5.11 — Poverty: Economic Advancement in the Developing World

Host Walter Isaacson and guests look at the broader challenges surrounding global poverty and then focus on some people chipping away at this large societal problem, in any way they can.
Transcript
Subscribe
All Trailblazers Podcasts

In this episode:

  • A windmill from scrap (0:00)
  • The Age of Enlightenment (3:28)
  • Back to the windmill (9:28)
  • A tiny caterpillar with an enormous appetite (12:45)
  • Uniting fragmented economies (16:52)
  • Bringing internet anywhere (20:23)
  • Printing houses (23:40)
  • Technology as a powerful tool (27:33)

Nearly 700 million people around the globe live on less than $1.90 a day. That’s a startling statistic, and one that will take a multi-dimensional solution to overcome. Innovators are trying to chip away at the problems associate with poverty in vastly different ways, from creating new financial institutions to connecting the most remote locations in the world to the internet. We hear about some of these efforts and talk to the people leading them.

More being done to remedy poverty:

Guest List

  • Sir Angus Deaton is Senior Scholar and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and Presidential Professor of Economics at USC. He is the author of The Great Escape: health, wealth, and the origins of inequality.
  • William Kamkwamba is the co-author of his New York Times bestselling memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. William is currently working with Moving Windmills Project to build an Innovation Center in Malawi where young people can find tools and mentorship to co-create simple solutions to everyday challenges.
  • Ram Kiran Dhulipala is the Theme Leader of Digital Agriculture at the International Crops Research Institute For The Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad. ICRISAT’s Plantix app uses image recognition technology to monitor pests and diseases to help some of India’s poorest farmers.
  • Ken Njoroge is the co-founder and CEO of Cellulant. Cellulant is a leading Pan-African technology company providing a one-stop digital payments platform anchored on consumer, internet & marketplace payments.
  • Nivi Sharma is COO of BRCK, a company on a mission to connect low-income earners to the global Digital Economy. She is passionate about the potential impact the internet can have on the economic and social development for the 800m Africans currently not connected.
  • Alexandria Lafci is the co-founder of New Story – an innovative nonprofit that transforms slums into sustainable communities around the world. New Story, a non-profit listed as one of the "Most Innovative Nonprofits in the World" four times by Fast Company

“Why don't we look at the reality of what's going on around us and design solutions for ourselves?”

— Nivi Sharma, COO of BRCK

Walter Isaacson:

It’s 2001 in the tiny village of Wimbe, Malawi, and a 14-year-old boy named William Kamkwamba is rooting through the town junkyard. The scrap heap is located right next to the local high school, the same high school the young man was forced to leave when his family ran out of money to pay for his education. With no other way to learn, he started going to the local library to educate himself using the books he found there.

William Kamkwamba:

One day, I found a book that had pictures of the windmill on the cover. When I read inside, they say windmills could pump water and generate electricity. The way they pump water attracted my attention.

Walter Isaacson:

In a drought-ridden part of Malawi with little access to electricity, a way to irrigate farmers’ fields and grow crops outside of the rainy season could be life-changing. But how could a 14-year-old with no technical training build a windmill? That’s what leads Kamkwamba to the junkyard beside his old school.

William Kamkwamba:

The book didn’t say what type of parts you need to use. I had to use my own imagination, and I collected most of the parts from the junkyard. A lot of people, when I was going there to collect the pieces, they were laughing at me, thinking that something was wrong with me. Maybe I was going crazy.

Walter Isaacson:

The idea might’ve been crazy, but William Kamkwamba isn’t. Using scavenged bicycle parts and other odds and ends, he manages to defy the town’s expectations. After months of labor, he finished building a homemade, fully functional wind turbine, standing 15 feet tall.

Walter Isaacson:

With the electric charge provided by the turbine’s spinning blades, his family now has a source of power. They can pump water, run electric lights and the radio, and even charge their neighbors’ mobile phones. It’s a remarkable piece of bootstrap engineering born out of desperation during a terrible drought in an impoverished area.

Walter Isaacson:

But Kamkwamba isn’t alone. All across the developing world, inspired trailblazers are finding innovative ways to use technology new and old. In the age-old struggle against poverty their ingenuity just might give them an edge. I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast by Dell Technologies.

