Micro: No small thing

For years, Jackson Kahiga lived in insecurity. The small farmer in the Kenyan countryside was at the mercy of his dependence on rain. When there was enough of it, things were fine, but he had to stay prepared for a lack of ­precipitation and the ensuing bad harvests. ­Farmers with plenty of land and profit can afford ­insurance against bad weather, but Kahiga’s farm is modestly sized. Monthly premiums would have come in at an incredible $900, since the insurance company would have had to make regular visits to inspect his land. And with no bank account, how could he take out insurance anyway?

Fortunately for Kahiga, the ­international foundation Syngenta introduced an ­insurance plan for small farmers. “I call it ­micro-insurance,” says Rose Goslinga, the economist from Kenya who conceived and set up the project, “because we insure ­­farmers who have less than half an acre of land for about $5.25 a season. So it’s quite a step down.”

The system is simple. Farmers go to the local agricultural supply store, which registers them using a special mobile phone app. It generates a customer number and policy in the cloud and sends them to the new client by text message. Goslinga doesn’t need to visit the farmers: several villages have been equipped with solar-powered weather stations, which generate statistics she can ­compare to regional rainfall averages. She uses these to calculate weather damages. When she pays out, she does so through ­M-Pesa, a phone app that facilitates financial ­transfers. So far, Syngenta has sold about 64,000 micro-insurance policies in Kenya and Rwanda.

Farmers aren’t the only ones enjoying access to new products and services that used to be out of reach, in the wake of a battery of recent innovations. Millions of households in Bangladeshi villages are getting light and electricity thanks to small loans they can use to buy solar installations. Tuberculosis patients in India are getting timely treatment without having to travel to city hospitals now that local clinics can identify the problem in minutes using microdiagnostic kits.

“The computer that took people to the moon was less powerful than the one on my wrist.”
Andrew Zolli, futurologist

At first glance, these Kenyan farmers, the Bangladeshi families and the Indian patients might appear to have nothing in common. But they’re all accessing essential goods and services at low prices that would have been unimaginable not long ago. A series of related advances in production methods, information technology, design and distribution is putting an end to intermediation by traditional, at times lumbering, institutions and infrastructures like hospitals, banks and power stations. People who live on just a few dollars a day are profiting from the rise of sophisticated microproducts, which are transforming their lives.

Texas professor Eric Bing predicts millions of poor patients will gain access to health care thanks to microproducts, micropharmacies and microdiagnostics. As the George W. Bush Institute think tank’s director for global health, Bing has traveled the world looking for solutions to lack of access to health care. In his recent book, Pharmacy on a Bicycle, he and co-author Marc Epstein concluded that the needs of millions of poor people dictated that health care be “repackaged and redistributed” in smaller units using new technologies and business models. (Read more about Bing’s work in the box on p. 59.)

Consider the idea to create a prosthetic leg that could be produced for less than $20. The American design studio D-Rev worked with the low-cost prosthetics provider BMVSS to create a high-quality, polymer-based knee joint. In the West, expensive titanium prosthetics cost at least $10,000. The knee has already been fitted on 2,500 patients. It’s an example of frugal innovation, which is ­creative design using less money and ­resources. (Read more about frugal ­innovation on p. 60.)

Frugal innovation and downsizing products to make them cheaper aren’t new ideas. For years, Unilever has sold detergent, moisturizer and soap in developing countries in much smaller, lower-priced packages than in the West. But as futurologist Andrew Zolli explains, product miniaturization isn’t the exciting part. “It’s important that people begin to understand how this low-cost revolution could be used to tackle social problems in ways that enable leapfrogging over existing structures.”

Zolli—head of the think tank Poptech and one of Fast Company’s 10 fastest-­rising ­thinkers and leaders in 2005—tells of a recent trip to check his 3-year-old daughter for strep throat. The doctor put a small ­­­­­sam­­ple of mucus in a vial. Within five ­minutes, the results were in: no infection. Zolli was ­fascinated.

In a single breath, he tells me about Diagnostics for All, a company that uses biotechnology to develop a stamp-sized piece of paper that evaluates the condition of your liver from a drop of blood taken from your finger. An unsatisfactory result can indicate malaria or tuberculosis. “We’re going to see lots and lots of this kind of innovation that was inconceivable before and solves problems in completely new ways,” Zolli says.

