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Rolex Awards Recognize Inventors with Simple Solutions to Critical Problems - 2004-05-27

People are fascinated by technology that has sent men to the moon and allows them to walk in space. What often go unnoticed are the basic, inexpensive inventions that offer simple solutions to some of the more critical problems in the developing world. As VOA's Serena Parker reports, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise were designed to recognize such intrepid inventors.

Sanoussi Diakité is a Senegalese teacher who invented a machine that removes the husks from fonio, a native grain of the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara. The tasty and nutritious grain thrives in the arid climate, but it has a major drawback – it takes up to two hours of manual pounding to remove the husks from two kilos of grain. Mr. Diakité’s machine processes five kilos in eight to ten minutes.

Hans Hendrikse, a South African architect, designed the Q-drum, a durable, hygienically sealed and easy-to-use rolling water-drum that can be pulled without strain by one adult or two children. In parts of South Africa, women walk up to 30 kilometers a day to collect water for their family. Not only does the Q-drum prevent neck and back injuries, but it reduces the amount of time it takes to fetch water.

Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura, a Sri Lankan surgeon, invented the safe bottle lamp, a simple yet effective device that helps combat one of his country’s most serious health problems. In Sri Lanka a third of all houses have no electricity. So people rely on makeshift bottle lamps to light their dwellings. If an unstable lamp topples, the highly flammable kerosene spills and quickly ignites, causing disfiguring burns or even death.

Dr. Godakumbura says he was inspired to design the safe bottle lamp after witnessing first-hand the problem of lamp burns in Sri Lanka. “As a junior doctor, I have been seeing for many years the suffering undergone by these people,” he tells VOA. “In 1992 when I was a surgeon in an outpatient hospital, I saw a young patient, a 19 year-old woman, who came with severe burns and she died the next day. So that day I thought somebody has to do something about this, and I undertook this venture.”

Dr. Godakumbura designed a bottle lamp of sturdy glass that was heavy and squat to ensure stability. The lamp’s screw-on metal lid prevents kerosene leaks, but still allows the bottle to be refilled. Because of his simple invention, Dr. Godakumbura says the number of burn victims has declined.

“I would put the incidents of bottle lamp burn injuries at seven to ten thousand per year, which is about 20 to 25 per day,” he says. “That was a few years ago. I think it has come down now. I can’t give you accurate figures, but there appears to have been a reduction in the incidents. There are less news items in the newspapers about these bottle lamp burns.”

All three of these men are recipients of the Rolex Award for Enterprise, a biennial prize that recognizes five individuals who are making a contribution to improving life on the planet or expanding human knowledge.

According to Rebecca Irvin, program director for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in Geneva, award winners tend to be people that aren’t in the news.

She says Dr. Godakumbura became a Rolex Laureate in 1998 because his invention proved useful to so many people: “The other reason the selection committee liked the safe bottle lamp was that lamp burn injuries are not just a problem in Sri Lanka, but they’re a problem in a lot of developing countries, where people have these make-shift lamps that can cause terrible accidents. So he had gotten quite of lot of interest from other nations in South Asia and in Africa that also wanted to pick up this Safe Bottle Lamp and distribute it in their countries.”

Rebecca Irvin says quite a few of the Rolex Laureates, as in the case of Dr. Godakumbura, have captured the selection committee’s interest over the years because they propose quite simple solutions to important social problems.

“For example, we had in Nigeria this teacher who perfected and developed this idea of a ‘pot-in-a-pot’ to create a desert refrigerator to help ease the hardships of subsistence farmers,” she says.

That would be Mohammed Bah Abba, who won a Rolex Award in 2000 for manufacturing an innovative clay pot cooling system to preserve perishable foods in developing countries with arid climates. Mr. Abba plans to expand the desert refrigeration program to all states of northern Nigeria and to bordering countries such as Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

As for Dr. Godakumbura, he used his Rolex Award to distribute his safe bottle lamp across Sri Lanka. Although he has yet to reach his goal of replacing the three million unsafe lamps in Sri Lanka, he has been able to distribute some 500,000 safe bottle lamps in the last five years.

The next group of Rolex Laureates will be announced this September at an award banquet in Paris.