Tuesday, June 10, 2014

#MyWritingProcess - 100 Under $100: the Global Women's Toolkit Nears the Finish Line.

Chai latte became indispensible tools.
Cheryl Rice is a local Dining For Women friend and now She Writes Press mate. Her intimate memoir Where Have I Been All My LIfe is a coming out this fall, a season ahead of mine, and she's invited me to join the #MyWritingProcess tour. Cheryl focuses on helping women find their voices and strengths. She was up last week. Now it's my turn. Thanks, Cheryl!

I have been researching my book, 100 Under $100: the Global Women's Toolkit, for nearly two years. This has included curating over 120 stunning photographs of developing world women hard at work, a project all by itself. The photo on the left is me, with my tool, a lovely laptop.

My book is unlike any I know of - most books that lay out solutions to alleviating global poverty are academic studies or popular books describing one locale or one solution in detail. I started out focusing on tools, which I understood to be technology, with a specific focus on women. Eventually I added public health tools, legal tools, & financial tools. Ultimately, I am covering 11 sectors. This makes the book extraordinarily broad, which is a strength. Those with a depth of knowledge of one area will learn about other sectors. Readers with no background can come away with a general overview. By making the book user-friendly, and adding action items, it moves from being distant to becoming an entry point for personal involvement.

The book grew out of my desire to link the humanitarian tech world, with all kinds of smart solutions for people in rural, off-grid villages, with the women's empowerment sector, which usually is fairly tech-averse. Women will not be empowered if they have no electrical power! I started pinning images of solutions on Pinterest. One day I took a step back, saw all the gorgeous images, and realized they would make a beautiful, informative book. And there was no turning back.

About six months ago things got nailed down with She Writes Press and suddenly I had a deadline: writing the book in six months. Yikes. Each entry is 500 words, requiring an extraordinary economy of language. No getting off on tangents or repeating myself. But it is good discipline. I begin each entry with a two sentence precis which forces me to make a central point and amplify it. This, it turns out, is much tighter than blogposts, where you can be really casual.

As I became more nimble, I realized that the best way to proceed, after the precis, was to write without reviewing my notes. I was amazed to see I could write several paragraphs from my memory bank. What I recalled about the topic was by definition the sticky stories. Some of my topics are pretty dreary; each entry is the story of a solution to really difficult challenges, so it is important to not get bogged down with numbing statistics.

It has worked. Many mugs of chai latte later, I am nearing the final entry. Feels great!

Next week, you will be hearing from Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama, whose book is coming out - tada! - next week. In her 20 years in the field she has “greened” one of North America’s only urban ecovillages, one of Chicago’s largest daycares, a multi-million dollar residential project, a Guatemalan orphanage, and has been dubbed the “green guru” by the media, appearing on HBO, ABC, and CBC. She engages directly with hundreds of parents through classes, consulting, and through writing. She is the author of Green Mama: Giving your child a healthy start and a greener future, and publishes the popular www.thegreenmama.com.

I am also proud to introduce Susan Holck, MD, a newbie blogger hard at work on her memoirs. Check out Trauma Trumping and welcome Susan to the blogosphere.

Holck worked for thirty years in various senior management and policy jobs in international public health at the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. Susan's work at WHO, which included the position of Director of Reproductive Health, enabled her to pursue her passion for improving women's health in concrete ways that also had a global reach. 

Susan is currently based in Philadelphia and completing a memoir about her caring for her ex-husband when he was left severely disabled following a brain hemorrhage at age 38. 

Susan's blog explores various types of trauma -- her son died at age 20 of an overdose and her daughter has struggled with severe bipolar disorder -- and the ways in which people's lives are transformed through living with trauma and loss, the herculean struggles and the moments of grace, and the universal experience of grief and the importance of finding self-compassion. 

Also up next week is another survivor thriver, Liz Barker, author of Changed By Chance. Liz's forthcoming book also describes a series of personal catastrophes and how she got through them The World of Special Needs Children, Breast Cancer, Holistic Health Care, Self Advocacy, Yoga, Spirituality and Fate, and most importantly, utilizing your inner strength to overcome adversity. 