Speaker 3:

Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity.

Speaker 3:

One third of all rural families are left behind in an age of technology and industrial progress.

Speaker 3:

[inaudible 00:03:09] crowded, dark little house, they move to a fine new home.

Speaker 3:

Some communities are seeking ways to help the farmers and keep them on the land.

Speaker 3:

Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.

Walter Isaacson:

More than one billion people today live in what’s called multi-dimensional poverty. That’s an index that looks not just at income, but it health, education and living conditions. It’s a startling statistic. If you look at income alone, nearly 700 million people around the world are considered to be living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day.

Walter Isaacson:

Over the past few decades, there’s been significant progress improving the conditions of the world’s most impoverished populations, and the devastating economic consequences of the COVID pandemic are threatening to undo some of that progress. But there is still hope.

Walter Isaacson:

All over the world, people like William Kamkwamba are innovating in remarkable ways in the fields of agriculture, housing and even finance. But to understand this struggle, it’s useful to understand where the concept of poverty comes from and the role that science and technology has played in helping lift people out of it. And for that, you have to go back to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that began in Europe in the 17th century and led to the Scientific Revolution.

Sir Angus Deaton:

The Enlightenment, this force whereby people began to think they could make their lives better by themselves or by using the force of reason or by talking to each other and reasoning things out, instead of blindly following the church or following the king.

Walter Isaacson:

Sir Angus Deaton is a Nobel prize-winning economist and the author of The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.

Sir Angus Deaton:

That eventually spread into scientific endeavor. It spread into technology and it spread into inventions. Eventually, you can think of this as starting the Industrial Revolution, or indeed starting health revolutions.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s impossible to separate health from poverty. Longer lifespans, the eradication of devastating diseases and lower rates of infant mortality were key to bringing populations around world out of poverty. And so was technology. The machine-powered Industrial Revolution caused European economies to boom, although the trickle-down benefits to workers who powered it took decades.

Sir Angus Deaton:

At first, I don’t think the Industrial Revolution did very much to improve people’s lot. In fact, many of them, it probably made them worse because the hand weavers that used to sit at home in the countryside now moved to places like Manchester to go to the factories. During that period, it appears that, as far as we can tell, that the capitalists, the manufacturers and so on, really did very well indeed. It was only about 1850 that real wages began to rise, and it’s only after 1850 that you begin to see that modern improvement in life expectancy begin to start.

Walter Isaacson:

And thus began what economists call the Great Divergence. Before the Industrial Revolution, poverty was pretty much equalized across the board. You had huge disparities in wealth within countries, but between them they were more or less the same.

Sir Angus Deaton:

Way back when, there wasn’t a huge difference between countries. There would have been rich people in poor countries, some completely destitute people, but not huge differences across countries. Wages were not very dissimilar in Jakarta from what they were in Antwerp or what they were in London.

Sir Angus Deaton:

But after the Industrial Revolution, which sort of started in Britain and then spread through Northwest Europe and then eventually to America, you get these countries one after another sort of following along and getting rich. The Great Divergence refers to the fact that some countries are just coming away from the herd and moving out into a much more prosperous and better place.

Walter Isaacson:

And that has been the story of poverty ever since, even as the 20th and 21st centuries have seen enormous progress lifting people out of poverty.

Sir Angus Deaton:

If you were to take the narrow definition of material poverty, which is the World Bank’s definition of a dollar a day or now $1.90 a day per person, then since 1980 there’s been this amazing reduction in not only number of people, but the fractions of people living below that line. Something like two billion people have moved away from this abject destitution to something much better.

Walter Isaacson:

And while science has been a driving force, Sir Angus warns that it’s a fallacy to think that developed countries can just swoop in with their technology and fix local poverty issues in developing nations.

Sir Angus Deaton:

The idea that you can come from outside with your gadgets, and that there’s a technocratic solution to these things… The technocratic illusion, the idea that you can just move in and use technology, the Soviets tried that and that didn’t work out very well, either.

Walter Isaacson:

But what if those solutions came from people like William Kamkwamba who are living in the developing world? Kamkwamba’s first scrap-powered wind turbine was just the start for him. He used this breakthrough to teach other communities in Malawi how to build their own turbines.

