Keeping coastal mangrove forests intact or replanting them is cheaper than building man-made structures to protect coastlines threatened by climate change, according to the head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Our message is, ‘Don’t assume that man-made or engineered solutions are the only ones to protect our coasts and rivers and to provide drinking water. We are not against engineering in the absence of natural solutions, but look at what nature has to offer,’ ” urged Julia Marton-Lefevre at the recent World Conservation Congress in South Korea.
Preserving mangrove forests can help regulate rainfall patterns, reduce the risk of disasters from extreme weather and sea-level rise, provide breeding grounds for fish, and capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to slow climate change, she said. That suggests preserving them will be essential to fighting climate change and protecting lives and livelihoods in the face of climate shifts already under way.
IN PICTURES: Sustaining the environment
“Standing trees help us with inevitable climate change,” she said. “Keeping mangroves intact on the coast is not only good for capturing and storing carbon but also very useful for protecting the coast in times of extreme weather conditions and acting like nurseries for fish to ensure people have protein to eat,” she said.
Ms. Marton-Lefevre said the financial benefits of maintaining mangrove forests outweigh those of, for instance, cutting mangroves to build coastal hotels, particularly when their effect on disaster risk is taken into account.
And “it is the same for trees standing rather than being cut down [in terms of] protecting against landslides,” she said.
“Ecosystems, including mangroves, play a role in mitigation and adaptation. You have to respect the forests, wetlands, peatlands, and oceans in capturing and storing carbon. Once you respect that, then maybe there would be an impetus to take care of [them] better,” she said, during an interview with AlertNet.
“Standing forests also provide livelihoods for people,” she added. “You don’t have to cut the trees down to raise cattle. You could also grow food inside the forest canopy,” she said.
Part of what is driving cutting of mangroves and other forests, experts at the conference said, is a lack of alternatives to fuel wood.
In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, for instance, the juniper forests of Ziarat are being cut because residents have no other way of getting fuel. But pilot projects to provide alternative energy sources, including solar lighting, are helping make a difference, experts said.
IN PICTURES: Sustaining the environment
Pakistan’s mangrove forests, similarly, have been reduced from 600,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) to 86,000 hectares (190,000 acres) over the last 50 years, according to a documentary film shown at the conference.
But an IUCN-backed effort to ensure “mangroves for the future” has so far overseen replanting of 30,000 hectares (66,000 acres) of mangroves, said Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, manager of IUCN’s program office in Islamabad, Pakistan.
• Johann Earle is a Guyana-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.
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Since April, the Nature Conservancy has secured more than $16 million with the Conservation Note, a new investment program that will return an interest rate of up to 2 percent to the charity’s supporters.
Under the arrangement, supporters who provide at least $25,000 to the Nature Conservancy to invest for a term of one, three, or five years will earn 0 to 2 percent in interest and get all their money back.
The Conservation Note has been given a double-A rating by Moody’s.
The Nature Conservancy will use the money from supporters to help it shoulder the costs involved in transferring a protected piece of land.
For instance, the Nature Conservancy recently purchased a Colorado ranch on sensitive land and obtained a conservation easement that prohibits the land from being developed, thereby lowering its value. The lower price made it possible for five families with adjacent ranches each to buy a portion of the property back from the Nature Conservancy. The buyers all agreed not to develop the land.
Money from the Conservation Notes helped the charity make up the costs involved in selling the land and getting the easement.
“What is so exciting is that it opens up a whole new avenue of supporting conservation with resources aside from philanthropy,” says Charlotte Kaiser, who manages the program.
Supporters do not receive tax breaks when they invest in a Conservation Note, but foundations can count their investment toward meeting the federal requirements that they pay out at least 5 percent of assets to charities every year.
Ms. Kaiser says that the sluggish economic recovery prompted the Conservation Note idea. Land values have declined, making it easier for the Nature Conservancy to buy real estate. But charitable donations are still hard to come by, so the charity sought another approach that would appeal to supporters.
Says Ms. Kaiser: “We saw a big opportunity.”
