Appropedia’s Travel Intern Program Initiative: Dock to doc

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the organizations that are working to reduce poverty and help us live both richly and sustainably had the resources to share their best ideas and practices? Of course! (Okay, maybe that was too easy. )

(Port of Callao, Peru by Jim O'Hagan, via Mediawiki Commons)

But we know that most of these organizations are already overcommitted and that thoroughly documenting a project is a big job. Meanwhile, there are lots of folks that want to help make the world a better place, and are quite willing to travel as part of the effort.  But very often the willing traveler is no more knowledgeable than local workers, and so it is hard to justify traveling in-country to lend a hand.

Aha moment.

Juxtaposing these tensions provides a nice little epiphany. Traveling interns can make excellent documenters.  Documenting great projects at Appropedia helps all parties.  The traveling intern learns a ton.  The host project gets some deserved recognition and awareness.  The broader community gets to see well-written, in-depth information that will, ultimately, get categorized, linked and translated for greatest usefulness.

To this end, Appropedia has begun prototyping our Travel Internship program.  Appropedia’s first travel intern, Isabell (Liz) Kimbrough, is already in-country in Peru. She has already coordinated with some partners, but still has room in her itinerary to visit (and document) other projects in Peru (June), Ecuador (July), Colombia (July)  and Panama (August).  And so, we hereby launch the Travel Intern Initiative to invite everyone to help make Isabell’s trip better.  We also want to prepare for broader participation in (and promotion of) our Travel Intern program later this year, so that you can head for the dock, and get your documentation thing on.

Please take a look at these pages to learn more about the program, and find ways you can help it have the most impact:

  • See Isabell’s itinerary to learn where she’s going, or add a potential project or partner for her or a future Travel Intern.
  • Would you (or a friend)  like to be a Travel Intern? Practice writing articles and show your stuff! And check out the application process.
  • How can we make the Travel Intern program better?  Leave a note on this page, or a leave a comment on this blog post!
  • Visit the Travel Intern Initiative launch page for more details.

Please help us spread the word about this program.  Use Twitter, Facebook or your blog to share it with potential interns or partners.  If you’re as excited as we are about this program, and have an hour a week to help out, consider a stint stewarding this Initiative!

Saving the planet through personal choice

It is now 2010, only 40 years from the middle of this century, when (there seems to be consensus) we may reasonably hope that the human population will have stabilized in the neighborhood of 9 billion. That’s a huge number, to be sure, particularly since we were at 3 billion in 1960.  Take a look at the Wikipedia page on world population. Between 1750 and 1850, the population increased by ~60%.  From 1850 to 1950 we shot up ~100%, and between 1950 and 2050 even the “UN Low” projection shows an increase of roughly 200%.  From 60%, to 100%, to at least 200% and then… 0%? Or negative? Hard to believe, really.  Seems like 300% would be a fair prediction.  And yet this notion of flat-to-down world population are not merely wishful thinking; there is already strong evidence that population growth is decreasing and may be zero or negative in less than 50 years. Wow.

The on-the-ground realities behind these growth rate numbers reflect massive cultural changes. The explosion of humanity shows a certain kind of progress toward things most of us want: improved nutrition, lower infant mortality, longer lives, better disease prevention, etc, for ourselves and our families. What I’m saying is that the population boom was not the result of some effective world wide growth campaign, but a combination of technology improvements in agriculture and health, getting the word out, and  people making their own choices to adopt new methods.

Now we don’t have to be Thomas Malthus to imagine that untempered growth would be a bad thing in the long run, and that slowing the pace is vital to avoid all kinds of resource shortages, etc.  The growth came from people making predictable choices to take advantage of new options.  Is there any chance that we can somehow make use of the personal choice dynamic to bring us to the reduced growth?  Or will population be constrained through starvation and war driven by vast and excruciating shortages and through policies like compulsory sterilization?  Maybe “all of the above”?  It seems plain to me that the more that we can support and encourage the choice-based reduction in growth, the less we will face the tragedy of externally imposed reductions.

The Wikipedia page referenced above tells us that fertility is already falling regionally. Some of that reduction is the result of governance policies “encouraging” small families, but reduced growth is also present in areas without strict population policies.  Large groups of people are having fewer kids for their own reasons, making much different choices than their parents and grandparents did.   Much of that shift has occurred in the developed world.  It is also beginning in the developing world. The cultural changes that motivate lower fertility are multifaceted and include reduced infant mortality, improved education and literacy, the empowerment of women, and a shift from an agricultural model based on child labor.

