A NY Times article today entitled “Ending Famine, Simply By Ignoring the Experts,” ties in perfectly with some exciting news just announced by my good friends and colleagues, T.H. and Sybille Culhane. The NY Times article discusses the fact that for years the World Bank has urged poor African countries such as Mallawi to reduce or eliminate subsidies for fertilizer and seeds. The hope was that African farmers would plant cash crops and use the extra income they generate from them to import food. Unfortunately, for Mallawi and other countries, the situation is rarely that simple.
“As its (Mallawi’s) population has grown and inherited landholdings have shrunk, impoverished farmers have planted every inch of ground. Desperate to feed their families, they could not afford to let their land lie fallow or to fertilize it. Over time, their depleted plots yielded less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty.”
In the U.S., fertilizer is heavily subsidized by the government, so the new president of Mallawi decided that if it works for the U.S., it should work for them. The plan was simple enough:
“Last year, roughly half the country’s farming families received coupons that entitled them to buy two 110-pound bags of fertilizer, enough to nourish an acre of land, for around $15 — about a third the market price. The government also gave them coupons for enough seed to plant less than half an acre.”
And sure enough, in 2006 and 2007 Mallawi broke records for corn harvests. As a result, a country that in 2001 was in the midst of a terrible famine, was actually able to export grain to its neighbors.
I bring up this example because it shows what happens when we assume that the experts know everything, and blindly follow their advice. The Internet, however, allows us to cull information from sources all over the world, meaning that we can bypass experts and find what we need, regardless of whether or not the author has a PhD and is respected in academia. And while some have derided the new information age (a book was published this year called ‘The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing Out Culture’) I violently disagree that open-source information is detrimental to culture. Rather, the Internet means that the flow of ideas, thoughts and culture are now a two-way street, because not only can we download the world, we can also upload to it. And that is an exceedingly powerful phenomenon that not only has repercussions for culture, but also for how we spread technology, beliefs, and ideas. Of course the internet can also be used to transmit smut, hatred, falsehoods and ignorance, but I always point to wikipedia and ebay as examples of online communities that are essentially self-regulated. Personally, I can say that I have had numerous great experiences on ebay and craigslist, where my transaction with strangers was better than dealing with trained and paid customer service people at multinational corporation.
The example of Mallawi demonstrates the folly of worshipping experts. But once we begin to question what the experts say, we need to experiment ourselves and inquire into experiments that others have been undertaking. To find an example illustrative of that model, I turn to my friends the Culhanes, who have spent the last 4 years working in the slums of Cairo trying to create an inexpensive solar water heater for the poor that can be made out of locally available, recycled materials. I have visited the Culhanes on two occasions, and have had the fortune to be privy to their unbelievable compassion, kindness, energy and ingenuity. What the Culhanes have come to see is that what “the poor” need is not “help” or donations, but rather access to financial flows and design plans. Once they have that, they are able to use their own brilliance, ingenuity and creativity to improve upon the design plans.
So after a long journey, the Culhanes have just announced that their prototype for a solar water heater for the poor is finally complete. It is replicable, affordable and easily scalable. I want to share with the world T.H.’s post describing the system in its entirety, because in it he beautifully and eloquently describes the process by which he came to realize the inadequacy of so-called experts and the brilliance of local knowledge. They have truly accomplished something great, but they would never have achieved anything had they merely stuck to received wisdom and not sought out alternative approaches to solving problems. I can’t stress enough how important it is to carefully read through what is written below, tie it to the example I have given of Mallawi, and then think about all the myriad ways in which “open-source development” can be used to make the world a better place by freeing us from the constraints of traditional sources of knowledge and information.
Any Comments ?
We did it: A do-it-yourself solar hot water prototype built from local and recycled materials that we can train others to replicate and mass produce!
This is the final version of our hand-made solar hot water systems for the Zabaleen community in Muqattam, Manshiyat Nasser (without the sytrofoam insulation on the hot water tank, showing how we wrapped a second 200 liter surfactant barrel (originally from Saudi Arabia, containing Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, a.k.a. shampoo) with mylar (from the inside of potato chips bags and from sheets sold by street vendors at Attaba metro station), then bubble wrap (purchased at Moskee, near Attaba) then mylar. The final step was to build a 3 cm styrofoam box around the barrel, glued together with spray foam insulation.
