{Basin with 11 gallons of water brought on to stage—water within 1 inch of brim}

I’ll wager no one could carry this 100lb basin of water for a couple of miles without spilling most of it. Now imagine balancing this on your head and walking the same distance!

But we don’t need to think about such things. If we want water we just turn on the tap and out comes fresh potable water.

We accept this as easily as we do the fact that half the world’s population survives on less than $2.50 a day.

Most of us are probably aware that another 20 million people are on the brink of starvation.

Somehow, it's just not important. We’ve lost our collective conscience.

I’m not here to talk about morals or guilt, I’m here to talk about the women who bear the brunt of this extreme poverty—those who live on <$1/day.

Those whose day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset, the women who carry wood and water to earn a few cents to feed and clothe their children, the women who are resilient and resourceful

—who know how to live with the land

—who, in a sense, epitomize the dispossessed and the forgotten of our society.

How did I get here?

Last April I was driving down a road crisscrossed with ravines and potholes, a leftover from the rainy season. We were near Eremon in northern Ghana—a village I've known since I was a child.

We had just visited my old school friend’s family and were on our way back. Looking out of the window, the African countryside looked as it always did

—stark and beautiful in the failing light.

Look a little more carefully and the paths are dotted with women walking home in the dark, often barefoot, many with babies, almost all with a basin of something on their heads whether it be grain, water or everything you need for a market stand.

All was normal.

Then my smartphone vibrated. It had found a cell signal and readily gobbled up the available bytes to tell me what? Nothing important.

I continued looking out of the window and I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, the plight of these women overwhelmed me.

I was in a car on my way to food and a bed, and water and more bandwidth than I would ever need.

I realized that my smartphone had absolutely no connection to this environment or the people in it. The sense of disconnect was so profound that it got me thinking about the relationship between what I do in electrical engineering and the situation of the extreme poor.

This realization made me understand how guilty I am of accepting the status quo.

I first went to Ghana in 1958 and was introduced to the African woman

—large item on head

—baby on back

—often pregnant

After a long break, I came back in 2001. Nothing had changed and everything had changed. There were tarred roads, some electricity and people looked much healthier. The landlines were as intermittent as ever and there was certainly no cell service.

I’ve been going back ever since.

As you can see in 2001, the African woman hadn’t changed in 4 decades.

During that time, we had computers, the internet and obesity—we had changed beyond recognition.

Another 13 years and still nothing has changed.

Over this period, the large cities in Africa have changed beyond recognition. There is cell phone service, there are pizza huts, burgers and shiny new cars.

In 2017, walk a few yards beyond the end of the dirt road and nothing has changed in centuries.

These women are trapped in the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

But I believe these women can save humankind.

Let’s look at a small part of their lives.

Here is a young girl at a borehole surrounded by lots of empty basins.

It’s the dry season. The water trickles out and it takes a long time to fill these basins. The women wait patiently in line, often for many hours.

Sometimes they fight for water.

They may arrive home well after midnight, only to rise again at 5 AM and start all over again.

But they have no option

—they can’t just give up and go home because there will be nothing drink and it’s hot—everyone’s thirsty and it’s difficult to cook without water.

I’d like you to imagine carrying 100 lbs of water on your head for up to 5 miles.

Add a baby on your back, possibly pregnant and it’s very hot.

Oh—and I forgot to add you might have no shoes and you’ll probably be hungry.

We wondered how far women carry water, so we went to Kadare in northeastern Ghana and followed water. The size of the pot represents the size of the community and the thickness of the lines represents the quantity of water.

You might be wondering where the river is?

It’s not there in the dry season so everyone must go to the main borehole—over a mile for some.

In the rainy season those communities near the river clearly have a much shorter walk. The problem is that the water is dirty—shared with their livestock, it’s contaminated.

It then becomes a trade-off

—do you carry clean water for over a mile

—or dirty water for hundreds of yards and accept an upset stomach

Which would you choose?

Now let’s look at energy. Not energy in the way you or I think about it, but the energy that’s available to the extreme poor—wood.

Everyone knows that wood’s disappearing. They can see the tree line receding and must walk further and further.

But somehow there’s nothing to be done about it. If you want to make charcoal you still need wood from somewhere.

If you want bottled gas, you can't afford the deposit let alone the content.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation we set out to track this wood. We got up at 5 every morning and spread ourselves out around the village. As soon as we spotted someone with wood on their head, we followed her to the wood market. A small patch of dirt in the middle of town.

On the social scale, the women in the wood market occupy the lowest rung. They really are the extreme poor.

