Introducing Technology into Traditional Societies

By Alex Locke and Amy Gorman-Stieg

In any environment whether modern or traditional, the effort of introducing new technology has always been a challenge. New technology might be seen as one of the solutions to stability or as a means to improve health and quality of life in any particular region. However, the introduction and management of a new technology in a particular area requires the existence of a suitable and well-defined approach and execution.

During the 2014 TIDES Technology Field Demonstration we hosted a session entitled “Introducing Technology into Traditional Societies.” This panel featured real-world examples from TIDES Demo exhibitors (American Light Works, Day & Night Solar, Energy Solutions LLC, One Earth Designs, Shelter Box, KSI Video,Decadome, World Water and Solar, Sirona Cares, Toilets for People, GATR and Solar Stik) and other attendees. A number of principles were highlighted, but the true value of this discussion was the on-the-ground, real-time examples of what works and what does not.  The purpose of the discussion was  to provide lessons learned on how to successfully introduce and sustain new technologies into traditional cultures and environments. Read more below.

Mark Bent: American Light Works – Solar Flashlights

“Pay attention to what your clients want and need – often the West goes to places with the preconceived notion that a technology will provide a solution just because it works at home. Pay attention to what the people who are actually using the product are telling you – not what the experts back in Washington said was going to be the solution. Revisit those who received the technology and ask how it can be improved. What are we doing wrong? What are the use patterns of the technology?”

“A well-built solar flashlight with a focused beam should work well and be well received. Recipients complained that the flashlights couldn’t project enough ambient light to illuminate a whole room. This had the unintended effect of excluding dissenting voices during nighttime community meetings: ignoring people was as simple as not handing them the flashlight. The group ceased to use the device because it didn’t do what they wanted it to as well as kerosene lanterns. These situations are nearly impossible to predict without insight from recipients.”


“In a refugee camp in Ethiopia, the UNHCR wanted to put numbers on our flashlights, so that when they were distributed, each individual recipient could keep track of their devices and to prevent theft. In the local culture however, men would take offense to the implied suggestion that they would steal another persons’ things. Instead, we decided to color-code the lights. We went to the community elders and let them devise a system in which each color was assigned to a different group of people; pink for women, green for guards, orange for teachers and so on. It became that the society itself decided where the lights would go, and then enforced that system themselves.”

Michelle Lacourciere: Sirona Cares – Solar Power

“It takes business to drive change. We have watched the debilitating issues that charity causes over a long time working in Haiti. Creation of jobs and creation of commerce is critical to helping a community help itself out of the hole that it’s in. We designed a solar charging station, and each home gets a battery pack that costs them less than what they pay for kerosene – so we’re automatically saving them money. In designing that, we took a lot of the things that are really important to the indigenous people: They wanted lights that looked like ‘rich people’s lights’. Our lights look like filament light-bulbs, but they are LEDs. Designing form to be what they wanted it to be has led to increased demand: we have 10 homes on the waiting list for every one we have lit. We are also operating a sustainable business there recharging battery packs for customers. “

“We learned a lot about where to put things and about the mentality around where to put the control of the equipment itself. We tried putting the station at the home of the best businessman of the village, thinking he was running all these viable businesses and that he would be the best person. It turned out that in about 6 months the community decided that this individual had ‘enough money’ and they did not want to pay him any longer – so there went the sustainability of our business. After he had paid for the station for about 4 months with decreasing participation from villagers, we moved the station to the local school. Automatically we had over 100 homes paying for the service every month for electricity. Ultimately, the community felt more comfortable with the school now operating the station and collecting revenue, which created 3 new teaching jobs. You have to understand the communities you’re working in. “

“This process is multi-tiered, because not only is there the village setting, there is the wider context of the government. The Haitian government has a monopoly on electricity, which does not reach a majority of the population – only 1 in 8 Haitians have access. Power cannot be sold through a line without concessions from the government. Our technology bypasses that, which at first made us appear like major competition. However, when EDH (L’Électricité d’Haïti) officials visited our villages, they encountered people who now understood the economics of electricity; that one needed to purchase it. This resulted in more customers for EDH, and allowed us to move our station to a more remote area. We showed that we could compliment and assist EDH in providing more light to more people without directly competing with them. We are now ready to deploy the sustainable business model proven in Haiti to new locations in Africa. We estimate that after 5 years of operating 10 stations, owners should have enough revenue to double their businesses.”


