(Originally published on BBC Future’s Matter of Life & Tech, April 24th 2013 by Jonathan Kalan)
Some technologies seem to take off instantly whilst others – no less useful – seem to just limp along.
Take mobile phones and toilets – two arguably useful and life-changing technologies. In just over forty years, around six billion people have managed to get access to a phone. Yet less than half that number has access to sanitation, despite the fact that toilets were invented at least 5,000 years ago. And, according to Ms Jaehyang So, water and sanitation manager at the World Bank, the number of new people with access to sanitation “is not moving very fast.”
That’s a problem. A lack of facilities, poor infrastructure, leaking sewage and the rapid spread of associated diseases cause billions of dollars in economic losses, and the lives of nearly 4,000 children each day. And, as the world’s population swells, things only seem to be getting worse.
Now, the World Bank has stepped in and it believes the key to tackling the problem is tapping into mobile phones. “What a mobile phone represents to a person today is a potential for prosperity. It connects them to the rest of the world,” says Ms So. “What people sometimes don’t understand is that access to sanitation also gives people that chance out of poverty.”
The bank has just announced the winners of its Sanitation Hackathon (SanHack), a competition to build phone apps that can help improve sanitation in the developing world.
“It was one of the most innovative and risky things we’ve done at the World Bank”, says Ms So, describing the experimental competition that aimed to bring fresh thinking to an age old problem.
“We were a bit worried the challenge wouldn’t be very sexy, or data rich,” claims Edward Anderson, also at the bank. “Developers usually get excited about building apps for things like climate change, but not so much about fixing pit latrines in rural areas.”
The response, however, was quite the opposite. The competition attracted more than 180 apps, including everything from games to teach children about good hygiene to programs that track exactly how much a household spends on sanitation.
More than maps
Yet, most of the submitted apps focused on crowd-sourcing information and mapping it – and for good reason. “Mapping has been a huge game changer,” in sanitation, claims Ms So, allowing utilities and providers to know “who needs service, where the problems are, and where the community is growing.”
Due to the informal design and haphazard growth of slums, and remoteness of rural areas, very little formal mapping has actually been done.
“In these places, it’s less a case of building stuff on top of a map, and more building the map in the first place,” says Gary Gale, who runs community programs for mobile firm Nokia’s Here Maps. “The minute you have information on a map, it gives it a veracity that wasn’t there beforehand.”
Well folks, it’s that time of year again. The time when we stop, take stock, and put into perspective one of the world’s most pressing problems; Water.
In recognition of the critical water challenges facing Kenya, where I currently live, let me share a bit of perspective from my own experiences chronicling of the challenges, the innovations, and potential solutions for water access across east Africa.
In the hot, dry and harsh landscapes of northeastern Kenya skirting the Somali border, hundreds of thousands of nomadic pastoralists continue to eek out a meager living from the land.
Yet in September of 2011, conditions were unbearable. It had been 16 months and counting since a single drop of rain touched down on the scorched earth, and the region was crippled by the worst drought in decades, forcing residents to survive near-famine conditions. The riverbeds were emptied, leaving nothing but dusty scars on the landscape. Carcasses of goats, donkeys and camels littered the side of the 370 km dirt highway between the two major towns of Wajir and Garissa, and thousands of people were forced to set up temporary shelters, kept alive by charity.
As result of global climate change, weather patterns are shifting drastically. The rains in the horn of Africa are becoming more sporadic, erratic, unpredictable and unreliable. However, a lack of rain alone does not produce famine. While some countries have the infrastructure, policies, programs and emergency relief services to be able to provide resources for their citizens in times of crisis, this area of Kenya, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.