William Kamkwamba:

It has such great impact to other communities around Malawi. Some are building their own windmill to generate power, but also the mindset of a lot of young people in Malawi has changed now. Instead of doubting themself that they can’t do anything to uplift their lives or to change their situation, they are saying that, “If William was able to build the windmill that improved his life, we can also do the same thing.”

Walter Isaacson:

Kamkwamba’s windmill project has not just resonated with people in Malawi. It’s also inspired people around the world. His TED Talk has nearly 3 million views. He’s appeared on The Daily Show, and his New York Times bestselling memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is now a movie.

Walter Isaacson:

But Kamkwamba hasn’t been content to just rest on his laurels. He’s currently raising funds for what he calls the Innovation Center, where young Malawians with innovative ideas can workshop and prototype their designs.

William Kamkwamba:

At the Innovation Center, we will have all the machine shop that they’re going to be able to use [inaudible 00:11:02] their design. They’re going to be designing tools for agriculture.

William Kamkwamba:

Because Malawi, it’s a agricultural country. Almost 80% of the population are farmers. But each and every year, we still struggle to feed our population because our farming technique, it’s not very efficient and also not very exciting to young people. But we want to inspire them by designing and coming up with ideas that they can actually change the farming system.

Walter Isaacson:

The result, he hopes, will be homegrown solutions to local problems devised by people who have lived with these particular issues.

William Kamkwamba:

If it’s just… You are just coming in from outside completely imposing a solution, sometimes those solutions don’t work quite well. But if you work together with the community, the people that you are trying to solve the problem with, you can even come up with great ideas. Because the owners of the problem, they might actually know what they could do in that type of situation. I feel that’s very important thing to do.

Walter Isaacson:

A 2016 study found that 65% of impoverished adults worked in agriculture. In Malawian and elsewhere, agriculture is one area in particular where new solutions to old problems can be a matter of life or death. For some, these solutions are being adapted to the one piece of technology most people have access to: their phones.

Walter Isaacson:

In 2018, maize fields in India hosted a very unwelcome guest, the fall armyworm. The fall armyworm is a tiny caterpillar, but it has an enormous appetite. First appearing in South America, it ate its way across the world until it reached India. But luckily, farmers there weren’t completely unprepared. In Hyderabad, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT, is working on a suite of innovative tools for smallholder farmers in India and across the world dealing with problems like the fall armyworm.

Ram Dhulipala:

These smallholder farmers have traditionally been challenged in terms of access to knowledge, access to information or access to good quality imports and access to markets where they can profitably sell the output that they’re growing.

Walter Isaacson:

Ram Dhulipala is a team leader in digital agriculture at ICRISAT. His program looks at how emerging digital technologies can help smallholder farmers access information and cope with invasive pests and climate change.

Walter Isaacson:

One of their most successful initiatives is their Plantix app. Plantix helps farmers deal with crop diseases and infestations that can wreak havoc and destroy entire harvests.

Ram Dhulipala:

Smallholder farmers can download this app for free on their Android mobile phones. They can open the app and take the picture of a plant or a leaf that looks a little out of shape or a little diseased, so to say. Now, once the picture is [inaudible 00:14:34] through the app, the app uses deep neural networks in the backend and in a span of about five to 10 seconds, gives back a message to the farmers identifying the exact pest or a disease, or even sometimes a nutrient deficiency that particular plant is experiencing.

Walter Isaacson:

Once the app identifies of disease or pest invading a crop, it suggests different measures that the farmer can take to eradicate the problem. These recommendations include pesticides and chemicals sprays, as well as organic methods for controlling a particular disease. Plantix is now able identify more than 500 plant ailments. It’s available in eight Indian languages, and it’s been downloaded by 10 million people around the world. In 2019, it was the most downloaded agricultural app on the Google Play Store.

Walter Isaacson:

And the data the app provides is a two-way street. In addition to helping farmers combat the fall armyworm during the 2018 infestation, it was able to provide a two-way channel back to local governments who were in desperate need of detailed information about its spread.

Ram Dhulipala:

So what was happening is as [inaudible 00:15:55] farmers across India were using the mobile app to detect fall armyworm in their particular fields, the servers that were running the Plantix app actually sourcing the exact location and the exact time, which I think was incredibly informative and useful for policy makers who really wanted to understand the prevalence and the speed at which this particular fall armyworm was progressing in India.

