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Taking a practical approach to technology transfer



Steven Hunt, International Projects Manager for Practical Action Consulting and the PISCES consortium, believes in adapting technologies to individual needs of developing countries.

Formerly known as the Intermediate Technology Development Group, Practical Action Consulting has been facilitating technology transfer to developing countries for 40 years. The Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security (PISCES) research consortium, of which Practical Action is a member, is a five-year initiative funded by the UK Department for International Development that contributes to innovation and providing policy-relevant knowledge in the energy sector – leading to better practices and impacts in developing countries. PISCES co-operates with Kenyan, Indian, Sri Lankan and Tanzanian authorities to provide information and expertise on bioenergy to supply energy access for poor communities.

What does Practical Action Consulting do?

Practical Action works in the field of international development, with a particular focus on technology. We have 600 staff, spread across Latin America, East and Southern Africa, and South Asia. The organisation co-operates with projects related to agriculture and food processing, natural disaster and risk reduction, market development, and water and sanitation, as well as energy and waste management. We work with international donors, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private companies.

Why should technologies be adapted to the needs of a particular country?

You have to understand who your market is, what they can afford, what they like to use and what they aspire to use. The conditions in every area are simply not the same. For example, in somewhere like Mali only 10% of the population have access to electricity, and 95% of people use solid fuels to cook. Factors like that dictate what kind of technologies will be suitable in a particular country. Adaptation is important because people and locations are different. And when you consider technology is more than just a bit of ‘kit’, that fact becomes all the more evident.

Solar-powered mobile phones can help people living without electricity. Have you come cross any other technologies specifically aimed at this market?

There have been quite a few different water-purification devices that have been successful. The British Red Button Design group convinced investors to back its reverse-osmosis sanitation system; that shows people are willing to invest in this area.

Developers are also working in the area of cooking. Swedish company Domestic is working with Project Gaia in Ethiopia on the production of a bioethanol stove.

Solar lanterns are another good development. The Lighting Africa initiative is doing a lot of good work in this area, and there are interesting new products such as stand-alone solar lanterns that can also charge a mobile phone.

Are there any areas that you think technology isn’t addressing?

Cooking is still pretty underdeveloped. Some 80% of foods have to be cooked, with every single person in Africa or Latin America cooking food at least once a day. There are initiatives on efficient stoves and alternative fuels, but I think it’s an area that still needs to be looked at.

Off-grid power still doesn’t get the attention that it should, in comparison with solar power. For me, small-scale hydro or micro-hydro is under exploited. Work has been done in this area, but there’s still much to do. It’s a good quality clean power source, so I think it deserves more attention.

What are the barriers to technology transfer?

Part of it is the idea that technology is just a bit of equipment. There’s so much more to technology than that. Ultimately the product needs to become part of a business system. Suppliers, maintenance workers and after-sales follow-up have to accompany the introduction of a particular technology.

There’s a lot to be said for involving NGOs in the process. Their experience can help technology developers understand a market, and they can act as intermediaries. We’re starting to see examples of that – such as the Gaia and Domestic project in Ethiopia.

What successful examples of technology transfer have you encountered?

Micro-hydro systems generating less than 100 kW have been a real success. Typically a 6-kW system – enough to drive an electric mill and provide light for a community of 500 – costs €5 350. Practical Action has installed 50 micro-hydro systems in the Peruvian Andes, bringing electricity to many communities for the first time. Communities previously prone to economic migration are now thriving. Apart for the financial benefits, local clinics now have refrigerators to store vaccines, and schools have Internet access. The overall success of Practical Action’s work has prompted the Peruvian government to double the number of micro-hydro schemes in the region.