“Another way that Sirona empowers is that we leave quite a bit of the revenue at the sight where it was generated. It gives the operator at that station the ability to manage and negotiate their side of the business. We needed to prove that what we were doing was economically sustainable. In Haiti there is no delineation for non-profits – just charities or businesses. So we started a corporation and applied for new-business incentives packages. We are operated in Haiti by Haitians, we pay Haitian taxes and we are in the black – there is enough money to cover the operations budget and add new systems organically. It’s a social enterprise.”

“Also, it’s extremely important that you introduce the ‘thing they want’ for the ‘thing they need it for’. I’ve seen so many technologies used for entirely different purposes; taken apart, re-used for unintended purposes because it made more sense culturally. It’s unfortunate to see, because if the right thing had been delivered to the right people we would see positive change.”

One Earth Designs – Sol Source Ovens

                  “My first attempt at introducing solar cookers was with a very simple cardboard and aluminum model. I worked with a village cook to try to encourage the use of this technology, but she was extremely reluctant to try this new technology. Part of the problem is that people in dire poverty are risk-averse – if food isn’t ready on time, then people don’t eat for the day. It’s also a matter of education: If someone doesn’t understand the light optics, or how to focus the solar cookers, then they won’t be able to effectively utilize them.”

“My recent endeavors have utilized the Sol Source parabolic oven, which was culturally more appropriate because Haitians prefer to cook their food with direct heat; char-grilled or fried. Unpredictable weather and time constraints among women meant that food had to be prepared quickly, with no time for slow-cooking. We distributed these ovens using a lease-to-own program. What often goes awry in solar-oven projects is that they are given away or sold at an extremely low price to whoever shows up and looks interested, though they may not be the most suitable candidates for the technology. In our program, the functions and limitations of the parabolic cookers are well explained, so that people can make informed decisions about whether it is right for them or not. Users pay $5 a month, and if they see no benefits from using the cookers than they can return them to the social entrepreneurs. We’ve trained two social entrepreneurs to provide training and distribution, as well as to conduct monthly surveys to track fuel and solar usage. From one season to the next, charcoal prices can go up multiple times. All of these considerations need to be taken into account when measuring impact.”


“The social enterprise we set up has the right incentives structure for the entrepreneurs to make money and want to expand their business. The micro-finance institutions we leveraged for support were also well established, and helpful at finding the best social entrepreneurs for the job –in this case, women.”

Toilets for People – Sanitation

“It’s hard to know what will work and what won’t – every community is different. The NGO that you’re working with needs to be extremely knowledgeable and have an interest in the community. The first NGO we worked with wasn’t top-notch, but we didn’t know that going in. This required us to do a lot of background interviews in the target community before we were ready to start building. In another instance, having a much better NGO made all the difference. The NGO already had all of the background information, and all of the training had already been done. The community already understood what composting was, and the basics behind our system. Implementing this new technology was made much easier because we had a foundation that was stable.”

“As outsiders, we assume communities in developing countries don’t know very much about new technology, but a lot of times they really do. In our case, people understood that composting waste needed to be dry, so when we explained to them how this method would be safer and more sanitary, they already understood. Make sure your bases are covered, but don’t assume that they don’t know what’s going on. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel.”

“It’s also critical to understand the social dynamics of the community; their leadership, hierarchy, and means of governance. Some communities have a solid democratic system where everyone gets a voice, in which communal toilets might be the best option. In these settings there are systems in place to keep people in check and enforce maintenance and cleaning. This isn’t always going to work, because well-managed facilities can be abused through collective action problems. So there’s more to the technology than just the technology itself. It’s not just that a composting toilet can solve the problem, as there are all the other aspects of governance and society to consider. It’s important to look at the bigger picture; understanding the educational needs and community structures of the area you’re going into will enable you to tailor your work to a specific community.”


“Sanitation requires an initial amount of adoption, at least by some members of the community, before it can be scaled up. Sanitation is something that we all deal with every day, but that we don’t talk about. It’s the same in most other cultures –people don’t discuss going to the bathroom openly. Everyone needs to be brought on board and made to realize that the issue is important. If people truly believe that the issue is critically important, then scalability is possible.”


Star-Tides is a Global Knowledge Sharing Research Network coordinated at the George Mason University. It is derived from a research project called TIDES (Transformative Innovation for Development and Energy Support. TIDES originally was coordinated for Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University (NDU)--part of the Department of Defense. All information in the STAR-TIDES network is intended to be in the public domain. All information in this website is free, open source and in the public domain. Ideas expressed, or products displayed, on the website, or in other TIDES or STAR-TIDES activities, should not be considered as endorsed by anyone else, including the US government, nor should they be considered any form of commitment.
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1 Response to Introducing Technology into Traditional Societies

  1. Pingback: Why is the Toilet Project in India Clogged? | TIDES (Transformative Innovation for Development & Emergency Support)

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