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Redefining the 6 p.m. Hour

 

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Around 6 p.m., the sun begins to set and darkness blankets the nation’s capital. The streetlights flicker on, illuminating the walk home for the city’s commuters. As darkness falls, a surge of electricity powers the light bulbs in homes and apartments in and around the Beltway.

But on the other side of the world, in many low-income communities in India, 6 p.m. marks the beginning of the scent of gas. It marks the release of fumes that are inhaled by the men and women working on fishing boats, the children studying for school and the parents cooking dinner. Nighttime marks an increase in the release of pollutants and risk of a fire. It marks another payment for fuel that a resident must make just to conduct a basic evening routine that so many of us take for granted.

The darkness marks another night that a low-income community’s need for kerosene stands as a barrier to achieving independence from this dangerous, hazardous and expensive energy source.

But night doesn’t need to keep communities chained to kerosene. Vort Port International (VPI), a DC-based international development nonprofit, incubates social enterprises to lead the way for low-income communities to participate in the energy revolution. At VPI, the Solaii project (previously known as India Solar Lamps or ISL) has been developing a solar-powered lamp that will not only light the night, but also empower these communities to work towards a brighter future

What separates VPI from the typical firm in the international development field is that it is 100% volunteer driven, with a mission that is directed by a passion to continuously develop sustainable tech-based solutions for communities in need. VPI isn’t a group of idealistic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but a team of experts working together towards tangible results. In 2011, VPI installed a solar-powered computer lab in the heart of southern rural India. During the day, more than 1,500 students and teachers are able to use the lab while at night, the lab turns into an Internet café, maximizing the potential of the technology.

Solaii is working to scale its successes and build on its experience with solar energy by creating a multi-use solar lamp. More than two billion people lack access to adequate electricity in the developing world, and building the infrastructure to improve these conditions is difficult for many reasons, including resource constraints, political obstacles and corruption. Currently in India, 840 million people live in villages, and kerosene is the main source of fuel for 60% of rural communities. Unfortunately, kerosene is also a non-renewable source of energy that is increasingly expensive and harmful. Chronic exposure to kerosene fumes can lead to lung cancer*, skin conditions and accidental poisoning among children. (*The World Bank cites that 67% of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.) In addition, because it is highly flammable, kerosene is inherently a fire hazard for communities that utilize these lamps indoors without proper ventilation.

VPI’s Solaii team believes that micro-solutions can begin to alleviate this desperate situation, and our goal is to create a solar lamp to replace the dangers of kerosene lighting. Our second prototype is near completion and elevates current market standards. We have worked to incorporate the voices of local communities by designing through an iterative ask-build-test-deliver model. The final product will be multi-functional, durable, waterproof and affordable, and the project will include an education component to ensure lasting benefits and increase economic activity. We plan to leverage established distribution channels by partnering with on-the-ground trainers from local NGOs in order to teach community members how to use and sell the lamps, eventually enabling them to create their own business.

Solaii will start delivering its solution in India and then expand to rest of the developing world. Based on estimates, the project will become profitable by its second year. Over five years we aim to replace more than 10 million kerosene lamps with solar lamps, and reduce over 76.5 million kilograms of carbon emissions.

Solaii is working to redefine the 6 p.m. hour around the world, one lamp at a time.

This blog post was written by Eric Shu, Educational Analyst for the Solaii Project

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VPI Member Spotlight: Matt Ford

ImageMatthew Ford is a design engineer with Vort Port International’s Solaii (formerly India Solar Lamps) project. A native of South Carolina, he earned both his Bachelor and Master of Science in Engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. During his senior year of college Ford took an industrial design course, and it was a project that involved designing for the dollar-a-day customer that sparked his interest in sustainable technology — something that until this point he had not given much thought to.

“I quickly learned why people call it ‘essential design’,” Ford said. “Designing for essential needs is the most basic, but at the same time complex, design problem. It shares all of the processes behind creating the things that make our lives convenient, such as securing investment capital, user research, manufacturing, marketing, etc., but the stakes are so much higher. The possibility to make real and lasting positive changes to peoples’ lives, coupled with the magnitude of the scalability, is both fascinating and inspiring.”

Before joining VPI in August 2012, Ford did pro-bono design work for a project serving farmers in Tanzania. In an effort to ease the burden of head-carrying water, the team built, shipped, and sold 1,000 pushcarts. This provided Ford his first experience working with overseas manufacturers and iterating through a design process with multiple pilot tests.

