Eco-Innovation at the bottom of the pyramid Rotating Header Image


Chilean water purification system

A cost and energy efficient water purifying system brings clean water to the poor… my only doubt… how hard is to fix it in case it fails?

Solar water heater from plastic bottle

Here is an nice article appeared on “the Ecologist” a couple of years ago. To me it seems tremendously relevant 😉 Jugaad is not a monopoly of India, Brazil is following actively!

Retired mechanic Jose Alano invented a simple, cheap, energy saving rooftop solar water heater which is benefiting thousands of people. Here’s how it’s done…

José Alano is a model of creativity in tackling environmental problems in Brazil. In 2002, the retired mechanic transformed a pile of plastic bottles and cartons into a solar water heater. Since then, thousands of people in southern Brazil have benefited from Alano’s invention, saving money while reducing waste.

The idea came from the lack of recycling collection services in his small home town of Tubarão. Refusing to throw plastic bottle, carton and other recyclable waste into the landfill, José Alano soon realised he had a problem: a room full of rubbish.

‘Being 59 years old, I have had the opportunity to witness the technological advances of science, which improved food storage. But nowadays, some packaging weighs almost the same than the food itself! Years ago, my wife and I realised that we were not prepared for this new form of consumption.’

Using his basic knowledge on solar water heating systems, he and his wife built an alternative version using 100 plastic bottles and 100 milk cartons. ‘It worked perfectly well, and we got rid of our waste in a responsible way,’ he says.

A winning invention

Alano’s initiative became widely known in Brazil after winning the Superecologia prize, offered by the Superinteressante magazine for renewable projects in the not-for-profit sector. Since then, the retired mechanic has been busy with workshops and lectures in community centres and schools, particularly in the Brazilian southern state of Santa Catarina, where he lives.

Yet, Alano never wanted to profit from it, and explains why: ‘I am a simple person, but I am very aware of my own responsibilities as a consumer. The recycled solar water heater was just my small contribution to the environment, and to improve the lives of people who need to save money. I registered the invention, so nobody else could copy and profit from it. Although the information on how to build it is in the public domain and anybody can access it, there are two restrictions: to its industrial production and to its use by politicians during electoral campaigns.’

The information on how to build the recycled solar heater has reached communities through the support of local governments, media, state-owned and private electricity companies, which also donated pipes and other materials.

Alano says that now it is difficult to keep track of all the projects being developed across Brazil, but he mentions some figures from the southern states: ‘More than 7,000 people are already benefitting from the solar heaters in Santa Catarina state alone. There are two cooperatives, one in Tubarão and other in Florianópolis, the last producing 437 solar heaters to be installed in council houses. In Paraná state, the number of solar heaters had reached 6,000 in 2008, thanks to the DIY leaflets and workshops that the governmental body SEMA organised there.’

Big savings

The alternative water heater can provide power savings of up to 30 per cent, but apart from that, Alano notes that every recycled solar water heater built also means less plastic bottles and cartons finding their way to landfill. Since Alano’s invention, Tubarão has been benefiting from regular collection of recyclable waste, something that unfortunately still doesn’t happen in many Brazilian towns.

Alano has lost count of the number of times he has lectured or been visited by groups of students, eager to learn about the invention. However, this is not his only one. Alano designed a low cost multifunctional bed for disabled people, but he is struggling to find a business partnership. Although there has been much interest to put it into production, Alano says that the problem is always to keep profits lower in order to benefit the consumers.

Eight years after its creation, the solar heater still takes a lot of his time, but he believes that now he will finally be able to focus on the multifunctional bed and other projects: ‘The recycled solar water heater is only the result of persistence over frustration’, he explains. ‘I don’t consider myself an inventor. I am just a citizen trying to find solutions to problems.’

Do it yourself
Despite latitude and climate differences between southern Brazil and Britain, the solar water heater designed by Alano is based on the principle of thermosyphon, used in many commercial heaters sold in the UK for as much as £6,000. In this system, neither pumps nor electricity are used to induce circulation. The different water densities are enough to cause a cyclic movement from the collector panel to the tank: less dense hot water upwards, more dense cold water downwards.

The assembly is straightforward, and can be better understood through the illustrations contained in the DIY leaflet (text only in Portuguese). Obviously, size does mater. Alano reckons that to heat water for a shower of one person, a 1m² panel would be enough.

If you are interested in building up your own, these are the basic materials needed: 2L plastic bottles (60), cartons (50), 100mm PVC pipe (70 cm), 20mm PVC pipe (11.7m), 90-degree 20 mm PVC elbows (4), 20mm PVC T-connectors (20), 20 mm PVC end caps (2), PVC glue, black matt paint and roller, sand paper, self-amalgamating tape, rubber hammer, saw, wood or other material for the support.

With the diagrams in the DIY leaflet as a guide, use the 100mm PVC pipe as a mould and cut off the bottom of the bottles. Cut the 20mm PVC pipes into 10 x 1m and 20 x 8.5 cm pieces, and assemble with the T-connectors. Cut and paint the cartons (pag.10-12), as well as the one-meter long pipes. Assemble according to figure B.

