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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
We must strive to
—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.