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Managing irrigation pumps and water systems is a difficult and costly task for many farmers in developing countries.
The amount of time and energy farmers spend watering their crops often compromises time that could otherwise be used for family and community obligations. It also compromises their safety at night, when they are most vulnerable to animal predators.
A new innovation from the India-based company Ossian Agro Automation, called Nano Ganesh, seeks to transform the way farmers manage their water systems by giving them the freedom to turn pumps on and off, from any location, with their mobile phone.
Santosh Ostwal, cofounder of Nano Ganesh, created mobile-based technology that gives farmers the flexibility to remotely switch water pumps on and off from any distance using cell phones or landlines. Ostwal, an electrical engineer by trade, had a personal connection to the plight of farmers. After observing the hardships his 82-year-old grandfather faced in tending his farm and monitoring the availability of electricity to operate water pumps, he began to construct a remote control that farmers could use within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of the farm.
He later modified the remote control by expanding its range to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). In 2008 Ostwal altered the technology so that it could function over an unlimited range granting farmers the flexibility to start and stop the flow of water from anywhere there is a mobile connection.
Nano Ganesh also allows farmers to check the availability of electricity to the pump and verify the on and off status of its operation. Both of these features offer cost-saving benefits to farmers who otherwise may not be able to shut their pumps off before their fields have become overly saturated.
This is important for two reasons. One is that overwatering can lead to soil erosion and nutrient depletion. The second reason is that the inability to remotely shut off water pumps leads to unintentional water and electricity waste.
With the help of Nano Ganesh farmers will be able to conserve water and electricity more effectively. This will minimize the environmental and financial costs of farming. In fact, the product description suggests that farmers can recover the cost of the technology in just 11 days from the water and electricity savings it will produce.
So far, Nano Ganesh has assisted 10,000 farmers in India, and it is now being used in Australia and Egypt. The innovation received international recognition from the Global Mobile Awards in 2010 and Nokia’s Calling All Innovators Contest in 2009. Nano Ganesh has also received acknowledgement from several institutions in India, including the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture.
• Sarah Alvarez is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project. To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE.
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Some 30 countries taking part in a convention in Oslo, Norway, this week, are being encouraged by activists and government officials to join a treaty banning the use of cluster munitions and help halt their harmful impact on civilians, the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) said.
More than 100 governments are at the summit in the Norwegian capital.
A total of 111 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was adopted in 2008 and entered into force in 2010, but superpowers Russia, China, and the United States are among those that have not, Laura Cheeseman, the director of the disarmament group CMC said.
The convention prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions. It also requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of the weapons, and victim assistance. Among the convention’s signatories, 75 countries are legally bound by its provisions, and ratification is under way in most of the remaining 36 countries.
"We’ve got half the world on board, but there are a number of countries that remain outside the ban,” Cheeseman told AlertNet from the conference. “There’s really no good reason for any of these countries not to come on board and to sign up to the convention.”
The weapons consist of small bomblets that open and explode across a wide area when they are launched from the ground or dropped from the air.
“These weapons harm civilians both at the time of use because of their wide area effect – but they also fail to go off on impact a lot of the time, so they lie on the ground deadly and active for years – sometimes for decades – after a conflict has ended,” Cheeseman said.
More than 17,000 cluster munition casualties were reported globally in 2011, according to the coalition, which is made up of more than 350 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The group estimated in a recent report that the true number of casualties might be between 20,000 and 54,000.
Civilians accounted for 94 percent of casualties. Of these, 83 percent were male and 40 percent were children, the report said.
Almost 745,000 cluster bombs containing almost 86 million bomblets have been destroyed since the convention came into force in 2010, the report said.
“What we want is for these countries to look into these reports of cluster munitions use and make sure they never use the weapon again,” she added. “We want them to work to join the convention.”
Also under discussion at the convention is how national legislation required by signatory countries that have yet to ratify the treaty could undermine its original intent.
Article 21 of the convention says that signatories may engage in joint military operations with governments who are not legally bound by the treaty.
