A Nutty Revolution: A Story of Appropriate Technology

Appropriate technology (AT) is technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of the community it is intended for. Supposedly originating with Mahatma Gandhi, AT philosophy rejects the factory model of industrialization, which values production over the workers, in favor of methods that help improve people’s economic futures while not disenfranchising them. Gandhi championed village-based technologies that were contrary to the belief that technological development was inherently synonymous with progress. He believed the powers of technology should be produced and used artfully and the benefits should be close to the individual, widely produced and distributed in a decentralised fashion.

The real heart of AT is finding ways to use technology to make people’s lives better without making them slaves to expensive, complicated machinery. When Gandhi appealed to Indian villagers to help break the British monopoly on textiles, he didn’t advise them to build their own factories, copying the British model. He rather implored them to boycott industrial textiles and return to using the spinning wheel, thus bolstering local, village-based economies.

But what is the significance of the spinning wheel? The spinning wheel technology increased the productivity of thread making by a power great than 10, but the wheels themselves were easily constructed and maintained. Most importantly, however, is the fact that spinning wheels provided a way for agricultural families to add value to their products. Prices for fibers- wool, cotton, flax- were much lower than those for thread and cloth. So, with a small initial investment and almost no continued costs, a family could vastly improve their economic standing in a short period of time.

Appropriate technologies are being created for many disadvantaged communities. Many are specifically being designed to be created out of common refuse items to keep costs down and ensure that people in impoverished communities can maintain the functionality. Some great examples are:

I just came across Jock Brandis and his Full Belly Project. Brandis was working in Mali in 2001 when some local women asked if he would send them a peanut sheller when he got back to the USA. He promised, not realizing that this promise would change his life and possibly the lives of millions.

As the video shows, one single peanut sheller mold can change the lives of whole communities. To keep costs down, Fully Belly disseminates their products through existing aid channels such as Peace Corps volunteers and other NGOs. Full Belly sells the molds to individuals for $28. The people who buy the molds are then able to manufacture as many actual shellers as there is a demand for, using nothing more than cement and scrap bits of metal. This creates great economic opportunities.

The shellers then go on to greatly benefit those who buy them, as peanuts are much more valuable shelled. Previously, shelling was done by hand, which was extremely time and labor intensive. With the time that is saved, and the extra income that is generated, families are in a better position to send their children to school and to grow their own home businesses.

I whole-heartedly support Full Belly’s goal and project model. And apparently I’m not the only one. BBC World News and Newsweek are hosting World Challenge 2010, a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses from around the world that have shown enterprise and innovation at a grassroots level. Full Belly is one of the 12 finalists.

If you’d like to help Full Belly continue it’s mission, you can vote here. Unfortunately, voting ends tomorrow, so get to it!

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