Getting life-changing technologies to the poor

Partnerships and sustainable business models can help scale technologies that are needed to improve livelihoods in poor communities and achieve sustainable development goals.

Ruby Kumari used to have to close the doors of her self-built sewing school in Parsa, a village in the east Indian state of Bihar, when the sun set.

But the arrival of solar-powered minigrids in 2019 allowed her to stay open after sunset and offer additional courses, more than doubling enrollment to 80.

Access to affordable, reliable power also meant she could switch from manual to electric sewing machines, which helped her transform her skills into a new business in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic put her teaching on hold.

The 38-year-old became one of 25 seamstresses paid by Smart Power India as part of a plan to deliver five face masks per household in different districts around Bihar, which borders Nepal.

“It’s comforting to have power all the time when everything else is so unreliable,” she said.

Ruby Kumari. © Rockefeller Foundation

Ms. Kumari is just one of the thousands of entrepreneurs and business owners in rural India who have benefited from the minigrids created by a partnership between the Institute for Transformative Technologies (HERE), TATA power and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The partnership that The goal is to have 10,000 mini-grids installed by 2026 presented during a UNCTAD Webinar on April 27th searching for solutions for the worrying trend that most new technologies remain inaccessible to the poor.

The downside of the technological revolution

“The downside of technological revolutions is that the deployment phase is usually uneven,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of technology and logistics at UNCTAD.

“Not everyone has immediate access to the benefits of progress, such as access to electricity, life-saving vaccines or clean water.”

UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2021 warns that unequal access can hinder technology’s contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and worsen global inequalities, which can fuel public discontent.

And with the advent of frontier technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, those risks have increased, according to the report.

Make sure new technologies reach the poor

But partnerships like the one between Tata Power, ITT and the Rockefeller Foundation can help reverse the trend and ensure that new technologies like solar-powered power grids reach the poor communities that need it badly.

According to Praveer Sinha, CEO of Tata Power, the Minigrid partnership will support more than 100,000 Indian companies. Provide 400,000 local farmers with irrigation and improve access to health services and safe drinking water in rural communities.

With more than 40% of rural businesses in states like Bihar relying on off-grid energy sources like diesel, the minigrids could save up to 1 million tons of CO2 emissions annually.

Ms. Sirimanne said: “The partnership shows the impact that new technologies can have in developing countries if the local context is not ignored – and if they are scaled up.”

“It also shows the need to rethink beyond profitability,” she added. “Inclusive and sustainable business models will be crucial for the use of technologies that are tailored to the local context in developing countries.”

Multi-stakeholder partnerships required

But while corporations and philanthropic organizations are key to disseminating technological solutions that address the needs of the poor, they cannot do it alone.

UNCTAD’s 2021 Technology and Innovation Report states that governments must play a key role in influencing the evolution of technology towards sustainable development.

Participants in the April webinar, including researchers, civil society officials and senior officials from governments and international organizations, said that success requires a multi-stakeholder approach.

“A wide variety of stakeholders – including governments, entrepreneurs, academic and research institutions, and civil society – form the essential ecosystem for the successful use of technology in communities,” said Alfred Watkins, chair of the Global Solutions Summit, who co-organized the webinar with UNCTAD and ITT .

“But this ecosystem is largely technology-independent and needs to be networked in order to formulate sustainable business models for fair use,” he added.

Technology solution pilots that work well in one place often need to be adapted to other places, even in the same province, not to mention distant countries.

“If this doesn’t happen, the result is an increase in the number of pilots with no long-term results,” said Watkins.

Proven technology can get stuck between piloting and upscaling and may not reach the broader community.

Five principles for scaling technology

In order to avoid overlaps and endless pilot phases of technology deployment, the UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report calls on governments, companies and civil society organizations to adopt the following principles:

  1. Let a vision guide you: Organizations using technology should start with an ambitious vision, such as “To provide drinking water to at least 100,000,000 people over the next five years.” This should include strategies to mobilize the necessary resources – technical, financial, human capital, partnerships, and others.
  2. Hire the user: Customers need to participate in both the product development and product marketing phases because successful induction programs are a function of culture, values, ethics, trust, leadership, history, politics, as well as superstitions, local customs and social structures.
  3. Plan deployment: The mission is an indispensable piece of the puzzle and requires at least as much attention as the search for new discoveries.
  4. Pass the baton: Leveraging frontier technologies for the SDGs is like a relay race where the baton must be quickly passed from the scientists and engineers developing the solutions to innovators who will take the lead in implementing them on a large scale.
  5. Generate income: No matter how much technology is subsidized, people will not use it unless they can afford it. The solution is to prioritize technologies that also bring more income to households and communities – for example through better access to formal markets, especially in rural areas.

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