Welcome, Manda, Susan, and Liz!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Cell Phone MInutes that Come WIth Insurance - The Atlantic #8

For extremely low-income families, insurance payouts for a health crisis can make the difference between temporary destabilization and a downward economic spiral.

Cell-phone adoption in Africa continues to grow at a rapid pace; the continent is on track to hit the billion cellphone mark in 2015. Many African mobile users don’t have monthly plans with a carrier. Instead, they own phones and buy minutes as they go, “topping off” as their call-time dwindles.
Competition for selling minutes results in fierce mobile-carrier price wars; customers buy minutes from whatever company offers the best deal at the moment. It’s cheaper to call numbers within a carrier’s network, so users often buy minutes from different networks and rotate SIM cards, depending on whom they’re calling. But developing customer loyalty is a huge challenge for prepaid phone-card marketers. How can any one carrier gain a stable edge over its competitors?
Perhaps with a small add-on of ... insurance. That's right: a number of carriers have teamed up with microinsurance providers to offer policies when customers meet a minimum amount topping off their prepaid cards. For many of those who live on a few dollars a day—for whom it is worth taking cell phones apart and swapping SIM cards to save a cent or two—this plan will be the only insurance they have. The system is win-win-win: a great deal for the mobile carrier, the insurance company, and the newly insured.

For extremely low-income families, insurance payouts for a health crisis or to cover costs associated with death can make the difference between destabilization and a downward economic spiral. With no safety net, a family can quickly lose all it has managed to scrape together. Quick payouts help people avoid classic poverty traps often used to cover unanticipated expenses, like selling productive assets, pulling kids out of school, or borrowing money on unfair terms. The coverage is modest—just a few hundred dollars or less, typically—but for bottom-of-the-pyramid customers, such settlements have enormous impact.

One such provider, MicroEnsure sells its products in 13 countries in Africa and Asia. Its CEO, Richard Leftly, told me they pay health claims within an hour and life insurance payouts within a day. Imagine low-income customers suddenly collecting a lump sum windfall on an insurance claim. News of such a payout is likely to spread very quickly, perhaps the best ad possible for insurance. Customers become motivated to stick with the prepaid calling provider which is also insuring them, and once they understand the benefits of insurance, they often add other family members.

Indeed, MicroEnsure has a very high conversion rate of customers buying more insurance once they’ve qualified for their first policy. Airtel in Zambia offers customers insurance by spending just $1.80 a month in minutes. As the amount they spend goes up, so does their coverage. Reaching this market is notoriously difficult, especially if the potential clients have no experience with insurance. Using cell-phone calls as an entrée has been very effective, and offers customers a free opportunity to learn about insurance services. And the mobile carriers, the go-betweens, brand themselves as companies that care about their customers.

The payouts are done in a variety of ways. Some are sent directly tomobile money accounts. A customer may receive a text chit to be redeemed at the nearest kiosk. Or they might simply opt for payment in cell-phone minutes, which have gradually become negotiable currency to pay for groceries and other basics. The shopkeeper simply transfers the minutes, using or reselling them.

Insurance is an elusive product. If it turns out you don’t get sick or die, you don’t collect on it, in which case it may feel like a bad investment. But a sense of security adds to quality of life. If peace of mind can be purchased along with cell-phone minutes, that's quite a deal.

Betsy Teutsch, for The Atlantic - June 2, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Paint that Prevents Diseases - Atlantic Series #6

Chemist Pilar Mateo has come up with a paint that slowly releases insecticides, making homes inhospitable to parasite-spreading bugs.