Walter Isaacson:

As the Plantix app has shown, farmers and other laborers across the developing world are increasingly relying on their mobile phones to connect themselves to a rapidly digitizing world. In some areas, they become a catchall for all kinds of services, ranging from banking to shopping to healthcare. But that raises all sorts of complications. Luckily, some companies are on the ground to fill the gaps.

Ken Njoroge:

The payments landscape in Africa is fragmented.

Walter Isaacson:

Ken Njoroge is the co-founder and CEO of a Kenya-based company Cellulant, one of Africa’s leading financial technology companies. With their mobile payment platform, Tingg, Cellulant provides a critical access point to financial sector services for millions of Africans across the continent. Nearly two thirds of the continent’s population, about 800 million people, do not have a bank account. Traditional banking systems are difficult to access, and the payment infrastructure across the continent is extremely fragmented. This financial exclusion has a measurable impact on people’s lives.

Ken Njoroge:

That fragmentation was impacting people’s lives negatively because there was just no access. Without payments, you can’t pay for an airline ticket to go across borders. You’ve got to go out and spend two hours, three hours queuing at a bank to make a payment for a utility bill.

Walter Isaacson:

Tingg is a largely app-based solution to the problem of banking in an economically fragmented continent. Using just their phones, users can send money, pay bills and even get loans without having a bank account. A virtual credit card service makes online shopping accessible to users who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for a physical card.

Walter Isaacson:

And Cellulant makes it easy for merchants and software developers to hook into their network. There are even physical kiosks in some areas where people with phones but no internet access can take advantage of their services.

Ken Njoroge:

By basically providing a payments platform, not only do we provide access to services that people didn’t have access to before, but save a lot of time, money and a lot of pain in just the user experience for making payments for everyday services and everyday utilities.

Walter Isaacson:

Tingg has also brought transaction costs down significantly. It used to cost between five to $10 to pay a utility bill in Kenya, but Cellulant has reduced that to a dollar or two. That’s a huge difference to workers living on a couple of dollars a day.

Walter Isaacson:

Gaining access to financial systems in developing countries is critical to their economic growth, but connecting millions of Africans across 120 banks wasn’t an easy task. It was a job that could only be done with a local perspective.

Ken Njoroge:

Their level of fragmentation across borders and regulatory fragmentation and so on requires intricate building, country-by-country hand-to-hand combat. It just presented an opportunity for us as an ambitious local company that has very strong context of the problem that would do this.

Walter Isaacson:

Cellulant is generating a lot of international recognition for its contribution to the financial tech sector in Africa. In fact, in 2018 KPMG listed Cellulant on its prestigious Fintech100 list.

Ken Njoroge:

It’s basically we are building the railway that will power Africa’s digital economy. And to a large extent, Africa’s really done well and leapfrogged a lot of other societies. Because we don’t have any legacy infrastructure. We have to build it from scratch, and mobile is one of them.

Walter Isaacson:

But a mobile-first perspective only works if the population can actually get online. That’s not a given everywhere in the world, and that’s where companies like BRCK, another Kenya-based company, comes in. It’s a company that started out with a question.

Nivi Sharma:

Why do we keep using technology built for Los Angeles and Tokyo when we don’t live in those places, when we live in Nairobi and New Delhi? Why don’t we just sit around and look at the reality of what’s going on around us and design solutions for ourselves?

Walter Isaacson:

Nivi Sharma is the chief operations officer of BRCK. BRCK develops solutions to the problem of internet access in the developing world with the developing world in mind. It starts with custom-made hardware.

Nivi Sharma:

BRCK started as this company that said, “What if we took an internet router and gave it some batteries so it would work where power is intermittent? And what if we put content storage backup on it as well so it would work even where connectivity is intermittent? How would that be more appropriate for African infrastructure realities?”

Walter Isaacson:

BRCK wireless routers are built to be rugged, to resist dust, humidity and water infiltration in hot, rainy and tropical climates. The idea is to provide internet access and the quality of life improvements that can bring to anyone, no matter what the setting.