The spotlight is on Australia and Canada, two countries setting out legislation that cites occasions when they might be able to take part to help in joint military operations where cluster munitions are being used, Cheeseman said.
The proposed Canadian legislation, which could be completed within six months, goes against the letter and the spirit of the law, Paul Hannon, the executive director of Mines Action Canada who also sits on the CMC advisory board, told AlertNet.
"Our view is that this is a great treaty, and it bans cluster munitions for all time, and that means no Canadian should ever be involved in use of cluster munitions for anyone, in any place, at any time, for any reason,” Hannon said from Oslo.
Campaigners were unsuccessful in their fight to change the Australian legislation, which was ratified in its parliament in August, but has not yet been passed into law.
“The Australian [CMC] campaign fought for two years to get the legislation changed, so the government knows there’s a huge stigma against not only the weapon, but on the possibility of the Australian government being involved in its use,” Hannon said.
“I’m hoping the Canadian government has been paying attention to that as well and is more open to making changes and amending our legislation," he added.
Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is battling to reform one of the world's most corrupt nations without support from the shadowy "godfathers" who wield power from behind the scenes.
But while Western nations and international agencies admire her drive from afar, they hold little sway in Nigeria. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala's ability to fight corrupt interests is constrained by her lack of support from wealthy figures such as ex-state governors, military officers, and ruling party hacks who use huge patronage – or sometimes violence – to drive politics back stage.
"Her only 'godfather' is the international community, and that doesn't cut it," said a senior adviser to the national assembly, who asked not to be named.
When she quit her Washington job and flew back home, Okonjo-Iweala knew her second stint as finance minister would be tough. She now admits it has been even tougher than she imagined.
"It was much harder. It has not been easy, and the struggle is still ongoing," she told Reuters in her office in Abuja, the capital, exhausted by a night negotiating with oil unions. "You make progress, then you get courage to make more ... Fighting corruption is something we need to keep working at."
Okonjo-Iweala has started to tame government expenditure and make limited reforms, but her room for maneuver is limited by her restricted access to state revenue, 80 percent of which comes from oil. She has also found herself again fixing problems she tackled during her first term that ended six years ago, only for these achievements to have been undone in the meantime.
Okonjo-Iweala, who missed out on the World Bank presidency earlier this year, may yet decide to take another high-profile international job. She is tipped as a possible next World Trade Organization head, although she has so far shown no interest.
Should she decide to leave Abuja, her biggest challenge will be ensuring any reforms she makes can't be undone.
Nigeria's dysfunction is hugely profitable for some. Its moribund power grid allows importers of generators and diesel to make immense sums; dilapidated refineries leave Africa's top oil producer dependent on imported petrol that has made billionaires of a handful of tycoons thanks to a corrupt fuel-subsidy scheme. Ports are clogged with goods held up by bribe-seeking officials.
Some of the elites which profit from these inefficiencies are blocking attempts at structural reforms, including Okonjo-Iweala's, such as curbs on state spending and the removal of the fuel subsidy, raising doubts about how much they can achieve.
"[Her] intent is absolutely the way for fiscal policy to go. The difficulty is likely to be in the implementation of those plans," says Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered. But she adds: "There is a sense that ... if it can't be done by Ngozi, then it is unlikely to be achieved by anyone."
Backing from President Jonathan has given Okonjo-Iweala some clout. Nevertheless, she has had to move cautiously, hoping for piecemeal rather than revolutionary change.
Analysts give as an example port reform and the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF), set up to manage Nigeria's oil savings, which her predecessor Olusegun Aganga designed and pushed through parliament. Okonjo-Iweala has in turn had to win over powerful state governors, who initially opposed the fund.
Okonjo-Iweala points out that the budget deficit fell from 2.95 percent of total economic output in 2011 to 2.85 percent in 2012. A further drop to 2.21 percent is projected for next year.
She is tackling the recurrent spending that makes Nigeria's government one of the world's most costly, she says. Simply running the administration – before a single road or hospital is built – is swallowing 71 percent of total spending this year.
