So you’re a bit obsessive about new tech. You’re itching to fulfil fantasies in virtual reality, and have already chosen which friend you’ll buzz with a drone for fun. Your parents treat you as a 24/7 tech helpline, and as a caring offspring you have the appropriate IT Crowd gif on permanent standby to send them.
But new tech is only cutting-edge in relation to the needs of people who use it. A new smartwatch might smarten up your ability to dim smartbulbs in your smarthome, but technology gets really smart when it’s applied in the right way to change the lives of people in a powerful way.
So why are wind-up LED lights, SMS messaging, and — erm— tractors the cutting-edge technology which the world really needs? Maybe the question should be: “if there was a simple technology that could help make you smarter, better-off, and stopped your house from burning down — would you use it?”
Most of us take electric lights for granted, of course. But it’s an unattainable luxury for the 1.3bn people who don’t have access to power - and many of these households use kerosene lamps to provide light.
Kerosene lamps are fundamentally horrible things: a wobble of the table might send a lamp tumbling and your home alight. Oh, and the effects of constantly breathing fumes don’t really bear thinking about.
As far as day-to-day technology goes, GravityLight - a UK-based, crowdfunded company - is simple, effective and impactful. After fitting one to a wall and filling a dangling bag with 10 kilos of heavy stuff, it takes just a few seconds to hoist the bag up — and for an instant pool of light from the powerful LED bulb.
GravityLight’s effects go beyond the convenience of light. By replacing kerosene, not only are the twin dangers of fire and fumes removed, but the financial burden buying fuel too – vital for families with the least money to spare. With a basic piece of technology, a family might be 20% better off.
It’s not the first wind-up device to revolutionise the developing world — the wind-up radio famously helped spread HIV/AIDS education in the nineties — but GravityLight is different in that it frees users to help themselves.
The empowerment that safe lighting brings is the brightest hope here: within a safe, bright living space hovers the opportunity to use previously darkened hours for schoolwork or small business work
The empowerment that safe lighting brings is the brightest hope here: within a safe, bright living space hovers the opportunity to use previously darkened hours for schoolwork or small business work. Light can be a lifeline out of poverty, in both the short- and long-term.
Obsessive shed-enthusiasts, and owners of dark nooks and crannies take note — you too can buy them online - and help support the GravityLight foundation.
Crowdsourcing from the unconnected billions
The big smartphone apps are based around one thing: instant communication. Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram — they all simply shift a message from one person to another. It seems almost too trivial to note that phones are the gateway to mass communication and information.
In the age of WhatsApp and Messenger, 20 billion SMS messages are still sent every day
But here’s a well-actually nugget of info to remember for the next time someone mentions that, durrr, no-one sends SMS messages any more: 20 billion of them are sent every day.
One explanation for that huge number is that people in the developing world –where internet connectivity is often scarce, expensive, or both – rely on SMS messaging to share information. “Feature phones,” or non-smartphones, sell in vast quantities: nearly 400 million were shipped in 2016.
Here’s a problem that needs fixing: there are half a billion smallholder farmers in the world, most living on less than $1 a day — and they mainly live in remote areas with little or no internet access. We take for granted instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, but it’s beyond their reach – yet it would allow them to grow more food, or sell crops at a better price.
So WeFarm created a peer-to-peer network that anyone with a “dumbphone" can access via the universal magic of SMS. Not sure why your wheat crop is failing this year? Send a single text asking for advice, and a flood of expertise returns.
Or, as WeFarm puts it, “A farmer in Kenya can learn from someone in Peru… without leaving the farm, spending any money or having access to internet.”
Suddenly, vital information is loosened from its high-tech mooring - yet still takes advantage of it: not only can a farmer ask a question, but the best answers are collated from parts of the world they could never usually reach.
That’s a remarkable development, and it works: so far, over 5 million SMS messages have been sent through WeFarm. And the leaps forward are remarkable: by scouring the globe, innovative ideas, siloed in one location for generations, are quickly shared everywhere, for everyone’s benefit - and all via phones we call “dumb.”
Tractors. Wait, tractors?
The Internet of Things is generally a smart household object that either does something a bit better than it did previously, or, as demonstrated in the glut of examples collected by cult Twitter account @internetofshit, much worse.
But while we ponder whether we really need to see the inside of the fridge without simply opening the door, in Nigeria, the Internet of Things is transforming the work, lives, and yields of thousands of farmers. It turns out the smartest Internet-of-Things-thing is... a tractor.
It turns out the smartest Internet-of-Things-thing is... a tractor.
Buying a tractor is beyond the reach of most Nigerians: a cruel irony for people living in a country blessed with plenty of farming land. It means that working the land is hard, long and laborious. Now, another simple idea coupled with basic technology has the potential to liberate farmers and their families from back-breaking work.
Hello Tractor, despite a cute and colourful website, is a concept low on glamour, high on impact, and also works via SMS. Farmers who want to use a tractor at an affordable price send a text, and they’re connected with local tractor owners who will loan it to them for an affordable price. Their machines have sturdy GPS chips to help track when breakdowns occur and where the machines are working at any given time.
What’s so good about the system is that it’s a win-win for all involved. For small farmers, quicker tilling or ploughing of land means lower overheads, more food, and more profit; and tractor owners can safely rent out their machines, and make more money for their families.
It’s a solid business model where demand outstrips supply, thus also encourages budding entrepreneurship. To seed more tractors for Nigeria’s 35 million small farmers, Hello Tractor is also helping to connect people with local microfinancing services. Fairer loans for farmers to buy tractors means that they can be rented out to even more smallholders.
It’s heartening to see that human technological progress isn't just for some of us to try out brand new technology, but that the wider world can take advantage it, regardless of circumstance. It also sets a thoughtful benchmark for those of us fortunate to be relatively wealthy: by all means, enjoy exciting new tech - but maybe we can all think of ways of using it to empower those of us in greater need.