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Low Technology Solutions Find Favor in Developing World


Fuel efficient stoves and ceramic water purifiers are two examples of low-tech innovations that can help people in poor countries improve their quality of life. Because what is known as "appropriate technology" usually requires fewer resources and is easier to maintain than high-tech, development agencies and non-profit groups have promoted its use. In this third in a series on technology in developing countries, Cathy Majtenyi reports from Nairobi on effort to provide low-tech innovations in poor countries, with additional reporting by Rory Byrne in Cambodia, and Cesar Barreto in Peru.

Soldier Leonidas Simbizi boils beans for lunch at Camp Muha army base in Burundi's capital Bujumbura. He works with a stove that uses peat instead of wood to fuel the fire. The government is trying to promote peat as an alternative energy source. Peat is relatively abundant and its use can save trees.

Simbizi seems unconvinced. He says when he uses wood stoves there is not so much smoke, but with peat, there is much smoke. He says he prefers to use a wood stove.

Burundi's army is the main user of peat stoves. But there are plans to market peat stoves for civilians, too.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, a more successful effort is underway. About 100,000 households are using ceramic water purifiers, which filter out out micro-organisms and other impurities in water, making it safe to drink. The U.S. non-profit group International Development Enterprises is promoting these low-tech purifiers.

Users like Lach Emmaly are very satisfied. She says she finds the water filter useful, because she does not waste time searching for firewood in the forest and cutting it down, nor does she have to spend money to buy charcoal to boil the water. The water cleaned with the filter, she says, saves her time and money and keeps her healthy.

Ceramic water purifiers and peat stoves are two of many examples of appropriate technology.

These low-tech innovations require fewer resources, are less expensive and easier to maintain than conventional technologies. They also have less of an impact on the environment. They are meant to improve the lives of people in poor countries by saving them time, money, and other resources.

Even higher-tech products, like computers, can be modified to suit local conditions. The One Laptop Per Child initiative was created by the U.S. non-profit group of the same name. The green and white laptops are lightweight, durable, and can be hand-cranked or solar-powered. They use open-source software, which allows children and their teachers to adapt the software to their needs.

Nicholas Negroponte is chairman of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. He tells VOA the laptop is an example of appropriate technology.

"It is very environmentally sensitive. Its friendliness and its ecological footprint - and all of those things is the lowest by an order of magnitude," says Negroponte. "Just the power consumption of this is 1/20th of the laptop you and I use."

Peru has ordered 400,000 laptops for its schools. The laptops are being used by teachers and students at Apostol Santiago, a school 100 kilometers north of the capital, Lima. Yesenia Borquez, age 8, loves her computer. She says she is very happy because she learns everything on the computer.

However, experts say for appropriate technology to succeed, it must also be commercially viable.

"If there is no market for it, if people do not see it as fulfilling their need or if it is not just quite right for that country, then it will not spread and it will not bring its benefits," says Andrew Burns, senior economist at the World Bank. "And that means that the people doing research and development, the people doing the dissemination efforts really have to be listening and paying as much, or perhaps more, attention to ensuring that these things have commercial success and commercial prospects in order for them to spread "

Teachers and students at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology in Rwanda's capital are working to identify and fulfill market needs. The school has a host of low-tech machines that make nails and other every-day items like candles.

With a candle-making machine and molds, invented in Rwanda, production costs are about two cents per candle. Candles imported from China cost about 10 cents each in Rwanda. So the economic advantages of this low-tech project are clear - and the Institute hopes these candles and other products will easily find a market in Rwanda.