Walter Isaacson:

BRCK puts its routers where its users are likely to be. That meant installing them in buses, cafes, barbershops and markets. Users logged on with their phones and do some sort of digital work, whether it’s taking a survey or watching an ad, in order to underwrite the costs of access. They’ve got nearly a million users in Kenya and Rwanda, and they’re expanding into Central and Southern Africa. They’ve already seen the impact that increased internet access is having on the lives of their users.

Nivi Sharma:

Mother is saying, “Well, I figured out my son has asthma and these are the things that I’ve learned from the internet to help him,” or farmers who were saying, “Well, these pests have been eating my crops. I googled and I joined forums and I talked to other farmers. And now, I’m using some natural pesticides to help me do that.” We really see this across sectors. We see women selling clothes who now know how to use social media to market their stuff.

Nivi Sharma:

When we couple digital access with the digital literacy, this will be the next big African leapfrog. Africa will use the internet meaningfully to connect ideas and thoughts and businesses and people for a greater good.

Walter Isaacson:

Connecting people in the developing world to the internet is a crucial step in the fight against poverty. But on a fundamental level, there’s one thing that nearly 1.6 billion people around the world still don’t have: access to adequate housing.

Walter Isaacson:

If you watch the video on New Story’s YouTube channel without any explanation of what you were seeing, you might have a hard time figuring out exactly what was going on. In a sunny community in Mexico, a large mechanical device moves back and forth as it extrudes coils of sticky-looking gray paste from a round nozzle about the size of a baseball. But as the video progresses, what the machine is doing comes slowly into focus. Little by little, coil by coil, it’s printing a home.

Alexandria Lafci:

New Story began when my co-founders and I became aware that there were over a hundred thousand people who lost their home in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Walter Isaacson:

Alexandria Lafci is the co-founder and COO at New Story. New Story is a nonprofit that’s looking to provide innovative solutions to the global homelessness problem.

Alexandria Lafci:

There were so many families that were in dire need of housing. They had flooding, mud floors. People were getting sick from the oppressive heat that the plastic tarps trapped in. We started by simply building a few homes, knowing that if we were going to grow New Story, we wanted to study other nonprofits and do things differently.

Walter Isaacson:

That includes, yes, building 3D-printed homes. New Story’s technology, developed with the Austin-based construction technology company ICON, can print a 500-square-foot, two-bedroom dwelling in less than 24 hours. That paste coming out of the machine’s nozzle is a cement blend they call Lavacrete. It’s lightweight and strong, and their homes can hold up against seismic activity. And more than that, the process is extremely versatile.

Alexandria Lafci:

3D printing has a ton of promise in addressing speed in construction. Part of the beauty of 3D printing is that it is on-site. When we were researching 3D printing as compared, for example, to prefab and modular offsite construction, getting, let’s say, pre-fab panels to remote areas, mountainous areas, rural areas, getting it into crowded urban settings… You can bring this 3D printer on a large truck, bring it onsite and it can kind of go and print an entire street.

Walter Isaacson:

While New Story is based in the US, they pride themselves on local partnerships, be they in Haiti, El Salvador, Mexico or elsewhere. They believe that imposing solutions unilaterally from the outside can do more harm than good.

Alexandria Lafci:

We allow them to really teach us how to most effectively learn from the populations that we’re serving. Something that we also do, that I’m incredibly proud of, is we have a very in-depth participatory design process for each and every community that we build. We work with our local non-profit partners and then we bring our families, our future homeowners, into the process. They sit with us, sometimes for days at a time. We have these sessions where we’ll have construction paper and pipe cleaners and we are truly designing the look and feel of the community that’s going to work best for them.

Walter Isaacson:

Like any major problem in the developing world, homelessness will not be solved with any single app or printing process. We can’t rely on technology to solve all the problems of poverty, but it can be a powerful tool.

Walter Isaacson:

One recent study showed that 98.7% of people in developing countries have access to a mobile phone. That means more people have access to mobile phones than they do to electricity or even clean water. Solutions that take advantage of technology while also keeping an all-important local perspective could point to a way forward. Whether it’s helping farmers fight infestations or giving people access to financial systems that were previously out of reach, the disruptions of the 21st century has the potential to change billions of lives for the better. But to do that, we have to let the people whose lives will be affected the most lead the way.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson. You’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of the guests on today’s show, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.