“Hearing the stories of our customers was inspiring, and it was a great start to reading up on international development. Everyone has an opinion about how to alleviate poverty, so it was helpful to get a sense for various attempts and outcomes.”

As with any successful endeavor, being able to think outside the box is crucial to the product design process — a point that was driven home for Ford while working in Tanzania. The pushcart team knew that the cart would be useless with a flat tire or a wheel that fell apart, and since the wheel was the most expensive component, they brainstormed to come up with an easy replacement scheme.

“Early in the project we were considering and testing all sorts of crazy ideas,” Ford explains.  “At one point it occurred to us that there were tons of old two-liter soda bottles in the urban areas, so we thought we could pressurize these and bind them to use as wheel hubs, since a pressurized bottle is nearly rock hard. We ran all the calculations to see what the strains and stresses on the bottle would be at various pressures and calculated how much dry ice we’d need to pressurize them. We then ran a series of load tests on the system, which consisted of repeatedly throwing 40-pound water jugs on dry-ice pressurized wheel hubs. Not exactly how I had imagined using my engineering degree!”

The team soon realized that dry ice was far too expensive, and that pressurizing bottles was dangerous. But they did find another solution — using recycled bike tires lashed to a steel spoke frame — which was both economical and safe.

Experiences such as this help Ford in his current role with VPI’s Solaii project, where he does mechanical and industrial design. His main task is to establish design requirements (based on prior design/field research) and translate those to a mechanical design that satisfies the specifications. He works with manufacturing and electrical engineers on the team to ensure all the pieces fit together and to help move the project into production. Currently he is making revisions to the design and preparing to build another functional prototype for testing, which will hopefully take place this fall. He also hopes to visit the sites in India once the team has completed its first production run.

Ford is looking forward to creating a product that will make positive and lasting changes to the quality of life in the communities Solaii serves. “I really enjoy meeting people who share my interests and learning from their experiences in development, but  overall I want to work on projects that make life better for people today, as well as those who will follow tomorrow.”

By day Ford works as a biomechanical engineer focusing on advanced materials research, specifically trying to understand injury mechanisms using physical and computational models, and apply those insights to develop better protective equipment. He has also designed sustainable housewares using the Kickstarter platform, and is currently experimenting with how to use graphic design and visual communication to make the chaotic news cycle more approachable (visit www.theshapeofnews.com for more information.) He is also the unofficial social secretary for VPI, organizing a monthly happy hour which gives the DC-based volunteers a chance to interact face-to-face.

Whether sketching out designs, collaborating with the Solaii team on conference calls, or bringing his fellow volunteers together at happy hour, VPI would like to thank Matt Ford for his many contributions to the team.

Vort Port International’s (VPI) Solaii project works to help the rural communities of India climb back on the economic ladder through effective solar lamp technology and smart business models, while reducing the environmental and human health hazards of kerosene lighting. For more information or to find out how you can contribute to this project please visit http://www.vortport.com/our-projects/solar-lamps/.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

The Soul of a New Machine

Hello from your new VPI blogger, Nick Imbriglia. Though I work with the engineering side of things, my goal is to ensure that anyone, technically inclined or not, can enjoy these entries and take something from them (I plan to write in English, not math equations).

A little background: I studied Electrical Engineering at school and have been with VPI for a few months now. I currently work on the Solar Lamps in India project, designing the lamps and solar charging system. My passion lies with sustainable and appropriate technologies that can drastically improve the quality of life for those on the bottom of the pyramid. As a young lad, I was an avid Lego architect. I also enjoy midnight strolls on the beach and fine wine.

Too much information? I suppose you’re right… after all, I am the tech guy; I should just talk nuts and bolts, silicon and semiconductor, joules and jigawatts. That’s all there is to technology. Right?

Given our current technology driven society, I would sometimes feel inclined to agree. What comes to mind when one thinks of modern tech? Space rockets. Sleek smartphones. Nuclear power plants. Yup. Cold, lifeless technology.

But peer a little deeper and you will find this is not the whole truth. As impersonal and emotionless as these items might seem, each new machine has a soul, bright and burning. Behind every product, there are human designers and users that shape it, defining how the item itself will shape lives.

In this modern age, it’s easy to be a pessimist when it comes to technology. When everyone and their mother has a phone that can keep us constantly connected, provide a never-ending flow of social media, and virtually fling disgruntled avians, it’s easy to see that these devices are changing our lives. But are they changing them for the better?