This system heats up all 200 liters to at least 40 degrees on most winter days (except days of full cloud cover). The secret is in the placement of the float valve and the hot and cold water inlets and outlets. We place the Zahran floar valve 37 cm from the top of the tank and the hot water outlet (to the house) at 25 cm below the top (this allows the float valve to open and close as water is drained from the barrel, replacing it with the same amount of water from the blue cold water barrel top left).
Meanwhile, the hot water inlet to the panels is located 20 cm from the bottom of the tank, 10 cm above the cold water outlet to the panels (which is at 10 cm) . This is the Palestinian system we observed in Palestine, applied to our plastic barrel system.
The height of the brick column supporting the cold water barrel is 170 cm, and the height of the brick column supporting the hot water barrel is 115 cm, just above the top of the panels themselves.
The “secret” to our do-it-yourself solar hot water systems is our use of the Zahran Float Valve, created by Egyptian inventor Magdy Zahran, who has become a good friend.
Below you see the cold water tank, the hot water tank, then both tanks together:
T.H. Culhane had a hunch that toilet bowl flush float valves would enable the use of unsealed tanks in solar hot water systems and hunted around Cairo for one that could be used in a big tank. He stumbled upon a shop on Fagala street (Kamal Sediki Street) where all the plumbing suppliers are, and inquired of the shop keeper if he had any float valves suitable for a 200 liter tank. The man not only pulled the float valve (called a “Zahran Owama”) off the shelf but asked T.H. if he would like to discuss his solar hot water project with the inventor himself, Magdy Zahran. He said, “he lives around the corner and I can call him.”
Magdy Zahran took us to his factory and even brought us on Egyptian Satellite TV on a show called “The Missing Link” (“Al-Halaqa Mafquda”) about local inventors to introduce our “Double Whammy” (Two Owama) Solar Hot water system using Zahran float valves and Zahran plastic input-output fittings, as shown here:
The use of these Zahran products is an innovation that enables us to radically cut costs and use relatively inexpensive and stable recycled plastic water barrels that are available all over the world, instead of using expensive steel tanks and expensive metal plumbing fixtures.
This is helping us bring costs down to a level the urban poor can afford.
Most families in our study area rely on water from a single standpipe at the entrance to their houses, and have few or no pipes running water to the rest of the house.
In our project we run three pipes — a cold water supply pipe from the standpipe to the roof to fill the cold water barrel when there is water available, a cold water supply pipe to the bathrooms and kitchen in the house from a T where a pipe from the cold water barrel feeds into the bottom of the hot water barrel, and a hot water pipe from the top of the hot water barrel (that is to say, from the outlet 25 cm from the top of the barrel) to the house.
Needless to say, we put check valves on all our pipelines, to keep water from backflowing into the system. This adds to our costs but improves reliability (note that check valves can fail, so be sure and place them where they can be easily replaced).
This is what most families in our study area currently use to heat their bathing water (and they must store their water in numerous barrels and buckets as depicted). Our system gives them hassle free rooftop storage (200 liters cold, 200 liters hot) and provides adequate water pressure.
These are the kinds of bathrooms our beneficiaries currently have:
This is Talaat conducting our “hot water service and demand survey” for my UCLA Ph.D. Dissertation in Urban Planning, from which we determine who he beneficiaries of our US AID small infrastructure grant for solar roof construction:
Two of the children in the room, when initially asked what problems they had with hot water provision, said without prompting, “we learned in school that one day Egypt could be like Germany and use solar hot water systems, but we don’t know when or how…”
Isn’t that funny? “One day” a sunny land like Egypt will use solar energy like they do in cloudy, rainy Germany!? And here we are in the 11th hour at 5 minutes to midnight…
Fortunately this family will have a Solar CITIES hand made solar hot water system — which they will help build — by Christmas!
And here I am, blessed by having the chance to play Santa Claus to this Coptic Christian Zabaleen family:
And finally, here are some pictures of Solar CITIES field coordinator Hanna Fathy and his brothers Ayman and Romani and friend Hani building the system that will go on their roof:
AUTHOR: Farming Egypt
DATE: 02/15/2008 07:01:19 PM
Hey! I found your blog via Google while searching for farming egypt and your post regarding ration of the Amateur | AndyPosner.org looks very interesting to me