Appropriate tech more than foreign aid tool
Solar cooker project in Cambodia shows it doesn’t take cutting edge technology to change the lives of the poor
By Kim Da-ye
Phnom Penh and Takeo, Cambodia ― Time seems to have frozen for several decades in Cambodia.
Once a powerful empire in Southeast Asia between the ninth and 15th centuries during which Angkor Wat was built, Cambodia is now one of the world’s poorest countries. Its GDP per capita with purchasing power considered was estimated at $2,100 in 2010, 188th among 227 countries, by the U.S. Central Intelligent Agency.
Although the country reported double-digit growth between 2004 and 2007 and 6 percent growth in 2010 after the global financial crisis, a foray into the rural area where over 90 percent of the poor live finds no electricity and a lack of of clean water and sanitation facilities at many individuals’ home. The damage done by the communist Khmer Rouge regime that is estimated to have killed 1.7 million people in the late 1970s is evident with the trials against the former leaders still ongoing.
Among the foreigners who enter Cambodia to reach out to the poor are a group of Koreans who say that it takes no cutting-edge technology to help change lives there.
The catalyst is actually something basic but fitting precisely into the locals’ need called “appropriate technology.” While appropriate technology does not carry any patent and non-technicians can easily learn to use it, the Koreans say that people can even make money out of it with a distinctive business model.
Are they too ambitious? A field trip to rural Cambodia shows it could be very much a realistic goal that beats the outcome of one-way, top-down foreign aid.
Some 80 kilometers south of the capital Phnom Penh is Takeo, the third-poorest province in Cambodia when Kim Gi-dae, director of the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development (ISAC), set up a school there in 2003.
On Nov. 23, more than 100 residents of Takeo gathered at the ISAC to welcome Korean visitors. A festive spirit loomed large with a temporary pavilion adorned with colorful fabric and a row of intensely gleaming, rounded objects on the left.
In the center of the anodized-aluminum overturned domes, the residents fried and grilled bananas, sautéed noodles, boiled rice and even heated up old irons. Solar cookers that concentrate the heat powerfully enough to boil water and bake bread, replaced the wood stoves that the locals use.
The 20 solar cookers had been manufactured by the Cambodian staff and students of the ISAC under the guidance of Kim Dae-gyu, the CEO of Energy Farm, a small-size Korean social enterprise focusing on renewable energy.
It’s no secret how a solar cooker is built. Similar appliances have already been distributed in other developing countries. But Kim believes it is among the tools best suited for Takeo residents, so he “transferred” the technology to them for free of charge.
Products developed under appropriate technology, first defined by economist Ernst Schumacher in his book “Small is Beautiful,” tend to suit the locals’ needs, not what the developed world think they would want, and use locally available raw materials. They are also environmentally-friendly and easy to repair.
In the case of the solar cooker, a survey of 97 Takeo households carried out earlier this year found that 81.4 percent of them need to boil water and 72.2 percent rely on firewood for cooking. Not only does the use of firewood result in much pollution, it causes deforestation.
In addition, Cambodia’s biggest renewable energy asset may be the sunlight available most days, even during the rainy season running from May to October.
The solar cooker was chosen among various appropriate technologies in this particular project led by the ASEM SMEs Eco-Innovation Center (ASEIC).
ASEIC is a state-funded organization that aims to work as a bridge between Asia and Europe in encouraging green innovations by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). ASEIC initially consulted Hong Seong-uk, the director of the Center for Appropriate Technology at Hanbat National University, who connected the organization to Energy Farm and the ISAC.
This project with a “bottom-up” approach couldn’t work without ISAC having built a strong bond with the local community for nearly a decade. And that bond only exists because the director’s dedication. Kim Gi-dae would even give up the education of his own children to run the school with donations from acquaintances.
A total of 80 million won, Korean taxpayers’ money allocated by the Small and Medium Business Administration via the Small and Medium Business Corporation, went into this project.
It also involves the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), a Korean-led initiative to promote a new model of sustainable economic growth called “green growth.” The GGGI will assist ASEIC in developing an international network as well as raising funds.