The liver test shows the profound impact such innovation can have. Around the world, 1.6 billion people lack access to doctors and clinical care. When they get sick, they might be able to get blood drawn at a clinic, but it has to be taken by refrigerated transport to a lab for testing. The lab mails the results to the clinic, and the patient has to come back to get them. It’s a costly, time-consuming process people rarely undertake. Now, though, the microliver test lets patients get a cheap, fast diagnosis. A single invention has cleared obstacles of time, money and technology in one fell swoop.

The test is smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more efficient than any previous method of detecting liver problems. And those qualities, according to Zolli, constitute the hallmarks of a microproduct. Two trends have made such products possible. First, technological capacity has been expanding for years. “The computer that took people to the moon was less powerful than the one on my wrist,” Zolli says. The phenomenon is summed up by Moore’s Law—named after Gordon Moore, cofounder of chip manufacturer Intel—which holds that technological advances cause computing power to double every two years. 

More significant is the steady fall in per-unit costs. Not so many years ago, 1MB of memory cost $100 million; today, you can buy a 64GB phone for a few hundred dollars, and hundreds of millions of people own cell phones costing a few dollars each. In India in the 1990s, the waiting time for a landline phone often stretched to 10 years. Clever technicians were brought in to speed up the process by installing faster, cheaper lines—until one day, cell phones appeared and the problem ceased to exist.

The same thing is happening for Bangladesh’s many villagers who have never had electricity. New technologies have enabled the development of microsolar generators that produce small, discrete units of energy and eliminate the need for gigantic power  stations. “It’s all about the compression of scale, so that people have access to things at smaller scales,” Zolli says.

“We’re beginning to realize that there are efficiencies that you gain at the micro level because you can focus and specialize. We can learn from that in the West.”

Eric bing, professor of
global health

 

 

There’s nothing wrong with bigness per se. Highways, power stations, water purification installations and
telephone networks play vital roles in society. But large structures and networks are seldom arranged to allow access by poor people in isolated regions. Banny Banerjee, director of Stanford University’s ChangeLabs design institute, cites India as an example. The country is becoming increasingly wealthy, and its city dwellers are enjoying a higher standard of living, but the most basic services—electricity, clean drinking water, health care and banks—remain unavailable to those living in villages. “Something about our current systems is just not percolating down to them,” he observes.

Banerjee works to harness design in the service of sustainable change. One scheme he’s involved in is the 100L Water Project. Women in rural India walk an average of 10,000 miles a year fetching water, which is often polluted. But Banerjee is working with students and local communities to design a special sink and solar pump for purifying rainwater. He aims to make the system cheap enough that every low-income family will be able to afford one, which would supply access to at least 25 gallons of water a day. The device will save women lots of time they can use on more productive activities.

Banerjee is enthusiastic about the system, which is small and cheap but capable of effecting great change. The project, which brings together solar energy and water purification on a micro scale to give poor families access to water, is rooted in an entirely new design philosophy, he says. Designers are increasingly marrying disparate areas of expertise, like water, energy, IT and financial systems, with the aim of bringing about positive change (see box on the previous page). ‘There are many microproducts you can develop around this way of thinking,” Banerjee says. “And these products can be designed for an enormous scale.

One of the first products to reveal miniaturization’s potential impact was microcredit. In the 1970s, wishing to provide financing for people without access to commercial banks, microcredit’s creator, Muhammad Yunus, devised a system of microloans. The average amount loaned by his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is $200. Yunus’ service gave poor entrepreneurs access to a resource that had been out of reach and prefigured the microrevolution.

Back at the dawn of microcredit, offering products on a micro scale was much more limited. The cell phones used today by people without bank accounts to make payments in Kenya and Tanzania didn’t exist. And consider revolutionary new companies like Sasa Afrika, which helps women in Kenya sell handmade baskets and jewelry online using their cell phones. Once these women sell enough, they can make shipment arrangements online. Payment also takes place by phone. At a stroke, the world has become their marketplace.

