New Internationalist

Switched on

May 2016

Technology, whether low or high, needs to be appropriate and within reach to make a difference.

Man holding mobile phone [Related Image]
© Srdjan Zivulovic/ Reuters

Only connect

Many refugees experience the painful scattering of families – often with no means of being able to track down family members. Now REFUNITE, an online platform that mainly works through mobile texts, is offering help. Those searching can register their details for free, which are added to a database of 400,000 individuals. Available in Amharic, English, French, Somali, Sudanese, Arabic and Swahili, and easy to use, it is bringing about some joyful reunions.

Fruits of the forest

Plucking coffee, protecting the forest. Peruvian farmers use agroforestry practices by integrating cash crops – such as banana, coffee and yucca – with local trees, which help protect the plants and prevent soil erosion. A far cry from the slash-and-burn farming previously practised for coffee which led to mountainside destruction here. Using organic manure and pest management, farmers increased production by 33 per cent within a year.

Hole in the wall

Alfred Birkegaard/
Alfred Birkegaard/

Minimally Invasive Education, that’s the driving idea behind an Indian organization which installs computer terminals with internet access in a hole in a specially constructed wall in areas where disadvantaged children live. The kids (who have little formal education) discover through trial and error how to use the thing, and help each other out. Their pride in teaching themselves is matched only by their new-found skills.

New life for ancient tech

Large parts of India are entirely dependent on seasonal monsoon rains for water – if the rains fail, things get desperate. That is why Indian organizations, chief among them Tarun Bharat Sangh, are reviving ancient rainwater harvesting structures, which unite communities in their construction. The principle is usually to build reservoirs on higher ground which collect rain when it falls and then let it percolate slowly into the water table, so that wells don’t run dry. Other structures just store rainwater (as in our image) but with a covered top to prevent evaporation.

To market – using gravity

Practical Action
Practical Action

The monsoon season used to pose a challenge to hillside farmers in Nepal. The slopes would get treacherously slippery – carrying goods to market meant risking their lives, or watching the excess produce go to waste. However an ingenious trolley system on steel wires has made all the difference. As the full trolley goes down, pulled by the weight of its load, the empty one is pulled up ready for loading. It’s purely mechanical, requiring no electricity.

Citizen monitors

South Africa, which is suffering the worst drought in 23 years, has embarked on a citizen science project to monitor the quality of its water resources. The miniSASS (South African Scoring System) relies on citizens, ranging from schoolchildren to pensioners, to measure indicators of river health, including sediments and pollutants. No science background is required.

Practical Action

Tarun Bharat Sangh


South African Water Research Commission


Solar for water

In northern Kenya solar-powered pumps mean access to clean water at last. Previously, families were forced to get dirty water from deep holes dug into dry river beds; now they can tap huge underground reservoirs. Clean water dramatically reduces child sickness and mortality, saves women time, enables old farm land to be reused and animals to be easily watered.

Growing power

Off-grid renewable energy in action. In Himalaya, a rural village in the Zimbabwean Highlands, an 80-kilowatt micro-hydro generator provides electricity for 100 homes and two energy centres. At the centres, lanterns and mobile phones can be recharged. In addition, the plant powers the local health clinic so it can store vaccines and have reliable light at night, water-pumps to irrigate farmland, cold storage for crops, a saw mill and a grinding mill.

Dinyar Godrej

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 492 This feature was published in the May 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 492

New Internationalist Magazine issue 492
Issue 492

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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