That, perhaps, is an issue for another post. What I can say for a certainty is that technology can improve lives for the better. The tireless work performed by organizations like VPI proves this beyond a doubt. In India, technology can replace harmful, kerosene lamps with sustainable, smoke-free alternatives, literally lighting the way to a brighter future. In Madagascar, human innovation can provide powerful biodigesters that produce much needed energy while simultaneously eliminating sanitation concerns. When I picture the souls of the projects we are working on, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with a very human emotion.

So the next time someone mentions the limitless possibilities of technology, think not of the monolith-like slate of a new tablet computer. Instead, try and imagine how even the simplest device could mean the world to someone. Try and conjure up the faces of those who might design and benefit from its function, those who comprise the soul of a machine.

Update from the Solar Powered Computer Lab in India Project

Raj Vable just sent us this email from India. We are very excited for him!

“On Thursday, we had the inauguration of the new computer lab – attached are a couple of the pictures from the event.On behalf of all 1050 students + teachers + everyone, and particularly, me, thank you.

The project is close to completion – the solar panels are installed, the computer lab is up and running, and the back-up batteries are purchased. We have one remaining hurdle: right now, the batteries and computers are still running on the grid, so we need to raise money for the power system to connect the solar panels to the batteries/computer lab. Slowly but surely, right?

It feels good to make steps towards a brighter world.”

And here are some photos:

Playing Catch-up: Articles of Note

It’s tough running a blog about social enterprise and sustainability! Fortunately, it’s an issue of excess; there are plenty of stories to share every single day, it’s just a matter of sifting through and finding the best ones to share. So in the interest of getting up to speed on the most current events, I want to share some articles that have been on the backburner that I think are very interesting and very relevant:

Maker Faire Africa

  • A grassroots project harnesses data mining and infographics to improve life in Indonesian cities.
  • Kiva, everyone’s favorite micro financier, expands to include student loans in Paraguay, Lebanon, and Bolivia. They plan on expanding the service to 15 countries.

Students in Hydrabad

  • We’re excited to see the results of this: Gray Matters Capital is funding a contest to design low-cost learning tools for affordable private schools in India. The best ideas will become reality through for-profit businesses there. OpenIDEO.

Now you’re up to speed! We might do this regularly to keep up and keep you informed. I also want to do a weekly (I’m thinking Thursdays) cause marketing or slacktivist post where we highlight a campaign that you readers can help out with, whether  through a click, a purchase, or something else.

Lastly, go to our fundraiser!

-Drew

Teach For India is recruiting full-time teachers…

…to help educate India’s youth.

Here’s the rundown (via ThinkChange India):

THE CHALLENGE: Today, millions of low-income children in India do not have access to the same quality of education as their wealthier peers.  As a result, more than one in three students will drop out of primary school before the fifth standard.

THE MOVEMENT: Teach For India is a nationwide movement that aims to end this educational inequity by creating a powerful force of leaders in many sectors who will advocate for educational opportunity for all children. Check out the video of TFI here.

TFI Fellowship: We recruit the most outstanding college graduates and young professionals to teach full-time in an intensive leadership development program. It is a full time and competitively paidfellowship program with many prospects and further opportunities to develop a great career. Find out a ppt attached with this mail for more information

WHY YOU: To create this leadership force, we recruit only India’s most outstanding college graduates and young professionals, from all academic majors and careers. We look for people like you who live for a challenge, who excel academically, who believe India can be a better nation for all its citizens.

WHY NOW: Teach For India is currently accepting applications for its 2011 Fellowship. So, are you ready for a challenge?

VISIT www.teachforindia.org TO APPLY

TED Talk: The child-driven education

Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" experiment.

If you’ve never watched a TED Talk, you’re missing out on some very inspirational and innovative thought leaders tell the stories of their research and experiences all over the world.  I watched this one over the weekend and decided it greatly relates to the mission Vort Port is currently taking part in.

The speaker is Sugata Mitra, and he spends a few minutes talking about the educational effect that computers have on children. His research is simple: put computers in front of children and see what happens. In a lot of the cases, the children have never had the opportunity to handle a computer before, but they still learn within minutes to play games, look information up, and thus, become empowered. There are some very interesting results to Sugata’s studies. But enough from me! Watch it:

This is the very reason we’re trying to bring computer labs to rural villages in India. IT is a very big industry in India, but still the people int he smaller villages have never touched a computer. By providing a solar-powered computer lab, we’re giving these small villages a chance to compete for the IT jobs in the bigger cities, thus improving their own and their families lives.

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