The project sponsored another appropriate program in Cambodia, building basic incinerators designed for the local climate.
It was invented by Kim Man-gab, a professor at the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia, who is already well-known for the G-Saver, a 20-liter heat retainer developed in Mongolia where people have been known to freeze to death.
The incinerator is built with bricks so as to be water-proof in the tropical climate with three small openings ― a chimney, a hole for ventilation and another on the bottom for cleaning.
It doesn’t filter every toxic chemical emitted from incineration but it’s not the advanced technology the locals need.
Outside the wealthy neighborhood around the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, many of the streets are heavily littered. Once the trash mounts up, the residents simply burn it leading to fumes and ashes freely floating in the air.
Kim says that what the locals need now is a simple technology that gets them into the habit of disposing of waste properly, even during the rainy season and not burning it in the open.
He is building the incinerators next to schools, so that they handle waste efficiently as well as teaching their students how to do it.
So far the appropriate technology sounds very much like a tool for foreign aid in the impoverished countries. Many of the ideas incorporated are against development-oriented capitalism.
But the goal of ASEIC and other stakeholders is commercialization of the appropriate technology. The Koreans want the Cambodian ISAC staff to set up their own SME, create a market for the solar cooker and eventually achieve financial independence.
Narorn Doung, a 22-year-old staff member of ISAC, was grilling bananas on a solar cooker on Nov. 23 when the Koreans visited Takeo. He comes from a family that still cooks with firewood.
He participated in making the solar cookers and said $140 would be the right price for the cooker. “If I am given an opportunity, I want to run a small company selling the cookers,” Doung said.
Kim of Energy Farm is mulling three different means of distribution: non-governmental organizations (NGOs) buy them from the Cambodian SME and give them out free; local residents buy them at a full price; or locals get them cheaply with subsidies from NGOs. Cambodia appears to have more NGOs than large businesses. The Council for the Development of Cambodia says on its website that there are some 200 international NGOs and 400 local bodies.
Those who have worked in social services long enough know that the first option is the worst because freebies are likely to be left idle while people tend to actively use paid-for products.
With the second and third options, buyers may pay the money back in many installments in the form of microfinance.
This way, the product may efficiently reach the “bottom of the pyramid” that targets the poorest yet largest socio-economic group, Kim Ju-hern, the team leader of the ASEIC, said.
That is quite a contrast to the more aid-oriented appropriate technology. For instance, the LifeStraw, a straw-like, personal water filter and an archetype of appropriate technology, has been handed out freely by NGOs. The LifeStraw has been developed and manufactured by Switzerland-based Vestergaard Frandsen.
Jeong Ok-ju, a senior program manager at the GGGI and its envoy to Takeo, said that the solution for distribution may involve all three options.
“Solar cookers have been used in various parts of the world,” Jeong said.
“This project is important because once a successful distribution model has been established, it could be applied elsewhere.”
The solar cooker, however, has many hurdles to overcome in the process of commercialization.
It is likely to be priced at $160 including an operating profit of $20. That’s expensive for Cambodians whose average income, officially available as the gross national income per capita, was $760 last year.
Kim has tried to cut down the raw material cost but found that compromising on good-quality anodized aluminum that reflects 94 percent of the sunlight would leave the cooker impractical.
But Kim said that the making of the solar cooker was one significant step for the Cambodian workers, some of whom did not even know how to use a ruler.
Cutting a metal sheet with precision and welding the pieces have taught the staff the basic skills necessary for manufacturing more advanced products, said Kim, who wants to eventually transfer more advanced technology like the solar photovoltaic system seen in the work by Grameen Shakti of Bangladesh.
Grameen Shakti, chaired by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, incorporated expertise in microfinance in distributing green solutions including the solar home system to rural villagers.
“One of the ISAC staff members was a gang member addicted to drugs. He couldn’t concentrate on one thing for more than three minutes,” Kim said.
“But he became totally devoted to the solar cooker project. It was a life-changing experience for him.”