Sustainable solutions at the bottom of the pyramid

Sustainable solutions at the bottom of the pyramid


What do pedal-powered recycling, crop-protection and suitcases with solar power have in common? They are all innovative approaches to combatting climate threats.

One of the most serious findings in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report is that climate change can be measured on every continent of our planet. The challenge is no longer just to protect future generations. We must now work to protect our communities and ourselves.

To do so, we need a wide range of solutions to address the breadth of challenges we’re facing. We need new ways of lowering emissions, reusing natural resources, bypassing fossil fuels with renewables, protecting our crops from drought and our communities from flooding.

In doing so, we need to come to terms with a crucial fact: Climate change ignores borders and income levels. Our solutions must do the same. The assumption has been the poor have no purchasing power and therefore do not represent a viable market. But as sustainable development has taken a greater interest in developing countries and their growth opportunities, innovative forces are now taking a closer look at how to apply solutions to all segments of the market. Sustainable development doesn’t end with the innovation; it also must include widespread deployment.

Among this year’s nominated solutions for the Sustainia Award honoring outstanding performance within sustainability, we’ve seen several examples that have managed to deploy sustainability projects to low-income areas in developing countries with a profitable business model.

Pedal-powered recycling in Nigeria

Winners of the 2014 Sustania Award, the Wecyclers initiative is fueling social and environmental change by enabling people in low-income communities to make money of the unmanaged waste piling up in their streets. This is first and foremost a response to the local waste crisis, where overburdened municipal governments collect only 40 percent of city garbage and recycle only 13 percent.

The Wecyclers initiative has deployed a fleet of cargo bicycles to pick up, collect and recycle garbage in low-income neighborhoods. Families are encouraged to recycle their bottles, cans and plastics through an SMS-based program. For every kilogram of material recycled, the family receives Wecyclers points on its cell phone. Families can redeem these points for cell phone minutes, basic food items or household goods. The SMS program also sends collection reminders and gives instant rewards for participation. Finally, the initiative adds to the economy by hiring local personnel to collect garbage.

Here we are seeing how a solution is creating the infrastructure for a dawning return system with rewards on both the donator and receiver end.

Nurturing fertile crops in developing countries

Israeli-based company Netafim is behind a low-tech drip solution for smallholder farmers in primarily developing countries. This innovation increases and secures yields while saving on water and cutting costs. The irrigation system drips precise quantities of water and nutrients right at the root zone of crops. An elevated tank distributes the water using gravity only. The big win for farmers is that the simple and effective system minimizes the need for electricity and investments in infrastructure. The U.N. estimates that 500 million smallholder farmers provide over 80 percent of the food consumed in the developing world. With rising drought issues, irrigation systems are vital to sustain agriculture as it addresses water scarcity and soil erosion. The solution is commercially viable with a payback time of about a year, making it fit for microfinance projects. Today, Netafim is deployed in 11 countries including Mexico, Kenya and China.

Solar suitcases giving life to Africa

Preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth claim 800 lives daily, and 99 percent of the deaths happen in developing countries. U.S. initiative We Care Solar has created a sustainable solution to the issue. The Solar Suitcase provides enough solar electricity for medical lighting, mobile communication and essential medical devices for rural areas and humanitarian settings. This enables safe and timely obstetric care, which ultimately improves maternal and neonatal outcomes. Additionally, the innovation allows emergency surgeries to be conducted around-the-clock in rural hospitals. The Solar Suitcase already has been introduced in more than 600 healthcare facilities in 20 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Currently, they light up skilled care for over 247,000 childbearing mothers each year.

According to We Care Solar’s own estimations, a Solar Suitcase provides significant cost savings for a health care facility by offsetting the costs of purchasing lantern batteries, kerosene lanterns and generator fuel.

These three cases don’t stand alone. An inspiring development is taking place where private initiatives are finding new ways to grow business models that can empower communities with healthier and wealthier alternatives. This not only helps the innovators or struggling communities; it also helps developing countries to leapfrog development and start enjoying the benefits of sustainable alternatives. These three inspiring stories are also a reminder that sustainable development is not successful unless it addresses all levels of the markets.