That is down from 74 percent last year, and in 2013 it will drop to 68 percent, but it still dwarfs an equivalent figure of about 40 percent in the continent's top economy, South Africa.
Domestic borrowing is also down from 852 billion naira ($5.38 billion) in 2011 to 744 billion naira in 2012, even though GDP growth is forecast to slip to 6.5 percent this year from 7.4 percent in 2011.
"Bringing back fiscal prudence and steadying the macro-economy, that's no mean achievement," she told Reuters, wrapped in a bright green-and-pink traditional dress and head scarf.
She says port delays have been cut to one week, from three before she took office, and wants to cut them to 48 hours.
Yet some of this progress has involved returning to problems she already tackled when she was finance minister from 2003 to 2006 under former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
At that time she won acclaim for getting Nigeria's foreign debt forgiven. When she left office, recurrent expenditure was 65 percent of the budget, lower than where it is now.
Nigeria's Excess Crude Account (ECA), where the state saves oil money when prices are high, had $20 billion in 2007 shortly after she left, but raiding had cut it to $4.22 billion by the time she returned. It is now being restored to $7.35 billion.
Nigeria's patronage system, which squanders much of the revenue raised from the 2 million barrels of crude oil the country produces a day, shows no sign of weakening. An attempt to remove the wasteful fuel subsidy in January provoked strikes and protests led by unions backed by the fuel marketers, forcing the government to reinstate it partly.
Okonjo-Iweala has responded to evidence of multibillion-dollar fraud in the fuel subsidy by imposing tougher conditions on payments. Unions, backed by the marketers, are threatening to strike again and leading a campaign for her to resign.
"When you fight corruption, corruption fights you back," wrote columnist Omoade Adelani in Nigeria's Business Day daily. "Those whose means of livelihood are tied to the corrupt sources are threatened by her determination to restore accountability."
Most financial leakage occurs before revenue even gets to the treasury, at the state oil firm or oil ministry level, areas over which Okonjo-Iweala has no oversight.
Nigeria's federal system also means oil money is distributed between states and local councils before what's left over arrives at her ministry.
Other problems strangling Nigeria's prosperity, such as with the power supply and oil refineries, lie outside her remit.
"All these reforms can't just be left to the finance ministry. These are huge institutional changes that need commitment across ministries," said Bismarck Rewane, head of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives.
The biggest drain on Nigeria's budget, the fuel subsidy, is an explosive issue. Her support for an abortive attempt to remove it earlier this year damaged her credibility and she has since shelved it. "It's above my pay grade," she says.
Sovereign debt researchers like Standard Bank's Samir Gadio think efforts to tame government spending don't go far enough. Fiscal policy is "exceptionally loose. Nigeria should be running a massive fiscal surplus,", given high oil prices, said Gadio.
Neither has Okonjo-Iweala done much to reform the opaque way in which budgets are put together. Nigeria bases its budget on an oil price that is well below market levels and production assumptions that are well above actual output.
Next year's budget assumes oil at $75 a barrel, even though Bonny Light crude is trading now at about $115, and production is at 2.5 million barrels a day.
Oil income above the budget price is supposed to go into the ECA, which can then be used to finance the deficit or cushion against price shocks. The money can also be saved for the future or distributed to institutions, but there is little disclosure about how it is used, and it is often raided even when prices are high.
"Despite her efforts, there's no transparency in the assumptions on which the budget process is built," said Antony Goldman, head of Africa-focused PM Consulting. "Until that is cleared up, there's going to be little confidence that the budget is a real representation of what's earned and spent."
Perhaps her most lasting impact could be championing the sovereign wealth fund. If used properly, it could put oil funds out of the reach of even the most profligate of future rulers.
She overcame opposition from the state governors, who fear it means less money for them. After eight months of talks, they agreed to it in June. As a compromise, it starts with a modest $1 billion, but once it has enough momentum, it could achieve what has long eluded Nigeria: investment for future generations.