How is such massive cultural change instigated or mediated?  How do we as individuals “choose our culture”?  We are not simply our parents children, nor did we learn everything in school (particularly not in areas where even primary education is not guaranteed).  Culture is not simply established by government or NGO educational programs, though these may help.   Few of us learned to use the internet in a classroom, and yet somehow that behavior has spread, pretty much through personal choice.  (By contrast, there’s at least some evidence that cellphone usage norms may be learned in school :-))

I’m convinced that rapid cultural change is mediated by a zillion small and large individual decisions based on our experience in a world undergoing rapid macroeconomic change.  Amidst turmoil and uncertainty, many will seek to take their destinies into their own hands to improve their situation by trying something new (nicely exemplified, as I’ve said before, by William Kamkwamba).  The people who are successful will be imitated.  If enough people can make the right kind of choices, we will have a chance to create a stable world through peaceful means.

But time is tight. Humanity must adopt new behaviors quickly to avoid the “hard landing” that it (and other species) will otherwise face in the presence of our current practices. Appropedia’s founders (myself among them) believe that we can have lives that are both rich and sustainable. Today, much of the rich world is not sustainable, and much of the sustainable world is not rich.  What can we learn from each other?

Global progress toward improving the human condition has always depended on technological advances coupled with a millions of individual choices.  Our current reinvention also depends on individuals exercising self determination in the presence of awareness, knowledge and insight.  Could we support the vital rapid reinvention through a massive information campaign?  Alternatively, how much will progress be impeded if practical information is hard to find? Wikipedia has shown that large scale voluntary information sharing campaigns are possible and relatively cheap.  Enlightened self interest shows that such a campaign is essential.

It’s a matter of personal choice…

Wikipedia makes me proud to be human

It’s true.  For all our faults, we humans have done something amazing at Wikipedia.  Sure, the folks on staff there deserve a bit of credit, but it’s the millions contributors like you and me that built that phenomenal resource.  And fast.  And it ain’t exactly done yet.  I just took a look at the English Wikipedia statistics page again.  Eleven million registered users.  Not bad.  Three million articles.  A whopping 350M page edits.  If the average edit takes a minute (gee, that seems short to me) then that’s at least 6M hours of work!  All done free for the rest of us to make use of.  And of course that’s just in English; I figure we oughta multiply by ten for all the other languages (and yeah, that seems low also). Equally amazing to me is that even the organizing structures and policies were all built organically by volunteers.  The approach has been “let’s try to find policies that will work.”  And, one way or another, 11M registered users (plus a bunch of anonymous users and some bots) managed to figure out how to work together, for free, to build something functional and useful.

So, yes, I marvel at the remarkable edifice that is Wikipedia, and I think it says something about what humans are capable of.  And yet, I’ve only made a few small edits there.  Instead, Wikipedia’s success motivated me to create my own wiki around how we humans can work together in practical ways to make lives better.  ( “WinWinWiki” got as big as 14 pages before I joined Chris and Lonny here at Appropedia, which had more pages,  maybe even 100.)   Appropedia’s  hard problem is that much of the information we value often resides nonverbally in people’s heads  and not on some web page.  Find the words to describe how to select the best local dirt for your earthen blocks takes some cleverness.  Consider something as “simple” as rainwater harvesting.  Wikipedia has a nice overview page on the topic, but they don’t provide enough information to build your own system.  Appropedia has a portal focused on rainwater harvesting, with lots of links to practical articles on actually doing some rainwater harvesting.  No doubt there are still unanswered questions, or regional variations that could be added.  Some of that info is hiding on the web somewhere, but some might be in your head.  Or in someone’s head who (gasp!) doesn’t spend much time on the internet, or perhaps doesn”t have regular access (at least for a couple of years).

Appropedia faces a lot of the same challenges that Wikipedia did, and  some different ones as well, but there’s one challenge Appropedia won’t face.  When Wikipedia was first getting started, many said it was impossible.  “Who’s going to spend the time?  How can content quality be maintained?  How will disputes be settled? If you let just any unregistered Schmo edit, it’ll be a spammer”s paradise. Yada yada, it’ll never work.”  But of course it has worked, amazingly well.  (Here’s a nice self referential article about that, and, for balance, a discussion of criticisms. I just love that.)  And since Wikipedia has been-there-done-that, the notion that Appropedia is impossible seems rather naive or even far-fetched.  The question is not “if” like-minded humans can build a large open library of practical and sustainable solutions, but “how” or “when”. I find that profoundly inspiring.

It’s why I’m here.  Oh, and I have a 6-year-0ld son.  He needs to understand what’s possible for humans to do by working together. When he’s my age (“39”), he’ll have another two billion people to share the planet with.  Maybe you can help me show him what we can do together?

Enabling the Windmill Bills

I had the good fortune to meet William Kamkwamba last Friday night as he and his co-author Bryan Mealer stopped in San Francisco at a private residence as part of their book tour for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. As the two took a few minutes to share a bit about William’s life, Bryan referred to William as “Windmill Bill.”  Fair enough, except that we soon learned there’s a lot more to William than windmills.  For example, he also built crude but effective power switches and even a circuit breaker to protect his home from risk due to the bare metal wiring he had used.

