To Determined Young Social Innovators, the Highest Tech Is Low

Mention social good to generation Y -- or other generations for that matter -- and the focus easily turns to high tech innovation. It's an angle emphasized by big events like TED, which emit a steady feed of technology-heavy ideas.

Take the recent Rolex Young Laureates Program, the watch company's newly-inaugurated register of some of the most promising projects making a difference in the world. High tech was in full attendance at the ceremony, thanks largely to the venue: the EPFL, in Lausanne, Switzerland, one of Europe's premier science universities and a hotbed of innovation. Brian Eno was the keynote speaker.

But somewhere beneath the buzz about robots that can fly and all-in-one molecular diagnostic kits, there were a set of decidedly old tech approaches on display, aimed at meeting old problems like drought and disease.

The laureates, who came from five continents, were all but one from developing countries (the exception, from the United States, was working on a project around online "micro-volunteering"). Working within their means and contexts, they weren't looking for slick imported technology. They're making do with more simple gear you might not think twice about if you saw it sitting out in someone's trash in Park Slope or Santa Monica: radio equipment, video cameras, and sock puppets.

In south-eastern Nigeria, Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is building a radio network across his home region, Imo State, focused not on politics and electioneering but on tips for farmers who want to better manage the risk of growing crops in extreme weather, weather that has been intensified by decades of climate change.

"It's an old technology that has refused to go," said Ikegwuonu, who is 28. "In spite of advancements in information technology in Africa, radio still remains the most effective. We don't have electricity. We just use a battery."

Homegrown TV for Health

Where electricity is available, television can play a crucial role in spreading information too -- especially when your audience averages seven years old. That's the target audience of Bruktawit Tigabu, 29, a primary school teacher turned television producer whose low budget puppet show, "Tsehai Loves Learning," which focuses on health and disease, has been seen by up to 5 million children across Ethiopia.

"Washing your hands, keeping yourself clean before you eat and after you use the bathroom, that's the message," she said. The impact of that lesson for a country plagued by malnutrition and disease - where 300,000 children under the age of 5 die every year - can be immense. "Parents have told me, 'my child is now telling me to wash my hands.'"

Growing up in a poor family, watching the programs of the renowned children's storyteller Ababa Tesfaye on a neighbor's TV, was influential, she says. But as a career, education was an accident, the result of a college path chosen for her.

"I wasn't very excited about teaching. But the minute I started connecting to children, my whole world changed." As the work became heavier - she would spend many hours doing supplementary materials by hand - Tigabu decided to make a 15 minute film for her classroom. "The kids loved it. That was the a-ha moment."

With the Rolex award -- $50,000 in cash and the benefit of Rolex's network of social entrepreneurs -- Tigabu expects her Whiz Kids Workshop, based in Addis Ababa, to grow its television audience and expand to radio, with an audience of 25 million listeners. And she has her sights set on other countries too, like Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia.

So far, though, she has relied on small donations, the personal savings of her and her husband (who has also served as the show's cameraman), and countless hours of elbow grease.

"My dream is that I wouldn't have to do this, that there would be a better Ethiopia."

Pirate Radio for Farmers

In Nigeria, Ikegwuonu grew up listening to radio on his family's farm. While becoming a farmer didn't appeal to him, the sound of others delivering information convinced him he wanted to be a journalist. After his applications to study journalism in university were denied, he studied history instead, but "the passion for journalism was still there."

During a stint working for an NGO on HIV and AIDS prevention, Ikegwuonu realized he was spending much of his visits to rural villages talking about agriculture, not disease. But the problems he saw were similar. "I realized there was a lack of information," he says. "I wanted to increase existing skills that so many farmers have."

Without any funding (he would eventually raise money from foundations like UNESCO and UNDP), Ikegwuonu began visiting hundreds of villages, gathering ideas from farmers and building buzz around his vision. He was 21.

"When you don't have money and you want to do something, you work so hard and get so passionate you achieve everything money cannot buy. I achieved a lot just by going into communities and telling them about the radio station. [Eventually], they started losing faith. I told them 'I'm fighting hard.'"

"It was an interesting process for the villages because they knew how hard it is. When you don't have money it's easy for you to achieve results.

In 2007, Ikegwuonu launched Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio. It now broadcasts in Igbo, the local language, for ten hours a day to 250,000 listeners, mostly subsistence farmers. The impact is already being felt, he says, in increased crop yields and a rise in household income, thanks to the spread of sustainable practices like rainwater harvesting. He estimates that 65 percent of his listeners have increased their production from $1 a day to $1.50 a day.

A microcredit program is coming in December. The goal is to establish a communications network reaching 3.5 million farmers in almost 5,000 villages across south-east Nigeria.

To increase feedback from listeners, Ikegwuonu is looking towards small, solar-powered devices, known as Advancement through Interactive Radio, or AIR, that allow listeners to send voice messages, free of charge, to the radio station, which can, in turn, broadcast them.

If it works, it would be an elegant combination of the low and high tech for Nigeria's poor farmers, a careful combination that can easily get lost amidst the the promises of well-intentioned and sleek innovations.

"Everyone would love to use iPhones and so on. Blackberries, the internet, these things will reach rural Africa. It will take time. But you can also use this [technology], so that when the time comes, when there is a massive iPhone bonanza, people can grab that technology and be comfortable using it. It's slow but we will get there."

No comfortable future will be possible without a sustainable, healthy environment, Ikegwuounu knows. Which is why, like Tigabu, he takes to the airwaves every week.

"It hurts when I see farmers pulling down a tree [for firewood] that could help their crops. So we'll have interviews on the environmental impact of defroestation, an interview with the farmer who has been able to do agroforestry successfully, or a radio drama, in which the message will be, 'let us stop cutting down our trees.'

"I like simple solutions to big problems," he said.

Learn more about how you can help Tigabu's Whiz Kids Workshop and Ikegwuonu's Smallholders Foundation, and see profiles of both projects at the Rolex Young Laureates site. The company's foundation is now accepting applications for their 2012 awards.

Related:
Climate Change Already Expanding Tropics, Sub-Tropical Arid Zones and Disease
"Pay As You Plant" Insurance Helps African Farmers Recover from Climate-Induced Crop Loss

Tags: Africa | Ethiopia | Farming | Nigeria | Technology

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