"She's playing the long game. The governors were blocking the SWF and without their support, it was never going to take off," said Kayode Akindele, partner at Nigeria-based consultancy 46 Parallels. "But once it's up and going, its going to be very hard for the governors to kill it."
If she can do that, she could take another international job knowing that at least one major reform can't be undone.
An international aid charity is taking an unorthodox approach to helping people in Cambodia and Vietnam improve sanitation and hygiene: It asks beneficiaries to help pay for the construction of latrines and hand-washing stations, but then gives them cash rewards when they get results. The effort will now spread, thanks to a $10.9-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The East Meets West Foundation, in Oakland, Calif., works with local groups to provide hygiene education, train masons to build high-quality latrines, and broker low-cost loans that families can use to install latrines and hand-washing devices. Families receive a $10 rebate to help offset construction costs after an independent group has verified that the latrine is in place.
Communities also get incentives: They receive cash awards to be put toward public-works projects, such as roads and sanitation facilities in schools, when the percentage of households that have latrines and hand-washing devices hits 30 percent, and the communities receive more money when those rates reach 95 percent.
Millions of people in Vietnam and Cambodia lack sanitation facilities, and the cost of building them ranges from $50 to $250 per household, depending on the region, says John Anner, the organization’s president.
“There’s simply no way that philanthropy is going to fill that gap or that the government is going to put up that kind of money,” says Mr. Anner.
Beneficiaries bearing part of the cost helps scarce grant dollars go further, he says, and scale is important because the benefits of improved sanitation, such as better health and cleaner water, depend on large numbers of people in the community adopting good hygiene practices.
East Meets West says it will be able to use the Gates grant to bring hygiene education and well-built latrines to 344,000 households, or more than 1.7 million people.
Mr. Anner says that the number of participants in areas where the organization has already offered the program has consistently exceeded its forecasts.
“Everybody knows that when you’re sick you can’t go to work; kids can’t go to school,” he says. “Medical costs are paid for out-of-pocket in a lot of these places, and they can be very, very high.”
The loans also help the charity identify people who will take the project seriously and keep the facilities in good repair, says Mr. Anner.
“Straight-up charity makes it very difficult to distinguish between people who really, really want what you have to offer and people who are just willing to take anything’s that free.”
International aid organizations are finding out if and how people are using their products thanks to tiny sensors developed by Portland State University’s SWEETLab.
A lack of reliable data makes it hard for aid organizations to know whether technologies actually improve the lives, health, and prosperity of people in communities around the world. But SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Laboratory) is looking to change that.
The lab has developed remote-sensing technology to monitor the use of development infrastructure, such as latrines, cook stoves, and water filters. The sensors send information about the frequency of use and behavior patterns back to partner organizations, such as Mercy Corps, The Gates Foundation, DelAgua, and Vestergaard Frandsen, said lab director Evan Thomas.
The goal, Thomas says, is to “have better information about what’s going on in the field, because monitoring projects is usually based on somewhat unreliable [paper] surveys.” And, according to Thomas, "the sensors help us answer two questions: Does the product work, and do people use it?"
Thomas, a professor of engineering and faculty fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, is also the program director for DelAgua Health and Development Programs, a partner organization using the sensors on a large program in Rwanda. He sees the sensors as a way to better evaluate the effectiveness of aid projects and, by extension, donor dollars.
The project in Rwanda "demonstrates the potential to deploy and monitor international health programs like this on a very large scale," Thomas predicts.
The $50 million Rwanda project will distribute water filters and cook stoves to 600,000 homes throughout the country’s western province over the next year to improve clean water access and reduce the demand for wood fuel for cooking, according to Thomas. SWEETLab’s sensors will be installed on about 500 of the stoves and filters to monitor their use and tell DelAgua whether the products are being embraced by local residents.
The efforts in Rwanda are also unique because they use an innovative carbon-credit financing scheme to generate revenue and fund the scaling-up of future projects. Information about the use of the technologies can now be accurately recorded and sent back to DelAgua.