When it comes to the basic necessity of water, the northeastern region of Kenya is plagued by both a lack of infrastructure and extreme marginalization. Inhabited by mostly ethnic-Somali pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on their livestock, people carry their homes on the backs of camels and move nomadically from one water source to the next. They don’t vote, and even if they did, their voice would matter little- the region has such little economic importance due to lack of resources, its primary purpose is to serve as a buffer between Kenya and war-torn Somalia. An aid worker once mentioned offhand that “the elected officials want to keep these people poor. That way, come election time, they can easily buy their vote and retain power.” Though this can’t be verified, it certainly is a common perception here.
Across the region, infrastructure is still the greatest challenge. 96% of sub-Saharan African agriculture is still rain dependent, meaning only 4% can actually grow and harvest crops when the rains don’t come, or during the dry seasons. Resources are vastly underused, and the lack of agricultural innovation and investment is tragic. There is water, underground and above ground, that’s not being tapped into.
For example, along the Tana River in Garissa, the Kenya Red Cross estimates that only 10% of rivers capacity is actually being harnessed. The African Development Bank has cited that the region’s lack of infrastructure- roads, housing, water, electricity, sanitation- reduces its output by 40%.
While rains may be uncontrollable, famine isn’t. The ability to access, harness, and distribute what lies atop or just beneath the surface is perhaps both the greatest failure and opportunity of the region. This photo-essay explores the current situation of water in Kenya’s driest areas, and the multiple efforts of private and public organizations working around the region to fix it.
My latest piece for BBC Future’s Matter of Life & Tech column explores the growing debate of technology vs content in the e-learning space, by looking at Kenya’s new eLimu tablet. Check it out!
eLimu: ‘T’ is for tablet computer
BBC Future; Matter of Life & Tech
February 5th, 2013
In a tiny classroom tucked inside one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums, the 34 class eight students of Amaf primary school wait anxiously for the 4 o’clock bell.
At this time, twice a week, headmaster Peter Lalo Outa instructs students to put away their textbooks, assembles them into groups, and pulls out seven sleek tablet computers for the after-school lesson. One day, the students watch a video explaining the process of composting manure. On another, they’ll watch the animals they study come to life through videos, pictures, and interactive games.
“Our curriculum in Kenya is like a punishment to children, they feel they have to do it because it’s compulsory,” explains Outa. “With these tablets, our students really enjoy learning.”
Amaf school is one of two institutions piloting software by eLimu, a Kenyan education-technology startup that develops apps and content for small, touch-screen, wifi-enabled Android-powered tablets.
“We’re using the tablet as a tool through which information, ideas and passions can grow,” says eLimu founder Nivi Mukherjee,
eLimu works with local teachers, partners and developers to design localised, digital content meant to push primary education beyond the typical “chalk and talk” approach common in many classrooms. The start-up wants to show that digital content can be cheaper, better, and more effective at getting kids to learn.
“Our books have a limit,” says Outa, “but these tablets go beyond – with videos, photos and more practical learning.”
In Kenya, education is still one of the country’s biggest development hurdles. Although primary school was made free in 2003, resulting in nearly 100% enrollment, today less than one third of primary school pupils possess basic literacy and math skills for their level, according to Uwezo, a four-year initiative researching the state of education in east Africa. On any given day, 13 out of 100 teachers are absent from school, it says.
“Overcrowding in classes, inadequate teachers, and lack of learning and teaching materials” are all enormous challenges to education, admits John Temba of Kenya’s Ministry of Education.
Splash and flop
eLimu may be the latest attempt to harness technology for education, but it’s certainly not the first. For decades, organisations have been using technology to broaden universal access to information and make learning more interactive.
Last year while traveling across the region, I stumbled across Living Goods, an incredibly innovative social enterprise in Kampala, Uganda, that uses an Avon-Lady style delivery system for essential health products. I wrote a feature for Beyond Profit Magazine titled “Door-to-Door Healthcare” highlighting their approach and impact.
Last week, Living Goods was also featured by Tina Rosenberg in the Fixes column of The New York Times, with photo contribution from The (BoP) Project.
Check out the piece here- it’s a great read!