Amazing Gadgets for the Poor

Amazing Gadgets for the Poor

Imagine that you live in a poor country, without money for a pair of glasses or access to an optometrist, and you're not seeing as well as you once did.

This product, a pair of self-adjusting eyeglasses, could change your life.

Or imagine that you are one of the 1.1 billion people on earth without access to clean, safe drinking water. Your child is in danger of contracting water-borne diseases, which kills 1.8 million a year. What would you give for this portable, water-filtration device, called LifeStraw?


Maybe you are one of the 1.6 billion people without regular access to electricity. Your children study at night using a kerosene lantern, but the fuel is expensive and dirty. A solar-powered lantern would be a dramatic improvement. 


These breakthrough products, all of them invented in the last 5 o 10 years, are examples of what can be done when technology is designed for the poor. You've probably heard about One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the low-cost connected computer developed by Nicholas Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab, but it's just one of dozens of high-tech, high-impact products aimed at helping to spur global economic development. The trouble is, even though many of the products are low-cost -- the LifeStraw, for example, sells for about $6.50 -- they aren't available to many who need them.

That's where a nonprofit called Kopernik comes in. Kopernik connects innovative technologies, poor communities and people who want to help.

A startup, Kopernik is the brainchild of Ewa Wojkowska and Toshihiro Nakamura, who'd worked for the last decade or so with the World Bank, the UN and local nonprofits in East Timor, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Ewa, 34, who grew up in Australia, and Toshi, 35, who is from Japan, saw the innovation going on in the private sector, particularly in the U.S., but didn't see as much fresh thinking among the old-line aid organizations.

"We became bothered by the lack of innovation and new ideas in solving development challenges," Ewa told me, when we spoke by phone. "It was the same people and the same projects being tried from place to place."Ewa Wojkowska

{related_content}Why weren't products like getting to markets? Two reasons, Ewa and Toshi learned. The first was distribution. Inventors or producers "had connections in one country, and they found it difficult to go beyond that," Ewa said. The other problem was cost. "Even though they were designed for the poor, the price was too high for the people who needed them," she said.

The Kopernik platform is designed to connect the tech companies or nonprofits that make the products, groups in the developing world that need them and donors. NGOs in poor countries submit proposals that are vetted by Kopernik, then posted to the website so donors can choose which one to support.

So, for example, can help provide rural Ugandans with computer skills training using low-cost virtual desktop computers from a company called NComputing. Or they can ease the burden of carrying water for women in East Timor by supplying them with a Q-drum, or rollable water container.

If all goes well, Kopernik should be a boon to inventors like Piet Hendrikse, a South African who invented the Q-drum, and Josh Silver, an Oxford professor, atomic physicist and director of the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, who developed the first fluid-filled adjustable eyeglasses. (Here's a blog post from Gizmodo explaining how they work.)

The idea of connecting people in rich countries with those in need in the global south comes from Kiva, a microfinance site which has facilitated more than $124 million in small loans since its beginnings in 2005, and Global Giving, which connects donors to causes, countries and NGOs that they care about. (Global Giving was started by World Bank alums Mari Kuraishi and Dennis Whittle, who are acquaintances of mine; it has given away about $27 million since 2002 and is well worth a look.)

"We're huge fans of Kiva and Global Giving," says Kopernik's Ewa Wojkowska. "We've learned a lot from them."

Kopernik will fund itself by charging donors and technology providers a 5 percent commission, as explained here. Ewa and Toshi live in New York, and they  expect to have an office in Indonesia as well. The startup is still very new -- it launched February 19, the date on which Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473. (My birthday, too, so I couldn't resist writing about Kopernik!)

"Copernicus changed the way that people see the world around them," Ewa said. "In our own way, we at Kopernik (Copernicus' Polish name) want to help change the way people think about development and see the world today."

Here's a video, with bouncy music, showing Eva distributing the self-adjusting glasses to a clinic in Manado, Indonesia. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.