I’ve only just begun reading the book, and yet I’ve already been struck by several ways in which William’s story highlights the power of Appropedia’s vision.  William used available materials, mostly from a local junkyard, combined with insight from a high school physics text and a book on windmills, to construct his first windmill a few years ago.  William could not then read English, but painstakingly translated some sections of these books with some help from a local library. With his windmills, William has generated power to light his household, and pumped well water to supply his village of Wimbe, Malawi.  In the first chapter, William talks about how learning about science displaced a pattern of magical thinking.

The power of ideas and knowledge is immense.  William’s initiative and perseverance have fittingly won him a rare opportunity at the African Leadership Academy, where 200 other young Africans have the opportunity to get a phenomenal education.  Ideas and knowledge.  William certainly had limited educational resources when he first built his windmill.  100’s of  millions of others in developing nations, both school-aged and older, have even less. Many are working to expand access to libraries, but the task is huge and hard to scale. However, just as the developing world has been able to bypass the huge investment in landline phone technology, they may have alternatives to physical libraries.

In the coming 4 years, half a billion new Internet users will come online, a great many in developing countries. In the past year, shipments of data-enabled phones outnumbered simple SMS phones in Africa.  In ten years, even those in the developing world will begin to gain some access to the internet. That puts a library within reach of every inquisitive mind. Imagine what will happen when all the world’s Windmill Bills can read about useful ideas in their own language.

That is what the Appropedia community is working toward.

Sharing solutions in West Africa

Some groundnuts (peanuts) just pulled from the ground for inspection.  The coconuts were just set there for convenience; the pen was tossed in for scale.

I have just had the good fortune to make a short visit to West Africa for 10 days.  I spent a week in Sierra Leone, visiting 7 small primitive farming villages near the town of Lunsar.  Lunsar itself is a town of 50,000 or so, about 2 hours from the capital, Freetown.  Lunsar has no central electricity (but remarkably good cell phone coverage).   I was working with Village Hope while in Sierra Leone, with the self-assigned task of looking into increasing peanut (groundnut) production.  (The photo above shows groundnut plants pulled form two different farms in Kholifah, a village near Lunsar, with a couple of coconuts that just happened to be placed there.)

From Sierra Leone, I made hop to Ghana, and a skip to Togo where I visited another very similar village about 15 miles north of the capital, Lome.  In Togo, I was visiting on behalf of LeapingStone, working on plans to build a permanent school in the village, as well as looking into Income Generating Programs to boost the wealth of the village.

Before my travels, I was cautioned more than once to respect the idea that these villagers are actually very sophisticated farmers, and know very well what they are doing with their crops.    What I found from my face-to-face meetings discussing groundnut and other farming was that the truth is more complex.  Yes, they are extremely sophisticated in some ways.  They grow at least a dozen crops: two varieties of rice, two of groundnuts, cassava (manioc), several kinds of beans, sorghum (cous-cous), tomatoes, pumpkins, ginger, peppers, bananas, coconuts, palm oil, mangos, papayas, and who knows what else.  In addition, they raise chickens, goats and sheep in most villages (but cows are rare and oxen and horses even more so).  In cases where they have been farming a particular crop for decades, they know a great deal about how to farm these crops fairly efficiently using manual methods.

On the other hand, they are not in a position to measure output precisely, so they cannot tell you whether one groundnut variety might have a 10% higher yield.  They’ve been farming groundnuts in the “uplands” for decades during the rainy season, and know the right time to plant and to harvest.  Within the past 15 years they have begun planting groundnuts in swamps during the dry season, with some success; in the past 5 years or so most have also begun to add a second planting of groundnuts in the uplands during the dry season.  In each of these new cases, they are still using the same variety of groundnut.  Is that the most efficient?  It turns out that the dry upland (second) planting of groundnuts has a smaller yield than the wet season (first) planting of groundnuts.  But also the groundnuts from the 2nd planting make far better seeds because the weather at harvest time allows for much better drying.  Despite this, they only use these 2nd planting seeds for the first planting.  They do not have enough for the 2nd planting itself.  Would there be any benefit?  This experiment has not yet been tried.

Another surprise is that, in this time when weather patterns are changing significantly, the villages still rely on traditional methods to estimate the timing of the spring rains and other weather.  This despite the fact that they get good radio reception in the villages, and UN weather forecasts are broadcast daily.  Ah, but it turns out that the broadcasts are in English, and most of the villagers speak their local language, plus Krio (Sierra Leone’s creole).

