Within the last decade, technological and material advances across a variety of sectors have made it possible to create more efficient, and in many cases, more cost-effective products and technologies for those living at the base of the pyramid (BoP) than was ever possible before. Indeed, it seems that everywhere you look these days – from the daily news to academic competitions to social start-ups – that new inventions or twists on existing technologies are popping up, each promising ever more effective, affordable, and durable technological solutions. Striving to make products and technologies “better” is important in the ongoing effort to supply BoP populations with goods and services that will improve their quality of life and, ultimately, help to reduce poverty. However, as development practitioners, we must not lose sight of the fact that the “technology-side” of product and technology development is only half of the challenge. Producing technologies that push efficiency “limits” to new levels while simultaneously reducing production costs and extending the longevity of the technologies is often not enough to ensure real impact and progress. Why? Because culture, personal preferences, ingrained habits, etc. influence how people react to technologies, what they want from technologies, and how they will use (or not use) technologies - regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor. In other words, the “people-side” of development needs to be better incorporated into the product and technology design process.
About three months ago I spent a day in eastern Gujarat - a village called Virpur and a town called Chhota Udepur. It was my first time. In the Chhota Udepur market, I found a "stove shop"; it was selling LPG stoves with a large single burner for the commercial/institutional customers. I went in the shop and talked to the owners. The old man has been selling and repairing kerosene stoves and lamps for some 40 years. He still has kerosene lamps (electricity is fairly extensive and the supplies are reliable, so kerosene is used as backup or for farm use, or for the poorest people with low-quality homes or no homes) and also sells metal wood and charcoal stoves. The colorful small cylinders are for pressurized kerosene stoves. Fuelwood is sold for about 8-10 USc/kg, high for a relatively small town. Another is of a van making LPG cylinder delivery to homes. I am learning Gujarat is unusual - my village of some 3,000-4,000 people back in 1940 used to have coal and charcoal; kerosene came in the 1950s and LPG in the 1970s. But, apart from the demand side (affordability, readiness to change), the existence of delivery chains such as these also played a great role. For towns like Chhota Udepur, LPG stoves from LPG franchisees started in the 1980s and the 1990s, but even then it was up to this small stove shop to innovate and make stoves for the commercial, institutional market (and repair the household LPG stoves cheaply).