Yunus is aware of the spectacular potential inherent in the new situation. “The new IT can promote self-employment among the poor,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Creating a World without Poverty, “liberating them from reliance on corporate employers or government make-work programs and unleashing their creativity, energy and ­productivity.” Tonee Ndungu is living proof. The young Kenyan entrepreneur aims to replace schoolbooks with a microtablet—a simple computer containing all a student’s textbooks in digital form. Since the tablet has no other function, Ndungu has calculated that it can be produced for $10. He’s attempting to drum up financing on crowdfunding websites.

As sophisticated technologies get cheaper, innovation becomes more accessible, Zolli observes. It’s not just computer nerds in university labs who come up with inventions these days but creative people like Ndungu who live in developing countries and have no educational qualifications. ‘This is a hugely democratizing trend,” he says.

Seeing great potential in all things micro, he wrote an essay called “Small Is Beautiful”—a title shared by German economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s much-talked-about 1970s book. In that work, which made an impact around the world, Schumacher campaigned against an economy obsessed with size, mass consumption and maximization of profits. With each increase in economic scale, he argued, we should be focusing on human beings, not structures or products. In this context, he denounced technology, which he feared would rob people of their freedom and creativity. “Modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most: creative, useful work,” he wrote.

Zolli smiles at the thought that his essay shares a title with the 1970s book. “In Schumacher’s era, the benefits of technology largely accrued to capital,” he says to explain their difference in views. So much has changed, Zolli argues, that Schumacher’s book is out of date. Today, technology provides the perfect platform for the micro revolution to unfold. The big, smelly, inhuman machines of the Industrial Revolution and the wealthy central authorities Schumacher so fervently opposed are being displaced, Zolli says, thanks to sophisticated micromachines that are shrinking the gap between rich and poor.

In 2009, the weather stations in Kenyan farmer Jackson Kahiga’s village recorded a drought. His harvest failed. Thanks to micro-insurance, though, he received compensation. He got the good news by text and immediately shared it with all the other local farmers. Ultimately, he was able to invest in a new type of corn that produces much higher yields. His land once gave him five to ten bags of grain a year; today that number is 10. Micro-insurance has changed his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Micro: No small thing

For years, Jackson Kahiga lived in insecurity. The small farmer in the Kenyan countryside was at the mercy of his dependence on rain. When there was enough of it, things were fine, but he had to stay prepared for a lack of ­precipitation and the ensuing bad harvests. ­Farmers with plenty of land and profit can afford ­insurance against bad weather, but Kahiga’s farm is modestly sized. Monthly premiums would have come in at an incredible $900, since the insurance company would have had to make regular visits to inspect his land. And with no bank account, how could he take out insurance anyway?

Fortunately for Kahiga, the ­international foundation Syngenta introduced an ­insurance plan for small farmers. “I call it ­micro-insurance,” says Rose Goslinga, the economist from Kenya who conceived and set up the project, “because we insure ­­farmers who have less than half an acre of land for about $5.25 a season. So it’s quite a step down.”

The system is simple. Farmers go to the local agricultural supply store, which registers them using a special mobile phone app. It generates a customer number and policy in the cloud and sends them to the new client by text message. Goslinga doesn’t need to visit the farmers: several villages have been equipped with solar-powered weather stations, which generate statistics she can ­compare to regional rainfall averages. She uses these to calculate weather damages. When she pays out, she does so through ­M-Pesa, a phone app that facilitates financial ­transfers. So far, Syngenta has sold about 64,000 micro-insurance policies in Kenya and Rwanda.

Farmers aren’t the only ones enjoying access to new products and services that used to be out of reach, in the wake of a battery of recent innovations. Millions of households in Bangladeshi villages are getting light and electricity thanks to small loans they can use to buy solar installations. Tuberculosis patients in India are getting timely treatment without having to travel to city hospitals now that local clinics can identify the problem in minutes using microdiagnostic kits.

“The computer that took people to the moon was less powerful than the one on my wrist.”
Andrew Zolli, futurologist

At first glance, these Kenyan farmers, the Bangladeshi families and the Indian patients might appear to have nothing in common. But they’re all accessing essential goods and services at low prices that would have been unimaginable not long ago. A series of related advances in production methods, information technology, design and distribution is putting an end to intermediation by traditional, at times lumbering, institutions and infrastructures like hospitals, banks and power stations. People who live on just a few dollars a day are profiting from the rise of sophisticated microproducts, which are transforming their lives.

