After getting their biology PhDs at Cornell in May, Gordon and Stellari headed not for a research lab but a tech startup. Their product: the first-ever enterprise software system made for farmers. Yes, farmers, especially the small farmers who make up 90% of the nation’s 2 million farms, and who are increasingly interested in going organic. “Record keeping has been an age old problem,” says Gordon. “With sustainable practices, there’s a lot more to think about. For a long time, if you had a problem, you could just spray better chemicals. Now you have to think about what you can do to make the soil stronger, or introducing beneficial insects.” Beyond basic accounting of seeds in and fruits out, the computer system integrates U.S. soil data and weather mapping, and even makes analyses and recommendations based on best practices and eventually the collective wisdom of the community. Launched in beta this month (February 2010), AgSquared, which is free to farmers (paid for by sponsorships from fertilizer companies and the like) is getting rapturous reactions. “There’s one guy out in Amherst who has these spreadsheets that he made himself that he’ll send to other farmers for $25,” says Gordon. “He told us, please make my system obsolete!”
Imagine the movie Newsies with a 21st century, subcontinent twist. SMS One Media is a microlocal news startup that hires undereducated street youths in rural India to edit their own SMS community newsletters. Each one is responsible for building an audience of 1000 mobile phone users and collecting local news updates–a water pump has been fixed, tomatoes are headed for market. The young mobile journalists also sell paid ads to finance the operation, collecting a living wage. Ghate himself is a high school dropout with a passion for empowering young people like himself, and using technology to transform the vast parts of India that are far from the IT boomtowns. “We want to make SMS (short messaging service) as a thread to integrate and interconnect local communities,” he says. A recent project with U.S.-based nonprofit Seeds of Empowerment was a children’s storytelling competition; the best writers got scholarships and their stories were published via iPhone and Kindle. The government of Bangalore is so excited that they’ve given the startup support to raise their readership to 5 million users in thousands of communities over the next few months.
AIDG, the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, is the type of locally headquartered, nimble organization that will be most important in Haiti’s recovery process after the big troops have cleared away. They offer seed funding and other help to local entrepreneurs to start small businesses selling green tech solutions like biogas digesters that are affordable to people making less than $4 a day; along with a partner organization, SOIL, they built a pay compost toilet in one of Haiti’s slums.
After the earthquake, AIDG got busy coordinating volunteer engineers and distributing cookstoves, and initiated a longer-term collaboration with Architecture for Humanity to rebuild houses safely.
Laine, whose family is from Haiti, became deputy director of AIDG in 2008. With a background in both media consulting and public health, she’s a widely read blogger and speaker on the connection between technology and the nonprofit sector. Her Skype interview with Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing just two days after the storm was a riveting example of how new media is changing the way the world understands and responds to disasters.
This past fall, all of Rwanda’s schools switched from French to English as the language of instruction. As if the basic challenges of improving education in one of the world’s 20 poorest countries weren’t enough, many teachers now have to learn a new language. The nonprofit Open Learning Exchange Rwanda, founded in 2008, takes a unique, comprehensive approach. They collaborate with a network of Open Learning Exchanges around the world to bolster education with a combination of new technologies like the XO laptop and mobile phones, plus a digital library of free and open source educational software, plus better teacher training.
“Achieving universal education by 2015 is the second UN Millennial Development Goal, however what they don’t tell us is how to do it concretely,” says Jacques Murinda, a longtime teacher and youth leader. “It’s one thing to identify the problems and another thing to suggest sustainable and scalable solutions to solve them.”
As a group of mid-ocean tropical islands reliant on tourism, Hawaii has lots of reasons to reach for sustainable energy independence. The state is publicly committed to an ambitious goal to satisfy 70% of Hawaii’s energy demand by 2030 through efficiency and renewables.
Pacific Biodiesel is a literally home-grown company helping to fulfill that tall order. Bob King has been in the diesel business in Maui since 1980 and got into biodiesel in 1996 with his wife, Kelly, creating the nation’s first retail biodiesel pump and refinery. Their story was featured in the 2009 biodiesel doc Revolution Green. The former mechanic developed a unique, water-free processing technology to take on everything from industrial waste to restaurant deep-fat-fryer oil to virgin crops. In the past few years, Pacific Biodiesel expanded beyond producing and selling fuels to designing, selling, and supporting refineries from the islands all the way to Maryland.
RUNNER UP: EDUCATION
“We’re jump-starting a global system of access to higher education,” says Chakrabarti, 28-year-old founder of Vittana. This microfinance outfit has a Kiva-like lending model that allows small donors in the U.S., Germany, and Sweden to support kids trying to finish college in $25 or $50 increments. It has made some of the first-ever student loans in Vietnam, Peru, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and soon Cambodia.
While student loans in the United States are often thought of more as a burden than a means of accessing college, Chakrabarti argues that in poorer countries, they are offering opportunities where none had existed before. The goal is to open up a market where more private lenders get interested in financing college. Though less than a year old and still quite small (less than 100 borrowers), Vittana has drawn lots of laurels and accolades already. Backers include Mitch Kapor (the founder of Lotus, EFF, and Mozilla).