Also, all the villages we spoke with have more land available than they can farm.  They are very interested in scaling up through use of basic mechanical assistance.  But these are new techniques, and although they are very interested, they are not in a position to take big risks (like incurring debts) to experiment with basic industrialization.  All this is part of a rather weak financial management situation that often has the villagers “buying high (buying seed during the 1st planting time) and selling low (during harvest, when price is half of what it is during the planting time).

Similarly, in Togo, we learned about a financial technique called “tontine” which many villages and individuals, both in Togo and globally, use to great effect.  But this scheme is not universally known in Togo, and some villages do not employ it.  The village we visited was very interested in raising rabbits, since they heard about another villages success in that area.  It turns out, however, that there is a very limited market.  Only the larger hotels in the capital city buy the rabbits; locals don’t eat them and probably won’t start.  If you invest a chunk into rabbit farming, but have no buyer in place, you may have wasted your money.  On the other hand, snail-raising is also of interest, and here the locals are developing their own taste for the critters, so that investment may make sense.

My point?  Working as a part of the NGO’s above, I’m convinced that often the solutions to our questions exist, or could be easily adapted from a similar solution.   It would be excellent to have a vast selection of articles on all these topics and much more.  Wikipedia has some, but you have to know what you’re looking for, and most Wikipedia articles are simply overviews with no practical “how-to” details.  At the moment, the main beneficiaries of such articles would be NGOs and some farmers with occasional internet access.  But access to the internet in the developing world is exploding.   Just as each village seems to have at least one person with a cell phone, I’ll bet a nickel that within five years most villages will have a resident with good access (by smart-phone or otherwise) to the internet.  See AMD’s “50×15” goal.  It’s not that far off.  (For some additional thoughts on this trip, including phone-based email in Ghana, see my personal blog post on my hop back from Togo to Ghana.)

So, what content will those in the developing world want to read?  Britney’s latest stay in detox?  Or how to efficiently boost their production of protein?

Next stop, West Africa!

For me, there’s always some stepping stone in the path to the future that, when I make that step, triggers excitement for me.  In this case, it was sending off for my visas to Sierra Leone, Ghana and Togo.  Did it today…Woohoo!

Why those three countries?  Why now? Glad you asked!  I’m going to Sierra Leone because I’m on the board of Village Hope, which is active there.  I’m going to Togo because I’m on the board of LeapingStone, which is active in that country.  I’m going to Ghana, well, cuz ya can’t get directly from Sierra Leone to Togo!

In answer to the “why now” question, there are two answers.  First, it’s a good time to go from the perspective of those two small NGOs, and also a good time for me personally to get a better sense of what small NGOs really need from Appropedia (yep, on the board there too).  Second, it’s a birthday gift to myself.  Which birthday?  One of those major decade birthdays.  Nuff said.

So, soon I’ll post some wiki pages and questions that readers can help with.  One of my assignments, for example, is to do a bunch of advance work related to peanut shellers (we’ll be taking a Full Belly UNS).  Find out which villages grow the most, maybe microfinance questions, when is their growing season, how do they wash them, can they store them long periods, is there a market…. Stuff like that.  Plus a bunch of other questions about earthen construction for schools and latrines.  Plus everything else.

Should be great!  Anybody been to SL, Ghana or Togo lately?  Drop a line!  Will you be there around New Year’s?  I’ll stop by and say hello!

What does “Peace One Day” mean to me? Today it means OSN

Last year in late September, I came across the Peace One Day campaign. I missed the day (September 21), but saved the link as an email to myself, thinking that the value in an annual “Peace” day is to remind us with some regularity, so that we do stuff other days of the year. My thought was that in a few weeks I would blog on it and tie it to whatever Appropedia (or LeapingStone, or Village Hope) stuff I was working on. That’s not random… My motivation for joining Appropedia was to do something that felt “real” toward improving lives, helping to bridge cultural gaps, and sustain the environment.

Well, today while trying to squeeze the inbox back down below 20 or so (almost manageable), I noticed the Peace One Day link at the bottom of the email. And it’s 3 days away. Well, the good news is that having that link hanging around was a good reminder all year. And so why not write a blog tying it to something I’m working on?

The biggest thing, and easiest to tie to Peace, is the Open Sustainability Network unconference, or OSNCamp. That’s coming on October 18-19 in San Francisco. It’s the first coming together of a large community of supportive people and organizations that are seeking to expand the impact of open sharing of solutions and collaborative problem solving in sustainability. (We at Appropedia include poverty reduction and international development in that picture.)

If you’re reading this post, maybe you think Peace One Day is a good idea. Maybe you think that openly sharing sustainable solutions can help. If so, why not come join us? There will be options for remote attendence, if travel is an issue, and the conference is free, except for your time. Is Peace One Day worth some of your time?