enterprise for the bottom of the pyramid

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

Six years ago, Evan Thomas was working as part of a team building a water-purification system for a village in Rwanda. At the time, he was a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His day job, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, involved water recovery systems.

He was in Rwanda as part of the NASA chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA. The EWB group teamed with residents of the village, Mugonero, and with students from a nearby technical school to construct a gravity-fed water filtration system that could serve the community. Mechanical Engineering magazine published a story about that project in the February 2007 issue.

I got in touch with Evan the other day and found that he has been busy since then. Today, as an assistant professor of engineering at Portland State University, he runs the SWEETLab. That stands for “Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies.”

He is also involved in three young startups, all connected with the delivery of technology to improve the lives of the rural poor around the world.

He co-founded Manna Energy Ltd. about five years ago along with a few associates, including another member of that EWB team, Max Gold. The company combines carbon credit finance markets with sustainable technologies for the developing world.

Among its projects in Africa, for instance, Manna Energy consulted for a Swiss company, Vestergaard Frandsen, to help them develop a carbon credit model to distribute their home scale water filtration system called the LifeStraw Family, LifeStraw is a portable filter that removes bacteria and parasites from water.

Filtering water means people do not have to boil it to make it safe to drink. So they cut down fewer trees for fuel, and there’s less combustion in general. That qualifies for carbon credits under the voluntary Gold Standard as well as the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism. Some of these carbon credits are tied to a “demand” for firewood use that is currently not being met—instead many of the users previously drank untreated water.

The SWEETLab develops small sensors that can run for a year on a double-A battery. They can tell how many times a latrine door opens, how much water flows through a filter, how much cooking is done on a fuel-efficient stove. And they can transmit that information over the cellular phone network a website.

They might even be able to establish patterns of use to confirm that the devices in place are being used, and how often.

Manna has teamed with DelAgua, a spinoff of the University of Surrey in England, to form a new company called DelAgua Health & Development Programs. That company is mounting a program now to deliver water filtration systems and fuel-efficient stoves to as many as 750,000 homes in Rwanda. A sample of about 500 filters and stoves will be fitted with SWEETLab sensors. Evan says the company is still in talks with prospective suppliers of the filters and stoves.

As if that isn’t enough, Evan has a third venture on his plate. That’s SWEETSense Inc., which will market the lab’s devices for uses that include the same kind of field research that DelAgua Health will conduct, and also for environmental monitoring.

In Evan’s case, “EWB” may stand for “entrepreneur without borders.”

7 Responses to “enterprise for the bottom of the pyramid”

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2012

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