SWEETLab’s sensors are being used well beyond Rwanda, too. In Indonesia, SWEETLab's first partner, Mercy Corps, had been using spot surveys to determine whether people were using new latrines and hand-washing stations, Thomas told SmartPlanet. But only with remote data collection did Mercy Corps find that fewer people were using the hand-washing stations at night, and some people were just using them before prayer time.
"When the sensors are transmitting data, we’re getting what we hoped for: frequent data on the use of water and sanitation infrastructure in our target communities," Laura Bruno, Mercy Corps’ senior program officer for Southeast Asia, told Fast Company. Mercy Corps can use this information to adjust sanitation education programs.
Other SWEETLab partnerships include a project with the Gates Foundation that installed 60 sensors on sanitation stations in India, designed to assist in a study evaluating behavior change around open defecation, according to Thomas. Another partnership with Mercy Corps will put sensors on cook stoves in Haiti.
Data collected by the sensors is compiled by partner organizations, which use the information to understand the behavior patterns of people they serve and to assess and improve the effectiveness of their projects.
Each sensor is powered by five AA batteries, and “cell phone networks send data to a web-based platform, where the results directly inform any adjustments to the technology or educational efforts on the ground,” according to Portland State.
That’s much faster and more reliable than relying on costly surveys and spot checks, which can provide valuable qualitative information, but often fail to fully identify challenges to the success of projects.
Thomas is hopeful that outcomes of current projects will allow SWEETLab to continue to expand its partnerships and monitor the effectiveness of more aid projects through remote-access data.
More accurate information about how well aid projects are working will let organizations tweak their approaches to better meet local needs.
Could the next big breakthrough in medicine or technology come from the developing world?
We Americans may think of poorer nations as hotbeds of war and disease, a place to send our charity checks. But emerging economies are actually an invaluable breeding ground for innovations that could change lives in the United States.
Examples of reverse innovation range from the prosaic – low-cost Levi’s jeans that debuted in China and hit American stores last spring – to the revolutionary: a portable, seven-pound heart monitor developed by General Electric engineers in Bangalore, India.
Chris Trimble is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and has written an influential book on reverse innovation with his “super star” (according to The Economist) colleague Vijay Govindarajan.
In an interview with Latitude News, Trimble argued that globalization is forcing big, bureaucratic companies like GE and Proctor & Gamble to change the way they do business.
“Emerging economies,” he says, “are the globe’s high-growth hotspots, and most of the world’s growth over the next two decades will be there. It used to be that you could grow a big corporation at a good clip in just the US, Europe, and Japan. That’s not the reality anymore.”
In order to stay competitive in the global marketplace, Western companies have discovered they must tap into emerging economies, where experts predict that 90 percent of the world’s middle class will live by 2030. And multinationals can’t just “dumb down” existing products for consumers in the developing world by stripping away features and lowering the price.
“If you’re trying to serve the people that live rich in poor countries, the old model is fine,” says Trimble. “But the needs of the middle class in the developing world are rising dramatically. The challenge when you go from the U. to, say, India is that where before you had one consumer with $10 to spend, now you have 10 consumers with $1 to spend. So there’s no way you can take your rich-world company and just customize your product for the middle class.”
Other experts agree.
“You really have to start from scratch,” says Joanne Lawrence , a professor at the Hult International Business School in Boston. “It’s not business as usual. These are different places with different markets, different consumers, and different needs.”
For example, Lawrence explains, India is a very poor country with a very high rate of heart disease. But GE’s standard electrocardiogram (ECG) heart monitor wouldn’t do much good there. It weighs 65 lbs., costs thousands of dollars, and requires a good deal of electricity and training to use. In India, most people don’t live near a hospital or clinic, and the power supply can be intermittent at best.
So GE engineers in Bangalore designed the MAC 400, which is hand-held, runs on batteries, and retails for just $800. Lawrence says that the product has great potential for poorer rural and urban areas in America, as well as emergency rooms and doctors’ offices.
Chris Trimble points to another GE product, a cheap and portable ultrasound device called the Vscan that was developed in China and is now for sale in the US. “The current generation of kids is the last one that will need stethoscopes to dress up as doctors,” he says. “The next one will be carrying around these hand-held ultrasound devices.”