Pilar Mateo (Inesfly-Bolivia)

Across Latin American, large beetles known as vinchucas spread Chagas disease. The disease can lie dormant for years, but when it emerges, it can damage the digestive system and heart, sometimes fatally.
The vinchucas, technically Triatoma infestans, are also known as kissing bugs, because of their tendency to bite on the face. They inhabit the crevices of mud or adobe houses, coming out at night. Latin America is the epicenter of this beetle’s territory, with about 7 to 8 million people are infected with Chagas disease. Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, the disease’s namesake, identified its source in 1909. 
A vinchuca (Reuters)
The most effective prevention is to upgrade from mud huts, but for impoverished, indigenous peoples residing in the lowest income Latin American countries, that is rarely possible. 
But a novel invention from Pilar Mateo, a Ph.D. in chemistry who joined her family’s paint business in her native Valencia, Spain, could help matters, even in the huts.
A local hospital facing a cockroach infestation inspired Mateo to come up with an idea for infusing paint with insecticide. It would be slow-releasing; toxic to the insects, but not to humans. Her microencapsulation experiment eventually succeeded, with vast potential for reducing human illness by treating structures. Painting disease prevention on a wall is, after all, likely easier than later diagnosing and treating patients.
An activist physician working on ways to help indigenous Bolivians living the Chaco, Cleto Cáceres, approached Mateo, requesting that she try her paint treatment on their infested homes to help control the spread of Chagas disease. Mateo headed to Bolivia to give the paint on try on the vinchucas. 
It worked. She describes the process asvaccinating the house rather than its inhabitants. Deploying Inesfly, as the paint is known, reduced infestation rates from as high as 90 percent to nearly zero. The paint is comprised of WHO-approved insecticides which kill mature insects as well as Insect Growth Regulators which kill eggs and young insects, bringing down the overall insect population. The paint retains its potency for several years, though it is not effective against pesticide-resistant insects. Acceptance and WHO regulatory approval has been slow in coming, though 15 countries have approved it.
The approach is proving effective in decreasing insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria. Additionally, it is reducing populations ofmany unpopular insects: ants, bedbugs, cockroaches, scorpions, spiders, ticks, and more. Inesfly sells retail through normal distribution channels as well as directly to insect-control professionals through a deal signed with Bayer, a German corporation. The company has reently opened a$13,000,000 Inesfly Africa factory in Accra, Ghana, to distribute more cost-effectively to the African market
Inesfly is privately held. A percentage of its profits fund health education and vocational training for indigenous communities. Mateo also has also set up her own foundation. As Mateo says, you must treat the poverty, not just its symptoms.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Toilet Malls and Toilet Boutiques - Atlantic Article #5

The Toilet Malls of Nairobi

At Iko-Toilet centers, customers can do their business, have a drink, and maybe even get a haircut, all in one place.
Photo - Sanergy

My husband and I have five bathrooms in our house, 2.5 per occupant.  Inhabitants of the world’s sprawling shantytowns and slums typically sharelatrines with several hundred people—and often have to pay for the privilege. In many places, the absence of affordable, safe sanitation results in residents of informal settlements constantly suffering from waterborne illnesses; these diseases frequently kill young children.
David Kuria, a former Kenyan career NGO professional, saw opportunity in this sanitation crisis. He spent a few years developing and launching Iko-Toiletcenters which offer clean, safe, attractive, reasonably-priced eco-san (short for ecological sanitation) toilets and anchor a host of neighborhood services.
Industrialized world plumbing flushes waste away, though arguably there is no “away.” A great deal of clean water, chemicals, and fossil-fuel energy are consumed to accomplish this method, developed in the 19th century. Eco-san approaches waste as an asset, seeking to kill its inherent pathogens while reclaiming its nutrients and energy.
The underground technology featured in each Iko-Toilet complex is abiodigester, a sealed chamber where waste decomposes anaerobically, without oxygen. The process produces methane gas—which can be sold as fuel or used for heating water for co-located hot showers—and organic fertilizer. 
Customers can become members of Iko-Toilet centers or pay per use. Iko Hosts manage the facility, ensuring cleanliness. Vendors and service providers rent space adjacent to the "toilet mall," attracting foot traffic and contributing to their becoming community hubs. Use the loo, wash your hands—a hugely valuable resource—and maybe take a shower, then charge your phone, buy cell minutes, have a drink, visit the barber, hang out with your friends. 