Texas professor Eric Bing predicts millions of poor patients will gain access to health care thanks to microproducts, micropharmacies and microdiagnostics. As the George W. Bush Institute think tank’s director for global health, Bing has traveled the world looking for solutions to lack of access to health care. In his recent book, Pharmacy on a Bicycle, he and co-author Marc Epstein concluded that the needs of millions of poor people dictated that health care be “repackaged and redistributed” in smaller units using new technologies and business models. (Read more about Bing’s work in the box on p. 59.)

Consider the idea to create a prosthetic leg that could be produced for less than $20. The American design studio D-Rev worked with the low-cost prosthetics provider BMVSS to create a high-quality, polymer-based knee joint. In the West, expensive titanium prosthetics cost at least $10,000. The knee has already been fitted on 2,500 patients. It’s an example of frugal innovation, which is ­creative design using less money and ­resources. (Read more about frugal ­innovation on p. 60.)

Frugal innovation and downsizing products to make them cheaper aren’t new ideas. For years, Unilever has sold detergent, moisturizer and soap in developing countries in much smaller, lower-priced packages than in the West. But as futurologist Andrew Zolli explains, product miniaturization isn’t the exciting part. “It’s important that people begin to understand how this low-cost revolution could be used to tackle social problems in ways that enable leapfrogging over existing structures.”

Zolli—head of the think tank Poptech and one of Fast Company’s 10 fastest-­rising ­thinkers and leaders in 2005—tells of a recent trip to check his 3-year-old daughter for strep throat. The doctor put a small ­­­­­sam­­ple of mucus in a vial. Within five ­minutes, the results were in: no infection. Zolli was ­fascinated.

In a single breath, he tells me about Diagnostics for All, a company that uses biotechnology to develop a stamp-sized piece of paper that evaluates the condition of your liver from a drop of blood taken from your finger. An unsatisfactory result can indicate malaria or tuberculosis. “We’re going to see lots and lots of this kind of innovation that was inconceivable before and solves problems in completely new ways,” Zolli says.

The liver test shows the profound impact such innovation can have. Around the world, 1.6 billion people lack access to doctors and clinical care. When they get sick, they might be able to get blood drawn at a clinic, but it has to be taken by refrigerated transport to a lab for testing. The lab mails the results to the clinic, and the patient has to come back to get them. It’s a costly, time-consuming process people rarely undertake. Now, though, the microliver test lets patients get a cheap, fast diagnosis. A single invention has cleared obstacles of time, money and technology in one fell swoop.

The test is smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more efficient than any previous method of detecting liver problems. And those qualities, according to Zolli, constitute the hallmarks of a microproduct. Two trends have made such products possible. First, technological capacity has been expanding for years. “The computer that took people to the moon was less powerful than the one on my wrist,” Zolli says. The phenomenon is summed up by Moore’s Law—named after Gordon Moore, cofounder of chip manufacturer Intel—which holds that technological advances cause computing power to double every two years. 

More significant is the steady fall in per-unit costs. Not so many years ago, 1MB of memory cost $100 million; today, you can buy a 64GB phone for a few hundred dollars, and hundreds of millions of people own cell phones costing a few dollars each. In India in the 1990s, the waiting time for a landline phone often stretched to 10 years. Clever technicians were brought in to speed up the process by installing faster, cheaper lines—until one day, cell phones appeared and the problem ceased to exist.

The same thing is happening for Bangladesh’s many villagers who have never had electricity. New technologies have enabled the development of microsolar generators that produce small, discrete units of energy and eliminate the need for gigantic power  stations. “It’s all about the compression of scale, so that people have access to things at smaller scales,” Zolli says.

“We’re beginning to realize that there are efficiencies that you gain at the micro level because you can focus and specialize. We can learn from that in the West.”

