BLUFFTON STUDENTS HEAR STRATEGY FOR HELPING
To fight hunger in Africa, a Penn State University program has helped design more affordable greenhouses and solar food dryers.
A conventional greenhouse costs about $2,500 in Kenya, Khanjan Mehta noted Dec. 4 at Bluffton University. But an alternative, expandable model—designed by a new Kenyan company and Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program—is $550, said Mehta, the program’s director.
And solar dryers used for food preservation, which have cost as much as $5,000, can now be built by two people in two days for $200, he said.
By reducing expense, both technological advances strike at a primary reason why entrepreneurial projects fail in developing countries. In addition, they represent a step toward economic sustainability, which Mehta listed among the four keys to creating continuing value through designed solutions to problems in those countries.
Entrepreneurs must also consider if proposed solutions are technologically appropriate for the intended community, as well as culturally acceptable and environmentally benign, in order to create sustainable value, he said. "These questions need to be asked all the time," added Mehta, also an instructor of engineering design at Penn State.
In Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere, he has led social ventures that have included—in addition to low-cost greenhouses and solar dryers—telemedicine systems, windmills and cell phone-based social networking systems.
He pointed out the importance of cell phones and the Internet access they can provide to people in Kenya and similar countries, saying that in developing nations, some people’s identity is tied to their phone number.
In some of those same places, "you can’t have a funeral without a phone," Mehta said. Where funerals are culturally significant, he explained, family members may spend 10 times their yearly income on one, using their cell phones to pull that money together from family and friends.
He also cited the innovation represented by M-Pesa, a cell phone-based money transfer service for the largest mobile network operator in Kenya and Tanzania. "There’s a much better network in Nairobi than there is in San Francisco," he said.
Further underscoring the influence of cell phones—and challenges of disenfranchisement—Mehta related the story of a Penn State student who, while interviewing street people in Nairobi’s slums two years ago, asked one of them how he got there. "My family deleted me" was the answer, similar, Mehta said, to someone deleting old cell-phone messages.
Kenya’s 6 million homeless people are among roughly 4 billion people worldwide, he said, who live on less than $2,000 per year. Projects aimed at that end of the economic spectrum in developing countries often fail, if not due to expense, because of unsustainable business models or donations that either don’t meet a need or hurt businesses, he maintained.
He urged that entrepreneurs with prospective solutions not only respect cultural norms, but also think of those they’re targeting as collaborators and even, if possible, take advantage of what he said is an "amazing opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with these people."
Empathize with them and work with them equitably, Mehta advised his mostly student listeners, on solutions that are replicable and scalable, as well as sustainable. But more importantly, he stressed for those interested in taking action, "you have to think big but start small, and start right now."
Bluffton public relations, 12/6/12