Wednesday, September 30, 2009

High Technology and Appropriate Technology

Nakuru is not far from the equator and today we travelled to Mogotio, even closer to the equator. We were there to irrigate onions, peppers and other vegetables. The irrigation process for a small shamba (smallholding) is fiddly and time consuming. The field is beside a river. The pump is petrol operated. But the process of attaching bits of pipe so that the water reaches the farthest parts of the shamba takes several people and a lot of time.

In fact, it's a process of attaching, detaching and re-attaching bits of pipe until the whole job is done. While two people add and remove pipes, two others use hoes to make furrows for the water to flow through and block furrows where adequate water has entered. Why do people not use good lengths of flexible pipe or drip irrigation?

This is a one acre shamba, the kind and size that many Kenyans own. It's for growing small amounts of produce. It's labour intensive but labour is cheap, flexible pipe and other pieces of equipment are expensive. If the shamba was bigger and more productive, we could afford drip irrigation or some other form of irrigation, but this sort of technology is beyond the means of most people here.

So I was pretty annoyed to come across an article about some 'clever' people who have developed a device which allows a farmer to SMS or call a number to turn on their irrigation system. Great, but people who can afford an irrigation system that can be switched on and off don't have to do much work on the shamba themselves. They employ people to do it. It's not the first time I have seen articles about how brilliant mobile phones are. They have their uses but most of the problems poor people suffer don't go away just because they have a mobile phone.

I also came across an article about how Uganda is using mobile phones to spread the 'message' about HIV. Do they really think their unsuccessful and very expensive programmes over the last 20 years failed because of the medium that was used? How much evidence do they need that the problem was not just with the medium?. Many people there and in other countries know all sorts of things about HIV, not all of them true. But they still engage in the sort of behaviour that is thought to spread HIV. So why should spreading the 'message' by mobile phone change anything?

Anyhow, as well as hoeing and irrigating the shamba, we were in Mogotio to demonstrate the process of solar cooking to some people there. We cooked rice, ugali (boiled maize meal) and sukuma wiki (a popular collard green). Sounds a bit starchy but Kenyans like a fair bit of starch. The result was excellent. The area is so hot that things cooked quickly. So the workers in the field were impressed at the large amount of food they were provided with and even more impressed that no charcoal or wood had been used in the cooking process.

I had my worries about the ugali. It is almost worshiped here and getting it wrong could be fatal. But it turned out pretty solid and sticky. I have tried a few other things, stew, various vegetables, even soda bread. They are very good, as long as the sun lasts. So it's time to be more adventurous and do a bit of experimenting. I have no doubt that some 'genius' will be able to invent a device that pulls a screen across the solar cooker when the food is cooked. Until then, I'll just use the time honoured process of looking at the food.



Claire said...

Woo-hoo, a brilliantly working solar cooker demonstration! excellent. You very neatly shot down that old technology is a magic bullet argument for development too!

Simon said...

Hi Claire
Yes, I always liked the pretty quick results you get from cooking and especially baking but doing it on a solar cooker, just a piece of cardboard with some reflective material, adds an extra kick to the process.

As for technology, I have a device the size of a disposable cigarette lighter that allows me to access the internet anywhere, which is the way I do most of my research and communicating with other people. And I can even surf online quite cheaply on my phone.

I use technology all the time but it doesn't prevent people from suffering and dying unnecessarily in countries that have crap health systems. What they need is adequate health systems and ample personnel. But who is going to go for that argument!

Claire said...

yup, technology works wonders for people with money and food in their bellies!

Simon said...