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Can DIY Create Better Products For The Developing World?

For people at the bottom of the pyramid, making their own products can be a valuable solution to get products they need–but don’t have.

Can DIY Create Better Products For The Developing World?
Amy Johansson via Shutterstock

Do-it-yourself is a buzzword that conjures images of home improvement and craft projects. A growing movement in developed countries, DIY offers a cost-effective alternative to mass-produced products that either lack in quality, or fail to appeal to the individualistic sensibilities of consumers. In developing regions, DIY may not be a choice, but rather a necessary resort when markets fail to provide adequate goods and services to satisfy the basic human needs of consumers at the bottom of the pyramid.

Whether an unattended mother who must give birth on her own, or an impoverished family without access to clean water and sanitation facilities, those living in last-mile communities often turn to DIY solutions to address immediate needs. The choice is logical–assembled from local raw materials or commoditized products, DIY solutions leapfrog nonexistent or broken supply chains. Since they are made locally, they can also be maintained and repaired locally. Moreover, rigorous evaluations have proven the effectiveness of numerous DIY interventions in areas of health, water and sanitation, and beyond.

Amy Johansson via Shutterstock

In the absence of manufacturing standards, however, doing it yourself leaves room for error and inconsistency. Jeffrey Asher, former vice president for Consumer Reports, raises important caveats regarding the quality and consistency of DIY products, particularly those created and sold by local manufacturers: “DIY models have designs that tend to change quickly and can do so without the consumer knowing it. This can lead to misleading results for the consumer. … These consumers who buy a DIY model are particularly vulnerable if the product turns out to be a poor value or unsafe.”

One answer to this dilemma may be found in comparative product evaluation, where DIY designs may be compared by attributes such as effectiveness, ease of use and sustainability. Take clean delivery kits (CDKs), for example. Proven to be highly effective in reducing maternal and neonatal infection, CDKs provide expecting mothers, untrained birth attendants and health workers with the essential tools for creating clean birthing environments. CDKs can be easily created by assembling a set of commoditized products–such as soap, gloves, string and a sterile razor blade–while also including an instructional booklet with pictographs for untrained users.

While some organizations and businesses produce and distribute their own ​branded kits​, others simply provide technical guidelines and pictorial instructions. These alternatives could be collectively evaluated as a product family, to help health workers and safe-birth programs make better informed decisions in their procurement and implementation of CDKs.
DIY innovation is also prevalent in the field of water and sanitation, where small inconsistencies in design can have huge consequences for the health of end users. When constructed and implemented properly, biosand water filters are proven to remove 98-99% of waterborne pathogens, while also significantly reducing turbidity. Most biosand filters are composed of universally available materials, such as concrete,sand, and gravel; any variations in design largely lie in the construction of molds used to cast the concrete filters. While ​wood molds offer a low-cost and easy-to-use approach to manufacturing filters without advanced tools or technical expertise, ​metal molds are long-lasting and well suited for higher production volumes. A limited, comparative evaluation of mold alternatives–including the technical guides that inform their design–could go a long way in assisting local stakeholders to select approaches that match their skill sets, resources available and ambitions for production and distribution.

Huguette Roe via Shutterstock

While evaluations of DIY designs may only consider a limited product family, it is crucial for the development practitioner to frame DIY and appropriate technology as alternatives to a variety of consumer and industrial solutions, which may have greater desirability in last-mile communities, despite barriers to access. With a blend of novel design and practical application, DIY is readily seen as a silver bullet that promises cost-effective and environmentally sustainable development. But without demand from end users, DIY design will not make it beyond blueprints.

Partners in Health Co-founder, Paul Farmer, recalls how his enthusiasm for appropriate technology was curbed by a Haitian Priest, who defined it as “good things for rich people and [expletive] for the poor.” It may be tempting for jaded practitioners to adopt similar sentiments. After all, development is slow and, when given the choice, most people would choose uninterrupted access to clean piped water over DIY alternatives.

Yet taking a cynical view of appropriate technology ignores countless effective, community-led development programs that empower end users to take ownership over their access to essential resources. Moreover, when temporarily implemented at the onset of longer-term initiatives, DIY solutions can serve as an efficient stopgap to satisfy urgent needs. The results of rigorous product evaluations will only enhance the decision-making process for DIY implementers, whether they be NGOs, community-based organizations or end users, themselves. When presented with high-quality information on a variety of viable solutions, stakeholders can successfully implement DIY by first embracing CIY: choose-it-yourself.

Brennan Lake is Programs Director of the Technology Exchange Lab (TEL), a nonprofit information center for innovative solutions to problems of poverty. Through a partnership between TEL and MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), Brennan is part of an interdisciplinary team working to evaluate products and technologies for consumers at the bottom of the pyramid.


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