How do you win a major sustainability award from MIT? Simultaneously tackle health care and clean water in the developing world like Dr. BP Agrawal, the founder of Sustainable Innovations—a seven year-old nonprofit that builds self-sustaining projects in rural villages. Agrawal recently won the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, which will be given out this week at MIT's Eureka Fest. The prize honors "inventors whose products or processes impact issues of global relevance, as well as issues that impact local communities in terms of meeting basic health needs, and building sustainable livelihoods for the world's poorest populations."
Agrawal's first major project with Sustainable Innovations, the Aakash Ganga ("River from Skies") initiative, is being tested in six rural Indian villages. The initiative installs rainwater collection systems on villagers' rooftops along with a pipe system that pumps water to larger reservoirs. Sustainable Solutions provides some of the cash, and the villagers provide the rest. In exchange, residents can keep some of the water for themselves and get paid for sending leftovers to the reservoirs.
The initiative is going well so far, with over 600 collection systems installed. Agrawal attributes part of the program's success to his cultural involvement in local villages. "Villages have a lot of traditions. We treat them as social capital," he says. "We don't treat traditions as something that holds society back." Agrawal has, for example, leveraged the tradition of women worshiping at local wells when a child is born to ensure that reservoirs stay clean. The wells are all dry, so Agrawal swayed village women to worship at local reservoirs by offering them flowers and fruit baskets, which cost $50 a pop. This prompted the mothers to convince family members to avoid defecating in the reservoirs—a relatively cheap solution to a problem that would cost approximately $1,000 per village for a more technologically advanced system.
Agrawal eventually hopes to implement his system in 1,000 villages and provide clean drinking water to 2.5 million people. But that's a long-term goal, since "We hope to complete 100 villages by 2030. We're are working with the government of India to set up a social enterprise where the government, private sector, and community all contribute," Agrawal says. So far, Agrawal has raised approximately $500,000 for the initiative.
Sustainable Innovations' second major project, Arogya Ghar, delivers health care to villages via a laptop-based system that serves up disease protocols. Arogya Ghar also offers medical identification cards to residents, so every time someone gets a vaccination or a checkup, the procedure is logged using the card. "It's a poor man's medical record," explains Agrawal.
Local girls are trained to use the cheap Arogya Ghar laptops, which are hooked up to diagnostic devices. They travel door-to-door checking up on residents, and are paid 25 cents for each diagnostic task performed. Agrawal says that the program provides self-esteem to the girls, whose options are usually limited. "They think they can only be housewives, and when we invite them to this class for training, we can see a glow in their eyes that finally someone can trust them. It creates a sense of dignity."
So far, Sustainable Innovations has implemented pilots of the health care initiative in four Indian villages. Once the organization raises $250,000 for Arogya Ghar, the program will expand to 50 villages.
Agrawal doesn't plan to implement any new programs in the foreseeable future. "These two projects will keep me busy for the next four to five years," he says. "I want to scale them up so we can create demonstrable models. That will keep the government interested." In the meantime, Agrawal tells us that he is actively looking for both volunteers and new technological solutions for his existing programs. Check out Sustainable Innovations' Web site for details.