Iko brand toilet malls are attractive buildings, sporting branded orange and brown colors reflecting Kuria’s training as an architect. It is a profit-making chain, paying off loans from the Acumen fund, and expanding beyond its Nairobi home. Highlyreplicable, indeed: People everywhere will spend a little bit more for the value, safety, privacy, and service that Iko Toilet offers. Iko Toilet finds that its customers are quite loyal. Their alternatives, after all, are not very appealing.
If Iko-Toilet is a sanitation mall, Sanergy is a chain of toilet boutiques. Their cheerful Fresh Life branded, spanking clean, private latrines are embedded in slum neighborhoods. The units are run by Fresh Life Operators, micro-franchisees who maintain supplies and cleanliness and support themselves and their families on the proceeds. Upgrades include a mirror, coat hook, and solar-powered overhead light—but most of all offering privacy and the dignity of going to the bathroom alone. The tank's contents are picked up daily and hauled to a central composting location, eventually becoming fertilizer and biogas.
Various membership plans are available, including a monthly Family Plan which lowers the price per deposit. Prices are just slightly higher than for the overcrowded, stinky latrines, and amenities are included, so naturally Sanergy is expanding quickly. Their goal is to achieve profitability and continue expanding beyond their present 350 units.
The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is in full-swing. An estimated 2.5 billion people are in the market for affordable, safe, clean toilet options. Clearly there is a business in helping people do their business.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How To Make Solar Panels Available - for Billions - from The Atlantic

How to Make Solar Panels Affordable—for Billions

Like the installment plans of the Great Depression, Simpa Networks' "Progressive Purchase" agreements are enabling customers in rural India to get solar power for their homes.

Courtesy of Azuri-Tech

“Upgrading to electricity” is not a phrase most industrialized world denizens think about much, given that it happened a century ago. For 20 percent of people on earth, though, the electric grid isn’t making it to their slums and rural villages—not any time soon. Instead they rely on smelly, smoky, eye-stinging kerosene lamps for feeble light at night.
But solar panels don’t require connection to the rest of the electric grid, and their prices are dropping. One solar panel on a roof and you’ve electrified your house: hello, LED lights and cellphone charging. In some locales, bottom of the pyramid demand for mobile charging is actually driving demand for solar power, with lights coming along for the ride.
Simpa Networks, an Indian company, has integrated solar tech with mobile phone payments. They install a solar panel on the roof and wire it through the house to a mounted box. The controls are assigned a code which the customer punches in when paying via cell. Each payment goes toward ultimately owning the system. Once paid off, the panel produces electricity at virtually no cost.
Simpa Networks has branded their system “Progressive Purchase,”something that may sound more familiar to you as an installment plan, developed back when Ma and Pa sprang for their very first radio, a piano for their parlor, or maybe a Model-T. The buyer put down a deposit and the company extended credit for the balance, paid off at regular intervals. People loved getting their goods right away. Before then, items could only be purchased with cash up front. Few consumers paid enough attention to the arithmetic to realize they were paying very high interest rates and providing juicy revenue streams for sellers. If the buyer stopped payment, the seller repossessed the item—a frequent occurrence during the Depression.

Installment plans were replaced by general-purpose credit cards introduced in the mid ‘60s. I remember when my father’s arrived, an exciting little piece of plastic with orange and yellow circles on it. Until then, one had separate charge accounts at each store frequented; each establishment had its own billing department. Credit cards were a win-win.
People don’t think of these credit cards as extremely high interest loans, even if that’s what they are. Many people who would not go to the trouble of taking out a specific loan run up balances on inessentials and quickly are buried in consumer debt. Microfinance in its earlier stages maintained strict policies banning consumer lending; microcredit was extended only for income generation. This has loosened up some of late.
The model Simpa Networks (and similar Kenya-based venture, Azuri, and Quetsol in Guatemala) offers is an enlightened installment plan (pun intended). Customers actually lower their weekly overhead by accessing solar power, pocketing the difference. If a customer defaults, the companies turn off the system, but she still benefited from the time she had electric lights and cellphone charging

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

THe Slow Cooker that Requires No Electricity

My third column for The Atlantic
Wonderbags are thermal-retention cookers, technology that's been around since humans 
realized that wrapping up a hot pot can save precious fuel. And now one South African entrepreneur has figured out how to sell them around the globe.

