Diana Jue-Rajasingh

How to Change the World with Technology

Posted in Essmart by Diana on November 29, 2013

A note from Diana: Although this is my Fulbright blog, it receives many hits from people who are interested in my work with Essmart. As is such, this is a blog post about my motivations for Essmart: the huge social injustice it addresses, my research and lessons from the field, and how far the social enterprise has come. Enjoy.


 

When I was an undergraduate student at MIT, I thought that technology would change the world. My friends talked incessantly about their latest research and design projects. One upperclassmen friend designed assistive learning devices for people with disabilities. Another friend was a material scientist who was printing solar cells on paper, thus addressing the worldwide energy crisis.

I found my home in the social sciences, and my primary interest was international community economic development. Given that I was at an engineering school, my particular niche grew around technologies that were designed to improve the lives of people living in low income, rural areas around the world.

To nurture my interest, I participated in MIT’s D-Lab, which is a group of classes geared toward engineering students who wanted to apply their skills to global problems. D-Lab produced a number of inventions with societal impact, including a bicycle-powered mobile phone charger and a solar cooker. What was unique about these inventions was that they were designed with the end user. Thus, the technology was easy to understand, use, and repair, affordable, and appropriate for local conditions.

At the time, I guess you could say that I optimistically “drank the Kool-Aid.” I believed so much in the potential of these inventions to change the world.

But then I spent time in rural China and India to learn about how these technologies were being used. I discovered that, on the whole, they weren’t. I never once stumbled upon anyone using one of these inventions. Few people knew that these technologies existed. Even if they did, they didn’t know where to get them. And if someone received a product from a nongovernmental organization, she didn’t know what to do when the product broke.

For example, when I was in a Tibetan village, I learned that most people didn’t know about the solar cookers that were being offered by a small community-based organization. One household that owned a solar cooker was scared to use it, since the solar cooker accidentally set fire to someone’s clothes. In southern India, I saw a pile of smoke-reducing biomass cooking stoves locked in a storeroom, gathering dust. The organizing distributing the stoves hadn’t hit on the correct strategies to commercialize them.

combined photos

Left: A solar cooker in western China. Few families knew about their existence, and many families were afraid of them. Right: Smoke-reducing biomass cooking stoves sitting in a warehouse in southern India. Photo Credit: Diana Jue, 2009 and 2010

From these experiences, I saw that despite the efforts put forth by well-meaning engineers, life-improving technologies weren’t having the impact that they were intended to have. This is because there was no local ecosystem for the education/marketing, distribution, and after-sales service.

In these areas of the world, there isn’t just a technology divide. There’s a huge global supply chain problem. People in low income or rural areas of emerging economies don’t have access to technology for a number of reasons: governments promise but don’t have the capacity deliver, large multinational companies find it too costly to enter these regions and stick with selling to richer urban areas, and nonprofit organizations are too financially constrained to bring technology to people at scale in a sustainable fashion. This is an injustice that few people are talking about.

Then what is needed to address this huge, unjust gap in the global supply chain?

First, more of the right technologies are needed. There are a number of organizations in developed and emerging economies that are working on this. Engineers are working with communities to create with products that improve lives.

Second, and more importantly, a local ecosystem that focuses on education/marketing, distribution, and after-sales service for these technologies needs to be built in low-income and rural areas. This ecosystem must consist of local entrepreneurs – small businesses that are financially incentivized to sell these products. There is no need for the government or nongovernmental organizations to be involved, since there is buying power at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Entrepreneurs with the right products and selling strategies can tap it.

With these ideas in mind, I co-founded Essmart, a for-profit social enterprise that is dedicated to solving the global supply chain problem for life-improving technologies. For about a year, we’ve been working in southern India. We’re currently selling 25 different types of technologies through a growing network of 100 mom-and-pop rural retail stores. To date, Essmart has brought technology to over 1,200 end user households and small businesses.

If you’re interested, watch the videos below to learn more about our mission, work, and progress. Follow our blog and our Facebook page as well. With your support, we can together ensure that technology will actually change the world.

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One Response

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  1. Alexfok said, on February 18, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I’m curious to find out what blog platform you have been utilizing??
    I’m experiencing some minor security issues with my latest blog and I’d like to find something more safe!
    Do you have any suggestions?


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