But over a period of three years, we got to know these incredible women. We got to play with their children, understand a bit about their lives and gradually gain their trust.

They took us back to where they harvested the wood. They explained how they chose which branch to cut to ensure the tree lived as long as possible.

They rolled around laughing as they taught our students how to carry these ungainly loads.

With the help of GPS watches we tracked these wood routes. Unlike a town in the industrialized world where these red lines might represent electricity and gas, these supply lines comprise women acting as human mules.

I don’t expect anybody in this room can imagine walking 5 miles with 85 lbs of wood on their heads and then selling it for a buck.

Yes, that’s it—a single buck.

With this tiny amount of money, these women will go to the market and buy the absolute necessities for their family.

To save money they won’t even spend 2c to get some clean water.

They’ll then turn around and walk back home to collect water, work in the fields, wash clothes, get food ready for the evening or whatever other household chore needs attending to.

It’s a life none of us can begin to imagine. Yet, at this very moment, we accept there are probably hundreds of thousands of these women carrying wood and water on the heads in some remote part of the world—doing everything they can to support their families.

Strange as it may seem, this brings us back to the smartphone and the disconnect between our technology and their lives. Great swathes of Africa are now covered with cell phone signals, not always reliable but a lifeline for our smart phones.

What do the smartphones do for these women who carry wood and water?

Virtually nothing.

Sure, there are very cheap phones with very simple apps that bring important information to these outlying communities but who can afford to buy them?

How can you buy credit and where do you find electricity to charge them?

Our society brings a change in priorities. You pay and the kids go hungry.

We shouldn't forget that the cell phone has transformed communications. It provides a vital link between remote communities and nearby towns, especially in case of emergency.

In some ways, anything which works in the bush is an unintended outcome. The apps are mostly inaccessible for these illiterate women and few phones are programmed with the 250 local languages.

Engineering in the industrialized world does nothing to address the lives of the extreme poor. The hundreds of millions living in poverty are not part of our engineering curricula. They really are forgotten and dispossessed.

What’s worse, is that we put all our energies into innovations that make us lazier and lazier and more and more dependent on the internet of things

—an ever-burgeoning structure that relies upon global interconnect.

We don’t think about where water and food come from. We don’t focus on cleaner energy supplies.

We don’t teach the smart engineering that nature uses every day, the principles that ensure perfect harmony and unity throughout our living, interconnected planet, the commons.

We turn on a tap or go to the grocery store. We flick a switch and we get light.

But as Sir James Lovelock wrote 9 years ago—we can't keep going like this.

Business as usual will be the end of us—whatever we do.

There is a conflict between humankind and the planet

—we demand more than the planet can supply.

There just aren't enough resources to support our lifestyles.

We need to become one with the planet. We need to go back to James Lovelock’s Gaia and treat the earth and everything on it as a single, interconnected, living organism

—we need to live as one.

In the USA, we laud LEED and other such nonsense which do so little to address overconsumption in any meaningful way.

We tag what should be the norm as Green, put a label on it and think we’re saving the planet.

What we really want is self-driving cars, the iPhone 8 and another hundred channels of TV to put on a screen that would serve as a cinema.

Let’s imagine a different world

—one in which there is a global dialog between the rich and the poor, the industrialized and the less industrialized worlds.

One in which the mighty tech giants in Silicon Valley address the real problems that humankind faces.

What if Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook focused on the grand engineering challenges such as the provision of food, water, energy and waste?

What if these masters and mistresses of innovation sought to reduce the problems of rural depopulation, shrinkage of the gap between the rich and the poor?

Such household names could change the way we think about the world and provide hope that we really can come together and work for the common good.

Sure, Facebook has done much to reunite old friends and we fly airships across parched terrains to provide the internet to people who are starving and illiterate. Neither fill an empty belly.

When these companies change their priorities, to whom should they look for advice?

To the arrays of academics distributed throughout our universities?

To the World Bank, the UN, or any global institution?


I believe they should be looking to people like this peanut farmer in Jirapa.

If you look behind this woman, you will see an array of raised beds. Over the years these have evolved to be the most efficient way to grow groundnuts.

This woman, and women like her, really know how to live with the land. They are resilient and resourceful, else they will not survive.

Is the way she farms the most efficient? Is it the most productive? Probably not, but her farming is more in harmony with the planet than the industrial agriculture we practice.

Because she's good at doing more with less, she takes more care with what she does.

She cannot afford to waste precious food. She doesn’t have access to, or cannot afford, pesticides or fertilizers so she must use natural sources of manure like cow dung.

What else of the backwoods technology still practiced in these remote rural regions?