Preparing hot pre-school lunch with Wonderbags. (Wonderbag)

Sitting on my counter is my newest piece of culinary equipment: an eco-friendlyWonderbag slow cooker, the brainchild of Sarah Collins, a South African entrepreneur. She has monetized an exceedingly low-tech, old-fashioned cooking technique, marketed it with a winning Buy One Give One campaign, and closed a lot of sales.
Wonderbags are thermal-retention cookers, technology that's been around since humans started cooking and realized that wrapping up pots, or even burying them in the ground, saves fuel. Also called fireless cookers, hayboxes, or wonderboxes, traditionally they are a large basket or box lined with a blanket or towels or sometimes stuffed with banana leaves.
After a pot of food is brought to a boil, the cook quickly tucks it into the Wonderbag, puts on the lid, and closes it up tight. The food continues cooking without added fuel. The process takes about twice as long, but I can attest to taking out a steaming, perfect pot of lentil soup a few hours later.
Wonderbags are now sold in the United States through Amazon, after successfully launching in the United Kingdom. Reviews are enthusiastic, though the Wonderbag's large size puts off a few. It arrives vacuum-packed; open it and it quickly doubles. Think dog bed.
The non-electric slow cooker is sewn in South Africa, providing jobs in a country with very high unemployment. The Wonderbags are insulated with styrene, the dreaded non-recyclable #7 foamy stuff. The company collects theirs from an upholstery factory’s leftovers, preventing it from heading to a landfill. For each bag purchased at $50, another one is donated to a low-income household.

Collins gave a new life to this old technique and turned it into something to buy rather than assemble. She realized its potential as an eco-friendly technology, sparing many trees by radically cutting fuel use—so radically that she has been able to obtain Carbon Offset Funding.
For the three billion people on the planet who cook over open fires for which they must find and chop wood, saving fuel is a big deal. The Wonderbag, like all thermal retention cookers, uses much less fuel, yielding savings in time and, often, money.
  • Standing over a cooking fire is equivalent to smoking a few packs of cigarettes, increasingly perceived as a public health issue.  Fireless cooking eliminates most of the smoke. 
  • Food doesn’t burn, like it does over open fire, another plus.  Less waste with easier clean-up.
  • They can be left unattended, without stirring or shooing the children away from the fire. 
Those benefits make a big difference for my Wonderbag’s recipient twin.  In my kitchen, using my electric stove an hour less reduces my carbon emissions by an infinitesimal, though not insignificant, amount.  Why waste energy when there is an easy way to use it more efficiently?
And what of the Buy One Give One model, much maligned? There have been two main critiques of Tom’s Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes for each purchase. They are:
  • Shoes are not a pressing need for children in the developing world, especially compared with food, clean water, health care, and education. Shoes offer a modest benefit, at best. 
  • Dumping free shoes undercuts local shoe vendors. 
Wonderbag’s giveaways strike me as more sensible. They facilitate a useful practice, eco-friendly for the affluent world as well as in low-resource regions. Recipients realize actual savings of time and money, as well as health benefits from avoiding smoke inhalation. No local vendors sell them, so no one is being undercut. And if Wonderbags help reacquaint people with fireless cooking, there is nothing to stop local people—be they in South Africa or in South Dakota—from sewing their own. Or even wrapping up your soup pot in that old sleeping bag and sticking it in a box, a less sexy but also effective approach.