Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Accenture Economic Development Award

Alexander J. Field


This year the Accenture Economic Development Award Panel considered 57 applications, a 20 percent increase over the number we reviewed in 2005.  As has been true in the past, the majority of our applications came from developing countries.  This is where the bulk of the world’s poor reside, and it is natural that an award program focused on technology benefiting humanity should reflect such a pattern.  Since developing countries have larger agricultural sectors than those in the developed world, it is also natural that many of our nominations focused on problems of agricultural production.  Water, both for irrigation and for drinking, remained a recurring theme.  Shelter and transportation also occupied our innovators, as did high tech innovations designed to help those who have limited access to information.  These descriptors by no means exhaust the range of projects we examined- many of them quite ingenious and original- as a consideration of our five Laureates reveals.

The panel wrestled with a number of issues not explicitly addressed in the past, including whether prior awards from other organizations should influence us in our deliberations.  There were arguments on both sides of this question.  Prior awards, particularly from other competitions, provide additional external validation of the quality of the nomination or the organization.  On the other hand, we also felt a strong imperative to search out innovations and individuals or organizations that had not previously been recognized.  Both considerations are of course valid and important, and ultimately we endorsed a neutral stance.  Prior awards, by us or by others, would neither increase nor decrease the probability that we would recognize a project this year. 

After extensive deliberation, we selected five Laureates, recognizing that we had many worthy projects from which to select.  We describe the Laureates below.

The Laureates

Mohammed Bah Abba, Mobah Rural Horizons, Kano, Nigeria        

In hot climates, without electricity or refrigerators, food spoils quickly, leading to loss of income, the spread of disease carrying insects, and gastrointestinal ailments.  The desert refrigerator consists of two nested clay pots, with a layer of wet river sand between, covered with a damp cloth. The evaporating water lowers the temperature of the interior pot, allowing local fruits, vegetables, and soft drinks to be stored without spoilage for several weeks rather than several days.  This reduces threats to health and enables farmers to get better prices for their crops.  It also raises female school attendance rates, because there is less need for families to press young girls into urgent attempts to sell food before it spoils.  The technology has already begun to diffuse from Nigeria.  It has been used in refugee camps in Sudan, and in rural hospitals lacking electricity in Eritrea to keep insulin vials cool.

In desert climates without electric refrigerators, perishable farm produce and other food usually spoils within three days.  Decayed food poses a waste disposal problem in its own right, but is also a breeding ground for houseflies and cockroaches, as well as the bacteria and parasites that cause diarrhea and dysentery.  The “pot in pot,” or desert refrigerator is manufactured from local clay using traditional artisan skills and is relatively inexpensive, costing between two dollars and five dollars.  The device relieves pressure on farmers to sell their produce at distress prices.  Eggplants, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okras can now be kept for three weeks rather than three days. African spinach stays fresh for 12 days rather than 24 hours.  And locally produced soft drinks and drinks from pasteurized milk remain safely drinkable for five days rather than 15 hours. 

The inventor and designer of the pot initially manufactured and distributed 5,000 of the units at his own expense to residents of five villages.  The innovation has raised incomes in rural areas, slowed the rural to urban outflow, and opened up new market opportunities for women.  It has also enabled young girls to increase their school participation, because they are no longer pressed into selling rapidly decaying produce.   The “pot in pot” has even found a market in urban areas where the electricity supplies to drive conventional refrigerators can be erratic.

For more information on the Mobah Rural Horizons project, do an Internet search on “Mohammed Bah Abba.”

Centre for Development of Disadvantaged People, Chennai, India

Contaminated drinking water spreads disease. Commercially provided bottled water is expensive.  The system developed by the Centre for Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP) uses locally available materials to produce purified water cheaply.  Groups of local women provide safe drinking water for their families and sell the surplus.  With a $400 purification unit, water is filtered through charcoal, water, sand, gravel, and the crushed seeds of local plants.  The water is collected in one liter bottles, heated in solar cookers for two to three hours, tested for purity, and is then available for use at a cost of one dollar for 225 liters.  The bottles are recycled, washed, and reused.  Local “Self Help Groups (SHGs)” of about 15 women manage the enterprise, producing clean water for their families and selling the surplus to help pay for the purification unit and earn additional income.  Two years into this project the system already is providing clean drinking water to over one million individuals.

A major advantage of this system over other methods of water purification is that it does not require electricity or purchased materials such as disinfectants or chemical coagulants.  The local plants whose powdered seeds are used for filtration can be easily grown and also provide edible greens.  The CDDP diffuses the innovation by providing instruction on its benefits, including information on how to test the water quality.  Successful SHGs are encouraged to publicize the system in neighboring villages. Members of an SHG obtain a loan of about $400 from a bank to purchase a purification unit and are then responsible for maintaining it.  The income from selling surplus water is about $250 a month, which is used to pay back the loan.  After the loan is retired the women share the profit or use the funds to acquire another unit, the entire output of which can be sold for profit.  At the time the CDDP’s Tech Award application was filed, the organization reported 9,289 SHGs running 12,801 purification units (6,118 SHGs with one unit, 2,815 with two, and 351 with three).  The calculation that more than one million individuals are currently served is based on the assumption that each unit serves the needs of about 25 families with an average family size of four.  The CDDP finds that the incidence of water borne disease declines 96 percent as the consequence of the shift to pathogen free drinking water.

The CDDP is our first organization to win recognition from The Tech Awards for a second time.  They were honored in 2004 for their simple but innovative rat catcher.

For more information on CDDP and the Purified Drinking Water Project, please see:

Global Connection Project, Mountain View, CA, Pittsburgh, PA, Washington DC, U.S.

