Geared for Change: Products for the Impoverished

A new start-up’s counterintuitive plan to end poverty by getting poor people to buy stuff

Do-Gooder Tech

Technologies like this treadle pump, which delivers water to fields in Bangladesh, can help lift communities out of povertyPaul Polak

More than a billion people worldwide live in poverty—not a gadget hound's I-can't-afford-an-iPhone poverty, but devastating, living-on-a-dollar-a-day poverty. These folks have trouble paying for food, staying healthy, getting an education, and doing many of the other daily things you and I take for granted. In future postings of this column, we'll discuss new tech that tackles each of these specific problems. But to kick things off, let's look at a new program that aims at the most obvious problem of the poor: They need more money.

D-Rev, a newly launched non-profit, wants companies to create products that people can use to earn a living. Manufacture a cheap water purifier, say, and a villager could sell clean water to others for a reasonable fee. This approach has benefits on nearly all sides: The villager makes much more money than what he paid for the product, the community gets access to safe H20, and the water-purifier company even rakes in a small profit.

Of course, most big companies are in the business of selling to the rich, not the poor. That's where D-Rev comes in. Founded by a veteran humanitarian and staffed by a circuit-designing engineer, D-Rev collaborates with for-profit companies to develop new products. Right now they're working with Cascade Designs, a big outdoor company, on a $300 water purifier that churns out 1,300 gallons a day, and with an as-yet-unnamed electronics company on a small, powerful generator that's fueled by bicycle pedaling. (How does a bicycle generator help someone earn a living? Imagine pedaling from village to village, storing electricity in a battery along the way and then charging people's cellphones for a few cents a pop.)

D-Rev creates a wide range of products by applying the same basic engineering principles to each one. First they pare it down to its most essential parts, and then they find creative ways to make those parts inexpensively. For the generator, for instance, they wound up using R/C car motors, which turn out to be really efficient at producing power. For the water purifier, they eliminated pricey pumps and instead rely on gravity to drop liquid over the main component (a small electrified plate that turns saltwater into disinfecting chlorine). They also managed to combine several control circuits into one to make the unit even smaller and cheaper.

So far, D-Rev says, they've had a pretty easy time finding companies to participate. For one, D-Rev already has evidence that low-cost, high-utility products can help the poor and make companies money. Founder Paul Polak's previous organization, International Development Enterprises, created $25 irrigation pumps for small farmers-and helped local entrepreneurs sell millions of them. For another, D-Rev's corporate partners can make an even bigger profit by turning around and selling their new product (like this D-Rev-aided LED flashlight) to wealthier Americans. Efficient, affordable, useful technology, after all, is good for everyone.