Reverse innovation has actually been happening for a long time, according to Mike Grandinetti, who teaches entrepreneurship at Hult. The sports drink Gatorade, for example, was born in 1965 after University of Florida scientists noticed a study showing that carbohydrate-rich drinks helped save the lives of Bangladeshi cholera patients (it’s called Gatorade after Florida’s football team, the Gators, who used the drink to re-hydrate).
But Grandinetti argues reverse, or “frugal,” innovation has a lot of room for growth as consumers and corporations look to cut costs. “Look what’s happened to the global economy,” he says. “There’s no question people are living on different budgets than they have in the past. The West has moved to a different mindset about purchasing, and there are all sorts of opportunities for innovation at the bottom of the pyramid.”
Reverse innovation is, in part, a defensive strategy. Foreign companies like Tata (cars), Mahindra (tractors), Mindray (health care) and Lenovo (technology) are all making cheap products and selling them in domestic and, increasingly, Western markets. If big multinationals don’t keep up, they’ll find their markets have been “cannibalized” by low-cost competitors from abroad.
And Trimble says Western corporations still have a long way to go:
“Reverse innovation is still an emerging phenomenon. Companies are working on it, doing some things – but not everything – right. It’s tough because these are companies like GE, like Pepsi, like Proctor & Gamble, that have grown up in a different world.
“If you look at these big multinationals,” he says, “while they may have both a technology and a sales team in India, chances are they’re not even in the same city. And chances are they report back to different people in the US.”
For Trimble, perhaps the most important take-away of reverse innovation is what it means for today’s students. “For young people to be successful later on,” he argues, “they’ll have to be just as curious about the needs and opportunities of places like Brazil and India and Japan as they are of those in the US. That’s pretty daunting.
“There are places in America that are very worldly. But for the most part, this country is pretty insular, and it’s going to be an enormous challenge for us.”
Through a for-profit reinsurance company called MiCRO (Microinsurance Catastrophe Risk Organisation), formed in March 2011 by the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps and Haiti’s largest microfinance institution Fonkoze, female microentrepreneurs who hold policies will have their loans cancelled and receive a $125 payout to replace damaged inventory or repair homes or businesses.
From the Wall Street Journal:
"The program is an example of the growing use of so-called microinsurance to help protect some of the world's poorest people from the devastating economic effects of catastrophes. While business owners in the developed world count on insurance to help them rebuild and recover after a disaster, people in places like Haiti have historically had to start from scratch.
"Haiti, plagued by more than its share of devastating earthquakes and floods, is Exhibit A for how Mother Nature can deliver massive setbacks. Fonkoze's borrowers, which include shopkeepers, hairdressers and farmers, have suffered major losses in recent years."
“For many years, I watched women entrepreneurs struggle to climb the ladder out of poverty, only to be knocked down time and time again by catastrophic losses from hurricanes or earthquakes,” said Anne Hastings, CEO of Fonkoze. “Now for the first time, MiCRO has made it possible for those women to quickly recover their losses, rebuild their source of income, and avoid a potential poverty trap.”
MiCRO offers its clients a unique hybrid insurance product, or parametric policy: a set of weather-related triggers corresponding to wind speed, rainfall levels, and earthquake magnitudes that offer a timely payout, combined with additional coverage to the extent that the triggers do not reflect actual losses on the ground.
"These women have the pride and dignity of being the valued customer of a commercial enterprise, not beneficiaries of charity," said Neal Keny-Guyer, Mercy Corps CEO.
Fonkoze took advantage of its existing infrastructure in Haiti, including 46 branches and more than 2,000 credit centers, to implement the insurance. According to the Wall Street Journal, Fonkoze "now requires most of its roughly 60,000 borrowers to contribute 3 percent of their loan values to help defray the cost of the insurance. That covers about half the cost of the coverage, with Fonkoze and its partners, including the governments of Switzerland and the United Kingdom, contributing the rest. Then Fonkoze's insurer, called MiCRO, buys backup protection from Swiss Re AG, a massive reinsurance company that has been among the leaders in the insurance industry in efforts to develop microinsurance products."