When disaster strikes, local infrastructure is disrupted and it is difficult to know how best to target relief.   Lives are lost and economic development is halted or reversed until problems can be addressed. In the chaos after a hurricane or earthquake rapid access to real-time computer  imagery can make a big difference.  This project uses software innovations to link National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite imagery with the Google Earth database, enabling relief agencies, and anyone with a Web browser, quickly to assess damage and direct resources to where they are most needed.  The innovations facilitated relief work for hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

Global Connection is notable in a number of respects, including the fact that it represents an unusual example of cooperation among university, government, non-profit, and private sector organizations.  On an institutional level, Carnegie Mellon University, NASA-AMES, the National Geographic Society, and Google all played a role in this collaboration, which began with the development of a set of software tools to link pictures and stories of real people with the earth image browser to create global connectivity.

Geekcorps Mali developed a technological solution providing low-cost Internet access using a computer resistant to heat, dust, and sand.   They field tested the solution in a remote village in northern Mali reachable only by boat after a two day drive from the capital.

The ruggedized computer is sealed, uses a heat pipe rather than a fan, and draws only 35 watts of power, requirements low enough that the computer can be powered easily by a solar panel  (by comparison, another ruggedized community PC draws 100 watts and has more easily degradable, moving parts).  Although the initial cost of the Geekcorps machine is about $300 higher than an off the shelf unit, its cost of operation is lower, because it requires a fraction of the number of solar panels, and has lower maintenance costs.  Internet access is through Regional Broadband Local Area Network (RGBAN) service.  By disabling access to graphics and using other techniques to limit bandwidth (billing is by kilobyte), Geekcorps Mali reduced charges to about $30 per month.

Now rural radio stations and their listeners can receive and transmit news almost instantaneously, and also quickly send news back to the capital via the Internet. Prior to this innovation, news of important developments could take a week to get from the capital to a rural radio station, transferred by cassette tape from station to station.

The Geekcorps Web site ( contains more information about the Mali project. 

Synergo, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of Mayan weavers in Guatemala earn their living producing textiles using a backstrap loom.  The traditional method of weaving leads to fatigue, numbness, and pain, and forces women to work for only short periods before stopping, often within half an hour.  Aside from the pain, long term damage to their bodies can result.  Weavers’ health and their productivity are thus both adversely impacted.  The Backstrap Weavers’ Ergonomic Bench, an adjustable rocking bench with an interlocking footrest, prevents pain and skeletal damage to weavers and increases the length of time they can work without fatigue, thus improving their health and economic well being. 

Traditional weaving technique requires women to sit on their ankles, their knees bent with legs folded beneath them.  They develop, numbness, stiffness in joints, and painful calluses as a result.  The ergonomic bench prevents this.  The bench itself is simple to produce from local materials; it is made of wood, glue, metal fasteners, and a wood sealant, with foam strips added to cushion the edges.  Because the bench is individually adjustable to fit a weaver’s body, it can be used by several female members of a household even if they are of different ages and sizes.

The benches were field tested by making them available for purchase with a 75 percent subsidy.  So far 100 benches are in use.  Although the consulting company run by the innovator is a for-profit organization, all of the consultant services associated with the design and delivery of the bench have been provided on a volunteer basis.  The designers of the bench have filed a disclosure statement with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office to effectively put the design in the public domain and prevent others from possibly patenting it and thus restricting its diffusion. 

The backstrap loom is used widely in Central and South America, as well as in Africa and Asia, where descriptions of its use bring to mind the history of protoindustrialization in 17th century Europe more readily than the 21st century.  There is obviously a very wide scope for the bench’s applicability.  The designers have already been contacted by organizations in Peru and Indonesia who are interested in introducing the bench in their countries.

More information about the Backstrap Weavers’ Ergonomic Bench can be found at: 


Consideration of all of the Accenture Economic Development Award applications and the five we have selected reminds us that for hundreds of millions of people the challenges of life do bear more relation to those faced by denizens of the developed worlds in the seventeenth or eighteenth century as opposed to the twenty-first century.  The challenges of small holder agriculture, the search for clean water and unspoiled food, the toil of hand weaving, recovery from natural disasters, information that is more than a week old when it reaches you- all reflect a pace of life, a standard of living, and a degree of income and personal insecurity which is sometimes difficult to fathom fully for those differently situated.  Not all of the innovations we honor are low tech, but we are impressed again by how relatively simple and inexpensive innovations can often make a big difference in the lives of many people.


The Panel

 Alexander J. Field, Chair, Michael and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University

Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director of Community Affairs, Microsoft, Inc.

Shahid Firoz, Former Vice Chairman, Economic Development Council, President of the World Trade Center, Karachi, Pakistan

Linda Kamas, Associate Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University

Reiji Sano, Lifetime Honorary Member of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Japan

Drew Starbird, Associate Professor of Operation Management Information Systems, Santa Clara University

About the Author

Alex Field

Alexander J. Field

Alexander J. Field is the Michel and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics at Santa Clara University. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Gamma Sigma, his research and teaching interests include American and European economic history, macroeconomics, and the economics of technological and institutional change. His article, “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century,” appeared in the September 2003 American Economic Review.  Professor Field’s administrative positions at Santa Clara University have included chair of the economics department, associate dean and acting dean of the Business School, acting Academic Vice President, and member of the school’s Board of Trustees. Professor Field received his A.B. from Harvard University (1970), his Master of Science from the London School of Economics (1971), and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley (1974).  He taught previously at Stanford University. 

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