There are innumerable ways of collecting and storing water, farming and storing food to name but a few.

These are grain houses in Ende, Mali, on the edge of the Bandigara escarpment.

Believe it or not they’ll keep millet in good condition for 2 years, edible for 3.

They’re made of mud, wood and a bit of straw and driven by the sun.

So much for us to learn from this simple photograph.

So much space for real innovation that looks to nature for inspiration, that thinks about design for place and culture.

Stepping back and looking south from Douro on top of the Bandiagara escarpment, one sees a barren terrain—sandy soil scattered with small communities.

The incredible fact about this part of the world is that it’s been occupied for over 1000 years.

I was there in 2007—so much to learn.

Sure, a few things are now imported, but, by and large, these people really do live with the land.

No FedEx or UPS, if you want something you make it from what's at hand.

Is everybody here starving and thirsty? Of course not. They’re all fit and well.

I often wonder what would happen if we were placed in this environment? Would we be able to survive?

This question might arise sooner rather than later.

Our supplies of natural resources are running out a faster rate than most people realize.

Climate change has arrived earlier than expected.

Without big changes, our access to natural resources is going to be severely curtailed.

We too will have to start thinking very seriously about where our food and water come from.

We’ll be so busy surviving, we won’t have time for the Internet if it even exists.

When I first started this talk, I said we had a lot to learn from the women of Africa.

I took this photograph at about 5:30 AM.

I have never been in a more tranquil place in my life.

This community derives just about everything it needs from the land around them.

As an engineer, I feel compelled to work with these communities, to help make their lives more comfortable.

At the same time, seeing what a mess we’ve made the world, I realize that we have so much to learn from these women.

We squander natural resources as if they’re limitless, the same resources they conserve because they understand the life-support system that mother Earth provides.

We can learn how

—to survive with far fewer resources

—to do so much more with so much less.

They’re already coping with climate change.

The rains no longer come in the month they used to, and when they start no one knows if it's a shower or whether it’s the start of the planting season.

It’s even worse, when the rain does come, it comes down in torrents, washing away the seedlings and rushing off to the nearest stream, no time to recharge the aquifers.

The situation is urgent.

As the gap between the rich and the poor increases, so does the tension in the shanty towns in the less-industrialized world.

Increasing populations and climate change are accelerating the rate of rural depopulation.

It has long been projected that the next major unrest will arise in the self-organized communities of the poorer cities where rising temperatures, insecure food and water supplies will push people to extreme behavior to survive.

It’s projected that 65% of the world will live in cities in 2050—to me that is a terrifying thought. What resources will we use to build and run these cities?

Time to think about the men—after all, they are 50% of the population.

I continue to struggle to understand Ghana, let alone the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

For this talk, I turned, as always, to my friend and confidante of 50 years, who has spent her whole life working to improve the lives of the poorest of the poor with increased access to clean water and education.

I asked her if the extreme poor were happy?

She laughed and told me stories about men and women.

One day she was surprised to see a lot of women riding bicycles to attend a local maternity clinic. Bicycles tend to belong to the men who are not in the habit of lending them to the women. On this occasion, the husbands had lent their bicycles to their wives.


So that their visit to the clinic would take less time away from their labors in the fields.

But—the men too have a hard time. In the dry season, declining rural economies drive them out of the villages to the urban areas, the cocoa farms and the mines.

Poorly educated, they live on the streets and pursue mundane, labor intensive jobs.

A cruel, unintended outcome, is that they often contract sexually transmitted diseases which they then bring back to their rural communities, as they do tuberculosis from the mines and weed-smoking for strength.

She then told me the story of a women’s meeting she attended in a polygamous village.

The question was asked of the wives, “What will you do when your husband’s girlfriend knocks on your gate?

Will you open it?”

The unanimous answer was yes, we will open it—yes to a woman who might well displace you to become your husband’s favorite wife.

These same women will share with you their only plate of food, give you their seat and their water.

We must strive to

—reduce inequity

—eliminate the cycle of intergenerational poverty

—use our natural resources more wisely

What have taken away today? Pity? Empathy?

Or have you looked far enough ahead to see yourself in these photographs?

I hope so, for then you’ll realize where we are and just how much these women can teach us about living with the land, conserving resources and doing more with less—a new way of doing things.

They can teach us about real innovation that uses technology for the benefit of all humankind, how to ride life’s ups and downs and how to become one world.

Most importantly, we bring this learning from the bush to the classroom, to the corporate boardrooms.

We change the way we teach engineering; we change our priorities.

We must and we can.

Nccyen – One mouth in Dagaare – Unity.

Thank you.


Toby Cumberbatch

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