Inventions with good intentions: simple creations to improve life in developing countries

A football that turns into a reading lamp is one of the brilliant but simple inventions transforming the lives of the world's poor.

Mavis Mabaso showing her new bottle light in Johannesburg, South Africa. The “Litre of Light” project puts plastic bottles filled with water in shack roofs, providing light to shacks with no electricity during the day. Bongiwe Gumede / Foto24 / Gallo Images / Getty Images
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Most inventions are created with the idea of improving lives. When production costs and others issues are factored in, however, this can prove a challenge in the developing world.

Litre of Light

How do you provide lighting for people who have neither the access nor money to use electricity?

The answer is as simple as it is brilliant. An empty plastic soda bottle filled with water and a spoon of liquid bleach.

Last week's saw the Zayed Future Energy Prize awarded to the Litre of Light charity, which uses solar bottles to bring indoor lighting to hundreds of thousands of some of the world's most disadvantaged people.

The solar bottle was invented in 2002 by Alfred Moser, a Brazilian mechanic. Once the bottle is installed in the roof of a home, the sunlight reflected through the water provides light equal to a 40 to 60-watt electric lamp. The bleach prevents algae growth.

The device only works during daylight but many slum homes are without windows. It means children coming home from school are now able to see their homework.

Litre of Light was established in the Philippines by the MyShelter charity, which has installed more than 700,000 solar bottles in Manila, as well from Egypt to Peru.

They are eco-friendly and cheap, and the US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) awarded by the Zayed Future Energy Prize is enough to supply another 1.5 million units.

The bottle is just one of many simple inventions shown here that are transforming lives in the developing world by offering alternatives to advanced and expensive western technology.

They can often be built locally, providing jobs and income to locals.

Hippo water roller

Carrying water is a time-consuming and tiring chore for millions of women and children in rural Africa.

Typically, a woman can manage no more than a 20-litre bucket carried on her head, often walking long distance to bring it home.

The Hippo water roller allows up to 90 litres of water to be carried in a single trip, and with much less effort.

Developed in the 1990s by South African engineers, Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, the Hippo roller is part of a movement known as “appropriate technology”, which draws on the principles of the German economist Fritz Schumacher, set out in his book Small is Beautiful.

Its design consists of a sturdy plastic barrel attached to steel handle. The barrel has an opening at one end for filling and cleaning.

Its design means that the weight of water is carried on the ground, while the material is strong enough to survive Africa’s dirt roads.

The barrels can be detached from the handles to store water and other things. In areas that have seen conflict, they can be pushed as a precaution against landmines.

In 2010, 175 Hippo rollers were sent to South Sudan. An evaluation report found that it helped to speed up local brick production, and was popular among young girls because it gave them more time to spend on their appearance and hair.

The report concluded the roller had “made a positive impact and significant contribution to the people of South Sudan”.

More than 40,000 Hippo rollers have been distributed, although at $100 each they are relatively expensive and require an outside sponsor.

As with much “appropriate technology”, the water carrier is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem – the world water crisis, which the project acknowledges.

The LifeStraw

Safe drinking water is something most people take for granted, but for millions in the developing world access to clean water remains a luxury that is dangerously out of reach.

Last year’s update to Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef, 748 million people lack access to improved drinking water and an estimated 1.8 million people use a source of drinking water that is contaminated by faeces.

The consequences are lethal – 600,000 children died from diarrheal diseases in 2012 – and have an impact on the developing world’s ability to combat infectious diseases, reduce infant mortality and eradicate poverty.

The LifeStraw was invented as a portable filtering system that would save lives by making a lack of clean water irrelevant.

Created by Danish innovator Torben Vestergaard Frandsen, the plastic straw uses disinfectant filters, an iodine-impregnated chamber and active carbon. This is to remove 99.9999 per cent of waterborne bacteria, more than 98 per cent of waterborne viruses and particles down to a size of 15 microns, all without the need for electrical power.

The LifeStraw was feted for its “revolutionary simplicity” when it was invented in 2006. It won design awards and was listed by Forbes in 2006 as one of “Ten Things that will Change the Way we Live”.

