Making low-tech inventions available to farmers in developing countries

During the 19th and early 20th centuries farmers in the US, Canada and Australia shared, through their farming newsletters and magazines zillions drawings and instructions about how to build low-cost, easy-to-build devices to make farming more productive and easier. These included wheelbarrows made with scrap lumber, wagons using Model T axles, drip irrigation, and so on.

Now those farmers are rich enough to buy advanced technologies, from computers to harvesters, to do whatever they need, so the low-tech inventions have disappeared - except in reprinted books memorializing these remarkable organic inventions.

But farmers in developing countries can still use them. The trouble is, they are not available in a form that they can use. First, the drawings are not always self-explanatory. Second, the explanations are all in English. Third, local materials vary. Fourth, there's no easy way for them to get the reprinted books, even if they could afford them. The result? They have to reinvent the wheel over and over and over again.

What difference would it make in the lives of a farmer and his or her family if s/he could make (or purchase from a local artisan) such low-cost productivity enhancing devices? Plenty! Take, for example, a wheelbarrow made with a couple of dollars worth of wood and steel scraps. A cheap wheelbarrow costs US$20-40, a month's earnings for a poor farmer, so s/he goes without, and carries everything in buckets. But with a wheelbarrow s/he can move three to five times the weight and volume in the same time and without the strain. The result? More work gets done in less time. Income goes up. More money is available to invest in more crops. The kids can go to school. Life gets better.

Take a real-life example, cited by Paul Polack, founder of International Development Enterprises. His nonprofit company down-teched the expensive drip irrigation system invented by Israelis to the point that a system could be set up for about US$26. A farmer in Bangladesh discovered the system and, though he was earning only a dollar a day, set one up. As a result he was able to grow vegetables in the off season, thereby doubling his income. With the extra cash he invested in expanding his plantings even more. To make a long story short, in five years he was earning US$4,800/year, allowing him to provide better housing, education and food for his family. All because he had a low-tech entry point he could invest in.

So what is Piclopedia about? It is about making such inventions available to developing world farmers and artisans widely and freely. It is about giving farmers the choice of tools that fit for their situations. It is about giving them an opportunity to have what the developed country farmers had when they were just a few inches ahead of where developing-country farmers find themselves now. And giving them an opportunity to share their experiences with others just as the inventors of these old low-tech devices did with their compatriots.

Many things will have to be done to make this happen, not least putting the drawings into visual forms that can be understood by anyone irrespective of their language. For instance, that wheelbarrow drawing and explanation can be converted to an IKEA-style instruction sheet, put up on the Piclopedia website, www.piclopedia.org (not built yet - that's another thing to do).

And with the Internet now available in all but the absolutely poorest areas of the world, the entire content of all those old inventions can be accessed easily. So we have to create a website that provides the drawings, but also makes it possible for users to provide feedback in their language about how they did it with their own locally available materials, as well as provide information on how to use them, and even suggest or provide new ideas on other subjects, including animal husbandry, crop practices, whatever they, in their collective experience, consider relevant and important. (We developed-country folk can have no idea of the depth of knowledge that is likely to exist out there, just waiting to be shared, magnified and amplified.)

And there can be an outreach component as well. For instance, we can get grants to provide local people the wherewithal to compose loose-leaf binders of designs/instructions that are appropriate and popular in their regions, with the sheets laminated, and the binders made available to, e.g., schoolteachers in villages. The schoolteachers would become lending librarians of the designs/instructions.

These are just a few ideas. Among ourselves I'm positive that many more good ideas will be generated. My vision is that this will be a completely open-source project, with only loose moderation/supervision to maintain quality, strategic direction, and keep finished products preserved.

So now I throw it open to you. Tell me - tell us - what the next step is, and let's start. Little steps for little feet. But a few miles down this road - and we will get there, if we but start - I promise that we will change the world.

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