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Engineers Need Good Planning to Effectively Address Developing World Problems

Engineers and scientists can be lifesavers to people in the developing world, but many who try to solve problems on their own often find the results of their efforts are short-lived and of limited reach. Entrepreneur Saul Garlick said that he learned that lesson firsthand when he tried to help a school in South Africa.

“I went to the school and said, ‘What do you need?’ They said, ‘We have so many students, we don’t have room for them all.’” So Garlick raised $10,000 to build the school additional classrooms. But when he went back five years later, he found that while the new classrooms were in good condition and filled with students, two of the school’s old classrooms were in disrepair and being used for storage, effectively reducing the school’s capacity to what it had been previously.

Steve Katsaros, founder of Nokero, demonstrates his company’s solar book light.

“That’s when I realized if we want to eliminate poverty, we face enormously complex problems. I was telling people we could bring solutions, and people were telling me they needed things they knew I could bring.” But that didn’t really bring lasting improvements, Garlick said. He said that lesson has informed his current work at ThinkImpact, an organization with a program that places U.S. students and young professionals in rural African communities to help solve problems related to poverty. He said he and the young people he brings to African villages actively involve community members in coming up with solutions that draw upon the villagers’ own skills, assets, and resources.

Garlick shared this insight with participants in a panel discussion during a 23 April event held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., to help engineers and scientists explore opportunities and find common solutions in their efforts to help people around the world. In addition to the panel discussion, a number of successful engineering and technology projects for developing areas were displayed, from medical tests and devices to solar energy and lighting products that are in use in Haiti, Benin, Swaziland, and Kenya.

The event fits with AAAS’s efforts to support human rights efforts around the world through the use of scientific methodologies and innovative application of technologies , said Jessica Wyndham, associate director of AAAS’s Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program. AAAS began working to protect the human rights of scientists and scientific freedom in the 1970s, and it has since expanded its work to support policies that “protect peoples’ rights to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications,” Wyndham said.



Jessica Wyndham | Photos © Larry Bollig

Engineering for Change, which organized the event with AAAS, is a Web-based resource created less than two years ago to facilitate networking among engineers working on projects in developing countries. It is supported by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and Engineers Without Borders. Engineers and students can use the site to share their successes in a solutions library, find experts, or ask the online community for help with problems.


“We are strong supporters of innovation, but knowing what’s already been developed, what works and what doesn’t, is incredibly valuable to the innovation process,” said Noha El-Ghobashy, president of Engineering for Change. “Access to this kind of information will make for better solutions”

One project displayed at the AAAS event was a solar book light designed to help children in areas without electricity study at night. Steve Katsaros, founder of Nokero, which makes the light, said that his company’s goal was to provide an even cheaper light source than their previously released solar light bulbs, which retail for $12. Nokero’s products are designed for people living without electricity, many of whom currently rely on kerosene lamps that expose them to unhealthy smoke and require more money for fuel.

“It’s a challenge when designing for the bottom of the [economic] pyramid rather than the top of the pyramid,” Katsaros said. “You have to think hard about what you can eliminate,” rather than what features to add, to keep costs to a minimum. For instance, the book light “has no extra parts — not one,” he said. It uses one LED light instead of the four used in Nokero’s solar light bulb, and the only moving parts are an on/off switch and a flexible arm to direct the light. Nokero sells the light to qualified buyers for $3.95, and is partnering with nonprofits to provide them for free to children in developing countries.
[PHOTOGRAPH] Johns Hopkins researchers demonstrate an inexpensive prenatal screening test for preeclampsia.

Johns Hopkins researchers demonstrate an inexpensive prenatal screening test for preeclampsia.

Johns Hopkins researchers demonstrate an inexpensive prenatal screening test for preeclampsia.

Another project grew out of students’ undergraduate research work at Johns Hopkins University. Sean Monagle and others worked for three years to create cheaper prenatal screens for preeclampsia, a potentially serious complication of pregnancy. His colleague, Maxim Budyansky, said although tests that cost 10 or 20 cents were available at health clinics, that is too expensive for women in rural areas. Women would also miss half a day’s work to go to clinics for the tests, so many are not getting screened. The new test can be done by community health workers at a woman’s home, at cost of half a cent per test, with nothing more than the newly developed test pen, a strip of paper and a urine sample, Budyansky said. It is now being tested for use in Africa by a Hopkins-affiliated company called Jhpiego.

But not all projects meet with such success or acclaim. One participant asked speakers during the panel discussion how to improve recognition of the seriousness of such work, “so that those doing this type of work get a pat on the back and not a pat on the head?”

While it is right to do this sort of work because it helps people, Garlick said, “anyone who scoffs or laughs or pats you on the head is missing the point. It’s where the global market is heading.”

Katsaros agreed. He said while Nokero is a for-profit company, “we forgo a lot of profit at the top of the pyramid because it’s unnecessary.” He said the company can make enough profit to grow while designing its products to be affordable to the developing world. The low cost of its solar lights also allows Nokero to do more good, he added, when it donates them for disaster relief.

Sustainable engineering was also on display earlier this month in a design contest sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called P3, (which stands for People, Prosperity and the Planet). Projects from 45 college teams that made the final round displayed their projects on the National Mall from 21-23 April and were judged by a team of AAAS volunteers. Fifteen teams were awarded more than $1 million in grants to help them apply their ideas in real-world situations.


Learn more about Engineering for Change.

Learn more about AAAS’s Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program.



Kathleen O'Neil