Simple Technologies Can Improve The Lives Of Millions In Developing World, Say Global Health Leaders

Delivering babies in the dark, breathing toxic smoke in the kitchen and walking miles to fetch water -- not to mention boiling every drop before its potable. These are the daily realities for many people in developing nations, particularly the poorest of the poor in rural communities.

But a handful of non-profits are launching innovative approaches to deliver simple, life-changing technologies to this "last mile." Kopernik, an online technology marketplace co-founded by Toshi Nakamura, was among the efforts spotlighted at last week's annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.

The Kopernik website offers a menu of around 50 solutions -- from solar-powered lamps and biomass cooking stoves to rolling water drums and drip irrigation systems -- that are manufactured by companies from around the world and then sold at minimal cost to end-users. The product list is connected to on-the-ground organizations, which can choose those items most appropriate to their community's specific needs. Projects are crowd-funded through the website, and once necessary funds are collected, the merchandise is delivered directly to the local groups, which are typically run by women. The women distribute the items within their village network and often sell the subsidized goods to neighboring communities as well -- in a fashion similar to American Tupperware or Avon parties.

"There's big money getting pumped in, but it is not always reaching the people," Nakamura told The Huffington Post. "The aid industry is made up of a bunch of diplomats and bureaucrats that tend to recycle the same ideas over and over again without taking risks."

"We're trying to counterbalance that," he said.

On a panel last Thursday at CGI, Nakamura, formerly of the United Nations and who now runs his non-profit out of Bali, told the story of an Indonesian woman who sold 50 water purifiers in two weeks. The woman, who previously lived on less than a dollar a day, took home $60 in commission. And in the process, she saved the time and health of many more women and their families.

"In our culture, women believe that boiling water is the best way of purifying it," Betty Kyazike, a branch manager for Living Goods, said during another CGI panel discussion. "But they don't always boil it up to boiling point, so it's not safe for drinking."

Even if they properly cook off the cholera and other pathogens, the water rarely tastes good, said Kyazike, who proudly declared that she currently leads the the top-performing branch of an Avon-like network of health promoters. In addition to distributing products, Living Goods also provides education -- from the proper use of water filters to the importance of hand-washing in disease prevention.

Women's water troubles don't stop with pathogens, however. Lugging the water from the well can be a major drain of time and energy, added Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer for Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company.

"I actually did this walk in the heat with a lady in South Africa," said Weed, also on Kyazike's panel. "With the weight of the vessel on the way back, I was a complete wimp and had a backache by the end of it."

Kopernik's menu supplies another answer: a 13-gallon donut-shaped plastic container that can be easily rolled with a rope to and from the well.

Water conservation can also limit such trips, said Weed. Teaching women to recycle the three or four buckets of water typically used for a load of laundry onto their vegetable garden, for example, could further improve their quality of life.

Indoor air is yet another source of significant concern. Millions of women in the developing world still cook with firewood. This practice, which involves gathering and chopping the increasingly scarce resource, is another time and energy sink that keeps women and girls from more productive activities, like going to school. And cooking over an open flame or with a traditional cook stove means inhaling thick, toxic black smoke, noted Neil Bellefeuille, chief executive officer of The Paradigm Project, which aims to leverage carbon markets on behalf of the poor.

Associated respiratory illnesses are a pandemic in the developing world: Every year, an estimated two million people die from breathing smoke created by cooking fires, which is more than die from malaria, noted Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations in a HuffPost blog.

"This is a large issue, and it remains mostly under the radar," said Bellefeuille, a member of Nakamura's CGI panel and whose company sells clean cook stoves. "It's literally like having a campfire in the living room."

A biomass stove sold through Kopernik is 80 percent more efficient than one that burns firewood, while producing minimal smoke and carbon dioxide. Since the charcoal fuel can be created with everything from corn husks to coconut shells, it also reduces the burden on trees and therefore the pace of deforestation.

Also contributing to toxic indoor air pollution is kerosene. Without access to electricity, many populations in the developing world rely on costly and dirty kerosene lamps. Solar lights, offered through Kopernik, provide a cheaper, cleaner light source. In many rural villages, these now allow families to be more productive and babies to be delivered safely at night.

"The quality of light is good, so we can see the condition of the mother, and if there's any bleeding, we're able to see it," says a midwife in Oecusse, East Timor, in a video created by Kopernik.

What's more, with the solar devices, a family's monthly lighting costs drop from an average of $14 to less than a dollar.

"This is really simple stuff," said Nakamura.