It took almost an hour to get past security at the World Bank, mostly due to errors on my part. But at least it gave me time to read through the brochure for the 2008 Development Marketplace. By the time I had secured a pass, I knew exactly which projects I most wanted to visit in the expo. Social entrepreneurs from all over the world had been invited to present their ideas at the Development Marketplace, an effort started by GlobalGiving’s founders.
Being a scientist, I have a love for projects with novel adaptations of technology to problems in the world’s poorest countries. For example, the first project on my list to visit used modified kegs to transport chilled milk by bicycle to market in Ugandan villages. The project offered innovations along three lines: equipment that could be built locally and maintained for up to ten years, an energy-efficient vacuum chilling system, and a low enough initial investment cost that a milk-producer could recover costs in a fraction of a year.
Next I visited a Senegalese biofuel-powered motorboat project. Having criss-crossed Senegal in 2003 as a Fulbright studying the impact of Internet in rural schools, I found myself curious both about the science and how it would change transportation in Senegal.
I was momentarily disappointed when the oilseed “biofuel” turned out to be peanut oil. It sounded so… ordinary. But then I saw a diagram of the device that produced it.
“It’s a press connected to a small motor. One can build this peanut processor for about $600,” Daniel, the presenter, assured me.
“That means any village could afford to convert peanuts into oil?” I asked. This was an improvement even beyond what the presenter might have guessed. For years, getting groundnuts (the name for peanuts in Africa) to market in The Gambia has been the single largest source of low per capita income. By the time the peanuts travel down the dilapidated roads, the crop has sat in sun and moisture long enough that it cannot pass safety standards for US and European markets. Instead it is diverted to much less lucrative secondary markets. You see, old peanuts grow fungii that produce aflotoxins when they sit too long. And despite nearly all Gambian farmers living a horse cart’s ride from the Gambia river, no barges have yet to travel from the capital to collect the crop quickly.
Daniel had been helping to redesign outboard motors to run on peanut oil. With a different propeller and a few modest adjustments to the engine torque using an internal system of pulleys, any standard motor could run on the crude peanut extract. As a bonus, even the fuel processing was sustainable, as each liter of peanut fuel could power the peanut refining machine to produce five more liters of fuel.
As impressive as turning peanuts into a gasoline replacement might seem by itself, the potential synergy between Daniel’s project and the project presented by his immediate neighbor at the expo was even more so. Although thousands of miles apart in real life, motors running on peanut fuel might be just the sort of low-tech piece in the larger puzzle of turning seawater into life-sustaining food and water for desert communities that his fellow innovators have been looking for. Some clever engineers demonstrated that exposing seawater to sunlight in a green house would humidify the air and stabilize temperatures to create optimal growing conditions. Adding an energy-efficient compressor allowed a 100 square meter greenhouse to produce several tons of water each day, more than enough to supply a village. As a bonus, the village could grow some of its food in the greenhouse, enabling the community to endure droughts.
Unfortunately the initial cost was high (around $50,000) relative to the purchasing power of the world’s poor, water-hungry villages, but the costs could be much lower if the 2.5 kilowatts required to operate the saltwater greenhouse could come from peanuts grown within it, rather than from pricey photovoltaic solar panels. Such synergy is still difficult to achieve over the surface of our vast Earth, but online communities like GlobalGiving are just the sort of place where project leaders might one day bump into each other and notice the merit of each other’s approaches, combining efforts, achieving unexpected breakthroughs.
All of these projects are the sort of groundbreaking ideas we try to attract to our site. After, it is up to the site’s visitors to find the best ones and convert these possibilities into realities.