Eric bing, professor of
global health

 

 

There’s nothing wrong with bigness per se. Highways, power stations, water purification installations and
telephone networks play vital roles in society. But large structures and networks are seldom arranged to allow access by poor people in isolated regions. Banny Banerjee, director of Stanford University’s ChangeLabs design institute, cites India as an example. The country is becoming increasingly wealthy, and its city dwellers are enjoying a higher standard of living, but the most basic services—electricity, clean drinking water, health care and banks—remain unavailable to those living in villages. “Something about our current systems is just not percolating down to them,” he observes.

Banerjee works to harness design in the service of sustainable change. One scheme he’s involved in is the 100L Water Project. Women in rural India walk an average of 10,000 miles a year fetching water, which is often polluted. But Banerjee is working with students and local communities to design a special sink and solar pump for purifying rainwater. He aims to make the system cheap enough that every low-income family will be able to afford one, which would supply access to at least 25 gallons of water a day. The device will save women lots of time they can use on more productive activities.

Banerjee is enthusiastic about the system, which is small and cheap but capable of effecting great change. The project, which brings together solar energy and water purification on a micro scale to give poor families access to water, is rooted in an entirely new design philosophy, he says. Designers are increasingly marrying disparate areas of expertise, like water, energy, IT and financial systems, with the aim of bringing about positive change (see box on the previous page). ‘There are many microproducts you can develop around this way of thinking,” Banerjee says. “And these products can be designed for an enormous scale.

One of the first products to reveal miniaturization’s potential impact was microcredit. In the 1970s, wishing to provide financing for people without access to commercial banks, microcredit’s creator, Muhammad Yunus, devised a system of microloans. The average amount loaned by his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is $200. Yunus’ service gave poor entrepreneurs access to a resource that had been out of reach and prefigured the microrevolution.

Back at the dawn of microcredit, offering products on a micro scale was much more limited. The cell phones used today by people without bank accounts to make payments in Kenya and Tanzania didn’t exist. And consider revolutionary new companies like Sasa Afrika, which helps women in Kenya sell handmade baskets and jewelry online using their cell phones. Once these women sell enough, they can make shipment arrangements online. Payment also takes place by phone. At a stroke, the world has become their marketplace.

Yunus is aware of the spectacular potential inherent in the new situation. “The new IT can promote self-employment among the poor,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Creating a World without Poverty, “liberating them from reliance on corporate employers or government make-work programs and unleashing their creativity, energy and ­productivity.” Tonee Ndungu is living proof. The young Kenyan entrepreneur aims to replace schoolbooks with a microtablet—a simple computer containing all a student’s textbooks in digital form. Since the tablet has no other function, Ndungu has calculated that it can be produced for $10. He’s attempting to drum up financing on crowdfunding websites.

As sophisticated technologies get cheaper, innovation becomes more accessible, Zolli observes. It’s not just computer nerds in university labs who come up with inventions these days but creative people like Ndungu who live in developing countries and have no educational qualifications. ‘This is a hugely democratizing trend,” he says.

Seeing great potential in all things micro, he wrote an essay called “Small Is Beautiful”—a title shared by German economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s much-talked-about 1970s book. In that work, which made an impact around the world, Schumacher campaigned against an economy obsessed with size, mass consumption and maximization of profits. With each increase in economic scale, he argued, we should be focusing on human beings, not structures or products. In this context, he denounced technology, which he feared would rob people of their freedom and creativity. “Modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most: creative, useful work,” he wrote.

Zolli smiles at the thought that his essay shares a title with the 1970s book. “In Schumacher’s era, the benefits of technology largely accrued to capital,” he says to explain their difference in views. So much has changed, Zolli argues, that Schumacher’s book is out of date. Today, technology provides the perfect platform for the micro revolution to unfold. The big, smelly, inhuman machines of the Industrial Revolution and the wealthy central authorities Schumacher so fervently opposed are being displaced, Zolli says, thanks to sophisticated micromachines that are shrinking the gap between rich and poor.

In 2009, the weather stations in Kenyan farmer Jackson Kahiga’s village recorded a drought. His harvest failed. Thanks to micro-insurance, though, he received compensation. He got the good news by text and immediately shared it with all the other local farmers. Ultimately, he was able to invest in a new type of corn that produces much higher yields. His land once gave him five to ten bags of grain a year; today that number is 10. Micro-insurance has changed his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solution News Source

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