Never mind technology, keep it simple

Picture by Peter Nicholls, The Times-26/11/08

Technology allows us to do magnificent things. Medical operations are executed with minuscule precision and we can travel around the world within a few days. We increase our efficiency by automation, and decrease it by being addicted to social media and smartphones. New technologies allow for travels, mass production and scientific discoveries. Yet, sometimes it is essential to take a step back, away from technology and back to basics. Most of the problems we face today are not new, sometimes even ancient. Therefore, for so many current problems there are old, often simple solutions. This blog post is focused on development work; It preaches the power of simplicity.

I got many reactions on my previous blog on charcoal production in Haiti (Great!). Some people suggested alternative techniques or strategies to increase the sustainability of charcoal production. I found myself explaining repeatedly that I am not against hi-tech solutions for the problem, but the solution should fit the context. In the poorest country of Latin-America, high tech solutions should be ruled out, simply because both the initial investment and the maintenance costs are too high. Even donations from NGOs and other organisations with good intentions can be seen as non-sustainable solutions when the community is not maintaining them.

Let me give some examples. I have an affinity with Africa because of my previous work and travels. However, no matter what your focus is, simple solutions are all around.

No fancy stuff

In Sahelian countries, NGOs donate a lot of money to construct water pumps. Fancy pumps that go up to 100 m deep and can be operated by a motor or solar panels look very good on pictures and leaflets, but quickly cost in the thousands of dollars. Also investing in traditional hand pumps are not a guaranteed success. A study by the Rural Supply Network (2007) shows that almost 40% of hand pumps across 21 Sub-Saharan African countries are out of service; a waste that represents US$ 1.2-1.5 billion of investments. These facts shed a different light on NGOs aiding the construction of new wells.  What if we keep it simple? The RAIN Foundation, for example, got the message. Instead of building new wells, they actively promote and scale up cheap and simple water harvesting methods. Catching and storing rainwater can be worthwhile, since the problem in the Sahel region is not the amount of rain (up to 600 mm/yr in the south, the same as in Paris), but the short rainy season and run-off. Harvesting rainwater can be kept low in initial investment and maintenance cost, and can be constructed on site with local materials. In June 2012, the RAIN Foundation started to install the simplest form of water storage: the RainCAP. The principle is similar to a giant plastic bag (a 0.5 mm PE foil sheet) in a hole in the ground, able to store over 20,000 Litres of rainwater, immediately suitable for drinking. For all NGOs that really want to work with pumps, maybe the money to construct should be redirected to repair the ones that are already there. Additionally, the local communities should be trained to maintain and manage the pumps as community service. We tend to forget that also pumps have a life-cycle, and thus life-cycle costs.

The power of digging holes

Another great concept is the technique of ‘contour trenching’, as explained by Peter Westerveld in his TED Lecture in Amsterdam (2010). He took the power of digging holes very seriously. Instead of spending enormous amounts of money on irrigation systems, all you need is a slope and digging tool. By digging trenches along the contours, water infiltration into the soil is enhanced, resulting in greatly enlarged water supply for plant growth and reduced erosion.

The man who stopped the Desert

As a last example, let me tell you about Yacouba Sawadogo, also called ‘the man who stopped the desert’ (film of 2080 film, 2010). Coming from the Sahel belt in Burkina Faso, he was confronted with reoccurring droughts and the threat of desertification. He also started digging. Developing the technique of digging planting pits to catch water and increase soil fertility, he introduced ‘zaï’. The size of zaï is bigger than the traditional planting pit, and it is filled with manure or biodegradable waste to provide the seedling with nutrients and attract termites. The tunnels of termites further break up the soil, enhancing water infiltration. Additionally, soil fertility is enhanced by ‘cordon pierreux’, which are lines of fist-size stones that create a catchment. They enhance water infiltration by slowing down the flow of water after rainfall and provide relatively fertile soil for seeds sprouting by trapping silt. As soon as vegetation establishes on the side of the cordons, their roots further break up the soil and enhance water infiltration, resulting in re-greening of a degraded and previously infertile soil.

With this plea for simplicity, I hope to have planted a little seed. Like Ton van der Lee writes in his book ‘The African way’, African problems ask for African solutions. And often these are simple, low-cost, based on traditions, and often very effective. “Yacouba has single-handedly had more impact on conservation than all the national and international researchers put together”, states the Dutch desertification expert Chris Reij.  It is time to embrace these simple solutions, instead of turning to technology just because we can.

Do you have other examples of simple solutions? Or do you have another opinion about how to deal with technology in development work? Share your thoughts by reacting on the blog post!

 

Comments

  1. Hi everyone,
    Just like to lead you to the Biocharculture proposed by Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy in India.
    This concept has now arrived in Tasmania / Australia as a holistic approach, you may like to check this link out:
    http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/Natural-resource-management-approaches-incorporating-
    It is the key link to the big picture sustainable restoration management stuff with links to SlideShare and YouTube videos presentation in the comments.
    I shall keep the updates added in the comments to the topic as things progress.

  2. Thanks, Very good perspective. I would like add (perhaps assumed) that your simplistic solutions were possible by tapping into the elegance of the local resources. When once dances with ecology, let it lead.

  3. Bravo! I believe in low technology, high ingenuity solutions. We are all too quick to expect a high tech solution to the worlds’ problems when what we really need desperately is wisdom on how to act with what we have available.

  4. Another point to add: we need collective wisdom more than singular intelligence in many circumstances. For example, in my agro-enviro work we use a “governance compass” to collect and organize this implementation wisdom: https://prezi.com/6dzq0blll11w/the-governance-compass It may be of some use for your efforts as well.

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