Invention Notebook
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Invention Notebook

Engineering for Impact

Five Invention-Based Businesses Addressing Development Challenges with Hardware-Led Solutions

From COVID to climate change, the world has recently witnessed mounting global challenges that have hindered progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In particular, this year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference have shown the depth and complexity of problems the global community faces.

But we’ve also seen how local innovation and entrepreneurship has agilely responded to these challenges — addressing new threats while also solving development problems both large and small in low-and-middle income countries (LMICs).

Business innovation models that address the SDGs primarily take three different forms: software solutions, improved business processes, and hardware-led products.

Low-cost, low-tech devices created by Invention-Based Enterprises (IBEs) represent some of the best solutions to immediate problems faced by communities on the ground. While IBEs often bring their own set of needs — such as more resources required to support extensive research and development, mentorship, and incubation to help develop products from concept to market — they also have unique benefits and impact.

IBEs unleash local talent, create sustainable economic value and opportunity, and target the distinct requirements of the customers and communities they seek to serve. The technology is designed to be built and operated in localized markets, contending with conditions such as heat, dust, and unreliable power.

Since 2015, the ASME Innovation Showcase (ISHOW) has been an accelerator for promising invention-based companies working to address development challenges — from health and nutrition to sustainable energy to water and sanitation to agriculture and food — while also mitigating harmful effects to the environment and climate.

Each year the program culminates in regional competitions held in India, Kenya, and the U.S. that allow social impact entrepreneurs to compete for seed grant funding, as well as tap into a network of specialized support services. To date, ISHOW has cultivated more than 180 startups from more than 30 countries.

Below are updates on five recent ISHOW winners who are tackling issues such as sustainable heating and irrigation, raising livestock, and ensuring access to clean water, and bringing their inventions to market to improve lives at scale.

Himalayan Rocket Stove designed by Russell Collins and Nitisha Agrawal

Himalayan Rocket Stove (ISHOW 2019 India Winner)

In the mountainous Himalayan region of Northern India and neighboring countries, traditional bukhari stoves are a ubiquitous part of rural households — a simple metal box that burns wood or other fuel, venting smoke outside through a flue pipe. It performs double duty for families, not only providing heat but also the energy source for cooking.

Unfortunately there are a number of negative impacts that arise from its conventional design. The smoke that’s emitted is a significant contributor to air pollution and a cause for health problems within communities. The stove’s relative inefficiency increases the demand for fuel, requiring significant labor for wood collection. And the cost of fuel is a drain on financial resources as well as a contributor to deforestation through black market logging to meet the demand.

To address these issues, Russell Collins and Nitisha Agrawal created the Himalayan Rocket Stove, adapting innovative stove technology to the unique cultural context of Himalayan communities. Rocket stoves use a dual combustion chamber to burn fuel as well as the smoke emissions that are produced, resulting in a more efficient and cleaner stove that also provides more radiant heat. Himalayan Rocket Stoves use 50 percent less wood, and eliminate 90 percent of harmful smoke emissions. And importantly, they were created to approximate the look and feel of existing Himalayan stoves, including its important cooking function.

Read a recent Q&A with Collins and Agrawal here.

Passive Irrigation Controller (PICS) created by Rashmi Sathar and Austin Mclean

Corridor Water (ISHOW 2020 USA Winner)

Water scarcity is an endemic problem for developing economies, particularly as climate change exacerbates droughts in many parts of the world, affecting agricultural yields and contributing to hunger. Traditional irrigation practices — like drop or flood irrigation — can be inefficient or too reliant on abundant water sources.

Rashmi Sathar and Austin Mclean created Corridor Water Technologies to develop irrigation devices to serve small-holder farmers in low-income countries. Their passive irrigation controller (PICS) uses natural soil pressure to help determine when water is needed. As soil dries, it creates suction that can operate a water valve, triggered by a pre-set value chosen by the user to only water when necessary.

The controller has no moving parts and doesn’t use electricity, is easy to assemble and maintain, and is built out of low-cost materials that can be sourced locally. Sathar and Mclean designed it to integrate into the existing infrastructure of irrigation systems, and to help small-holder farmers reduce labor while expanding on the volume and variety of their agricultural output to both feed their own families and generate more income.

MaziwaPlus Pre-Chiller developed by Percy Lemtukei and Emmastella Gakuo

MaziwaPlus Pre-Chiller (ISHOW 2019 Kenya Winner)

In many LMICs, dairy farmers face the challenge of getting their product to market before it spoils. Inefficient delivery systems and the lack of affordable cooling infrastructure can lead to large economic losses for small farms and dairy cooperatives alike.

In Kenya, Percy Lemtukei and Emmastella Gakuo of Savanna Circuit Technologies created the MaziwaPlus Pre-Chiller to help ensure high-quality milk makes it to the last mile. Their device is a solar-powered chilling system that can be attached to different modes of transportation, preserving the milk while it’s transported across long distances and rural countryside.

Their system also includes an online app that provides real-time distribution data from collection points, increasing both delivery efficiency and profits. In 2019, the product served more than 800 households in Kenya, and increased their revenues by 32 percent.

Smart Brooder developed by George Chege

Smart Brooder (ISHOW 2018 Kenya Winner)

Poultry farming is a major source of income and livelihood for small-holder farmers across the world. The brooding stage — the first few weeks before chicks have grown feathers or developed their own heat regulatory systems — is one of the most difficult and stressful periods for poultry farmers. Without the right amount of heat, the chicks can become sick and die.

In sub-Saharan Africa, farmers traditionally rely on inefficient charcoal heaters that need to be adjusted day and night to create optimal brooding conditions. George Chege created the Smart Brooder through his startup Arinfu in Kenya to help remove the guessing and stressing for farmers. His company Arinifu Tech builds an environmental control device with temperature sensors for real-time monitoring, automatically regulating infrared heat or gas burners in the brooding space. The heat source is more efficient and better for the environment, and has recorded a nearly 98 percent success rate. In addition, the Smart Brooder can be connected to farmers’ cell phones to send them SMS alerts on conditions in their Brooder and even send prompts like vaccination reminders.

Read a recent Q&A with Chege here.

Aquadapt developed by Dylan Terrell and Caminos de Agua

Aguadapt (ISHOW USA 2019)

Access to clean water affects communities throughout the world. While low-cost water filters can remove biological pathogens, they are not designed to remove harmful chemicals. Communities face other contaminants such as arsenic, fluoride, or agricultural chemicals that are linked to cancers and learning and development disabilities.

Aguadapt was created by Dylan Terrell and Caminos de Agua in Mexico as a ceramic water filter to address water safety. It removes sediment and pathogens, but also the difficult-to-remove chemicals that are dissolved in the water. It uses local materials such as clay and sawdust, and can be installed in any container. Its low-cost design relies solely on gravity for filtration, with no electronic parts.

According to Caminos de Agua’s Director of Technology Allie Reiling, Aguadapt can last for up to four years, but it uses a universal design so that standard plumbing parts can serve as replacement parts. And it can easily be adapted for additional treatment steps relevant to local water quality challenges.

Read a recent Q&A with Reiling here.

Note to Readers: Those interested in learning more about opportunities to advance the role of engineering in social innovation and sustainable development can register for Impact.Engineered, a free, virtual event on Thursday, December 2 (11am-1pm EST), sponsored by ASME and Engineering for Change. The event will feature speakers and networking opportunities with a global network of engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, investors, academics, and disruptors committed to social impact.

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