In the company’s first year, MiCRO has provided $1.64 million in payouts that Fonkoze has used to provide funds to nearly 6,800 Haitian women.
One of the key barriers to the growth of microinsurance is the cost of on-the-ground assessments and policy administration. To address this, MiCRO's clients help determine whether fellow policyholders are entitled to additional loss-based payouts. This reduces costs and helps put the purchase of microinsurance within their reach, but further cost reductions are needed in the future for Fonkoze and MiCRO to meet ends and become profitable.
Bill LeVasseur never set out to become an ethnographer. Or a historian, anthropologist, migration specialist, or scholar of syncretism for that matter. He was an American advertising executive living in Mexico City who simply liked Mexican folk art.
But in the past two decades he has become all of those things, of sorts at least, amassing a collection of hundreds of Mexican masks from remote villages across the country that today he hangs on the walls of his museum in San Miguel de Allende. In doing so, he has singlehandedly preserved a piece of Mexican culture that few realize is still thriving today.
“Some of the best compliments I get are from Mexicans,” he says. “ 'Thank you for preserving this,' they say. 'This is part of our culture that we can't lose.' "
Masks have a crucial place in Mexican society, a pre-Hispanic custom that evolved but continued after conquest by the Spanish. Today, particularly in the thousands of tiny towns across the country, artisans still carve them for use in ceremonial dances to celebrate feast days and patron saints, most of it fusing elements of indigenous customs with Roman Catholic narrative.
Mr. LeVasseur stumbled upon masks innocently enough, as an expat on a stint abroad in Mexico City. A colleague gave him one as a present, piquing his curiosity. He started reading. He began going to art fairs to look for new renderings. Then he started traveling the switchbacks across the country.
“I felt like I was looking through a keyhole back 400 years in time,” he says of his first experiences watching dancers in costume marching down the streets of dusty Mexican towns.
Today his collection, The Other Face of Mexico, spans the spectrum: representations of saints and devils, adorned with tigers and snakes, carved from mahogany or avocado wood. His one requirement: that they have previously been used in a dance or ritual, so that they are a living piece of history, not simply a piece of art.
LeVasseur has retired from his job and moved permanently to San Miguel de Allende, where he and his wife, in addition to the museum, run a bed-and-breakfast. But he still travels extensively, adding to his collection each year.
Taking five or six journeys annually, he has helped spread maskmaking knowledge across the country. Some towns are so small that that residents communicate and share crucial news via loudspeaker. He remembers showing up at one and paying the equivalent of a dollar for a town member to advertise that a man was there, interested in seeing what masks were available for sale. Artisans, carrying their most detailed work, walked in droves towards him. While many have spent lifetimes etching wood, a skill passed down from family to family, they have little idea of the art being created in the rest of the country. LeVasseur always bring photographs to share and leave with them.
At home in San Miguel de Allende, a popular destination for American retirees in central Mexico, his musem draws visitors from across the globe. But some of his most important visitors are the school children that come in busloads weekly.
The indigenous represent about a 10th of Mexico's population – there are more than 60 indigenous languages officially spoken throughout the country – and they preserve their culture not just through language but through their celebrations and the structure of their kinship. But school curricula treats indigenous culture as history, LeVasseur says. The students learn that the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 16th century, and are pointed to the archeological ruins of Teotihuacan in central Mexico or the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula to learn about indigenous history. But it often stops there. “This is not just history,” LeVasseur says, “it's contemporary.”
The proceeds from the museum go to a local daycare, which looks after the children of indigenous women who sell crafts on the streets to tourists during the day. Eventually LeVasseur hopes that his collection ends up in a university in the United States. In the meantime it continues to grow, as artisans stay busy and the dances thrive, exposing everyone from a five-year-old Mexican to a Finnish housewife to a slice of culture that might otherwise remain isolated in the high mountains or tropical lowlands of Mexico.