languages, styles and traditions. The Sudanese people live across the whole range of topography that Africa has to offer – from arid deserts to rich savannahs, tropical swamps to Red Sea coastal banks intersected with mountainous regions.

Our greatest concern about climate change is the damage it is causing to our agriculture. Sudan’s economy, like that of many developing countries, is heavily based on farming and livestock keeping, the major employment sectors of the country. More than 70% of the population relies on traditional and subsistence agriculture, the majority of which are dependent on rain-fed agriculture and pastures. This all makes our economy extremely vulnerable to any slight changes in the weather. These changes are happening now and many people’s livelihoods are under threat.

Our government has produced a study into Sudan’s vulnerability to climate change for the UNFCCC – the organisation under which a global climate deal is expected to be agreed in Copenhagen this December. The results are worrying. Desertification now threatens the livelihoods of millions of Sudanese people living at the edge of the dry Sahel belt – even small variations in temperature and rainfall here could tip the balance towards desert conditions. By 2030, Sudan’s average annual temperature will increase between 0.5 and 1.5°C and rainfall is expected to drop by approximately 5%. We predict a major decline in yields for Sudan’s three most common crops – sorghum, millet and gum arabic.

Local solutions

On the positive side, the unique location and wonderful diversity of Sudan makes it one of the best places for promoting local innovation, particularly in ecologically-friendly agriculture and natural resource management – both vital techniques for increasing the ability of people to adapt to climate change. Amongst other projects, Practical Action is working to spread local knowledge and build partnerships in these areas as part of a global learning network called Prolinnova. Together we help to promote and scale up farmer-based approaches to adaptation by combining local ideas with scientific knowledge. In other areas of Africa where droughts are becoming harsher and lasting longer, Practical Action works with communities to harvest rainwater, irrigate land and select drought resilient seed varieties.

These projects reflect Practical Action’s approach to adaptation: by building on people’s experiences and indigenous knowledge our work reduces the vulnerability and enhances the resilience of local communities living in marginalised areas. This is a good starting point to increase people’s capacity to cope with climate change.

Global climate deal

Practical Action is helping communities in Sudan adapt to climate change. However, to reach all those that will be affected in our country, let alone those in other developing countries, we need a global response to the issue. Now is the time for world leaders to agree a climate deal. The people of Sudan have contributed little to global warming, now we need support to adapt if we are to maintain our unique lifestyles and continue to develop.

Thank you for reading my climate change diary. I hope that people in the UK and other developed countries can urge their leaders to create the best climate deal possible at Copenhagen. I leave with you this message:

فلنعمل معاً للحد من آثار التغير المناخي
Let us work together to reduce the effects of climate change

Greening Darfur
Regenerating vegetation cover in west Sudan

Stop Climate Injustice
Make the link between climate change and poverty

Working to adapt
Practical Action’s work to help communities adapt to climate change