But despite its ingenuity, the LifeStraw also attracted criticism from development experts who condemned it as an expensive, short-term solution to a problem that required long-term solutions.

Soccket ball

Youngsters kick around a football during a break from school. Minutes later that same ball provides light for their classwork.

After being kicked around for only 30 minutes, the Soccket can store enough energy to power a lamp for several hours. It was developed by five students from Harvard University in 2010.

It looks exactly like a normal football but inside it has a power-generating magnetic induction coil that produces electricity by movement.

One of the ball’s panels conceals a socket that can power lighting and other electrical devices, including chargers for mobile phones.

It also has health benefits, encouraging exercise and offering an alternative to smoky oil-filled lamps.

Two of the five women who invented the ball have now formed the charity Uncharted Play to develop energy-generating play devices, including a skipping rope that charges batteries, with the philosophy: "Doing good doesn't have to be boring."

At almost $100 for both the football and skipping rope, the devices are too expensive for families in the developing world, but Uncharted Play uses its profits to provide them to children.

The Soccket had a huge publicity boost when US president Barack Obama was photographed playing with one on a visit to Tanzania in 2013.

On the downside, there have been reports from Mexico last year of balls breaking after just a few days of play. The charity has since promised to improve its quality control.

CleanCook Stove

Pollution may be one of the most alarming long-term problems facing the planet, but millions of poor people are already paying for it with their lives.

The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook reports that more than 1.2 billion people around the world have no access to electricity.

And about 3 billion cook and heat their homes using leaky stoves or open fires that rely on fuels such as wood, dung, crop waste and coal.

This results in significant levels of indoor air pollution, a problem the WHO estimates causes more than 3.5 million deaths a year.

And the harvesting of wood for fuel and charcoal can lead to deforestation and desertification, and exposes women and children collecting it to the risk of harassment, abuse and even rape.

For Harry Stokes and his team at Project Gaia, the surprising answer to this complex web of problems lies in a relatively simple solution – the alcohol-burning stove.

The CleanCook Stove by Swedish company Dometic is six times more efficient than its traditional wood-fired counterpart, saving women, on average, 2.5 hours of cooking time a day. It drastically reduces the risk of accidents, and lung and respiratory illnesses.

It also can save up to eight kilograms of firewood a day.

The stoves run on such fuels as ethanol and methanol, and alcohols that can be produced at a local level by micro-distilleries that provide local communities with extra sources of income, and a measure of energy security.

The Children’s Machine

Founded in 2005, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) was a project with an audacious mission: to develop a $100 laptop, virtually from scratch, that would empower the world’s poorest children through education in countries where teachers were in short supply and resources even scarcer.

At the outset, the future looked very bright. The concept for the “Children’s Machine” was launched with great fanfare at the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of

Technology’s Media Lab.

The following year the programme received the support of the United Nations Development Programme at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Early partners included Google, News Corporation, eBay and AMD, the Californian semi-conductor giant.

OLPC’s first computer, the XO-1, was a rugged, low-power laptop made by Taiwan’s Quanta Computer company. It offered innovations such as a hand-cranked battery, peer-to-peer serverless communication and a physical design that resembled a toy.

The device’s innovative hardware was matched by its distribution programme, G1G1 (Give One Get One), a scheme that allowed US and Canadian citizens to buy two XO-1 laptops for $399, one for themselves and the other for a child in the developing world.

Uruguay was the first government to place an order for the machine, buying 100,000 in 2007, and by 2012 OLPC reported that more than 2.5 million units had been shipped to countries such as Rwanda, Argentina, Mexico and Peru.

Despite those sales, the OLPC project is now considered a failure. As The Economist reported in 2012, “an evaluation by the Inter-American Development Bank found that children who received the computers in Peru, OLPC’s biggest market, had failed to show any improvement in reading or maths.

“Nor did it find evidence that access to a laptop increased motivation, or time devoted to homework or reading.”

Mr Negroponte’s much-vaunted revolution in connectivity did occur, but it was delivered by netbooks and mobile phones, not OLPC.