The panels must be placed at least 30 cm below the tank and be sited on a south facing wall or roof. To optimise heat absorption, the panels must be mounted at the angle of your latitude, plus 10°. In London, for instance, the panel’s inclination should be 61°. Alano recommends that the plastic bottles in the panels should be swapped for new ones every 5 years: ‘Over time, the plastic becomes opaque, which reduces the heat caption, while the black cartons can be repainted.’

Giovana Zilli is a freelance journalist

Pursuing the Green Leap

Recently I read about the Green Leap concept introduced by prof Hart. The idea that emerging countries will pioneer the next green revolution is intriguing… Is there any empirical evidence??? I tried to ask directly prof Hart and here you have his not really exciting reply:

Dear Mario:   Thanks for your kind message.  The Green Leap blowback engine is just getting started.—a host of technologies from both India and China are poised to make the move.  It should  be an exciting time over the next decade.

at least enjoy his video 😉

Disruptive frugal innovation

The concept of disruptive frugal innovation refers to technological solutions that are able to do better with less. What is more, disruptive innovations have, at least in theory, the potential to unhinge well establish technological paradigms. Is frugal innovation a powerful tool in times of crisis? we don’t know yet. Certainly, frugal innovation have been around for centuries and it is gaining importance to serve the unpreserved markets in many low income countries.  The following video seems to prove that brilliant people in developed countries can provide smart cheap and valuable solutions…

Bikes from the garbage

A bike made with recycled PET bottles and nylon. It is cheap and does not require painting or soldering.  This is the new creation of Juan Muzzi, a Uruguayan-Brazilian artist, who spent   almost 10 years looking for sponsors in Brazil. Banks investors usually replied that the project would success maybe in Germany or Holland but not in Brasil. Finally Muzzi received financial support form his homeland, Uruguay. Muzzicycles can be bought online at

Eco- Innovation at the bottom of the pyramid

Changing paradigms and new trajectories in emerging economies

Uberaba is a small town of the State of Minas Gerais in Brazil. In 2002, in response to continuous and long electrical shortages, Mr Alfredo Moser discovered that it is possible to illuminate his house with solar light using plastic bottles hanging from the roof. After nearly 10 years, MyShelter Foundation remodelled this simple innovation and began to install it in the peripheral slums of Manila, Philippines. By September 2011, around 15,000 “Liter Bottles” were already providing sun-light to thousands of shanks all around the country. This simple, and smart solution, which costs just 1 dollar, is an amazing example of “eco-friendly frugal innovation” and, according to its promoters, it is likely to spread to other Asian countries.

The “Liter Bottle” case is not an isolated case of simple eco-innovation fostered by energy and resource scarcity in developing countries. Massive mobilizations for a better use of natural resources and a more equal distribution of basic needs such as energy and fresh water have been common in the last two decades of globalization. The struggles for rain forest preservation in the Amazon Basin, for accessing  clean water in Bolivia or for a sustainable use of land in India demonstrate that the so-called “Bottom of the Pyramid” is far to be indifferent to sustainability issues. On the other hand, different changes are taking place in emerging countries that involve processes much more complex than frugal innovation. China, for instance, is already pushing towards the implementation of the “Law of Circular Economy”, which came into force on January 2009. Brazil and its neighbours are looking for new strategic plans to reduce the impact of their soaring growth on the precious biodiversity of the region. There are several promising signals that are challenging the idea that “poor are too poor to eco-innovate”.

The Developing world represents 80% of humanity. In the near future, the access to basic needs in a world of 7 billion people will be strongly influenced by this big mass. Their consumption patterns and their approach to sustainability will undoubtedly reshape the scenario of global economy.

But, which are the emerging countries? And how are they coping with resource scarcity and environmental problems? Such questions have been largely neglected by Western analysers. However, the ethnography of the 20th century discovered that many traditional societies can be very resilient and adaptable to environmental changes. Local knowledge has been co-evolving with nature for centuries creating the condition for dynamic equilibria that industrial societies have irremediably lost. The future will certainly require further changes to meet those essential goals needed to compete in a global economy. However those countries already have several assets. Less developed countries, indeed, can avoid mistakes made by industrialized countries during the early stages of development. They can learn from the mistakes of the others and pioneer new socio-technical trajectories. They can also acquire mature technology without investing a huge amount of money in R&D activities. Finally, most developing countries’ economies are still based on traditional habits of production and consumption. Several productive processes are still carried out in a sustainable way, even though they have a very low efficiency. In other words, the main argument here is that not only are Emerging Economies an immense Living Lab for innovation, as Prahalad argued in his book “The fortune at the bottom of pyramid[i], but also an interesting forge of sustainable practices.

The fascinating point of this argument is whether or not emerging countries will be able to trigger a change of paradigm, in the Kuhnian sense, on a global basis that can provide an alternative development to the present globalization process. This change is likely to succeed only if it will be able to conceive innovation as an inclusive process and provide a more egalitarian development. This implies a new perspective of suitability problems in the developing world designed to reduce the environmental conflicts generated during the globalization process and condensed in the concept of an “Environmentalism of the poor”[ii] created by Joan Martinez-Alier.

The understanding, thus, of the evolution of sustainable innovations in the so-called South of the world is crucial. There is an extensive literature that shows how socio-technological regimes rise in specific conditions that can be hardly reproduced in other contexts. So, first of all, it is needed to identify the initial conditions that originate new and alternative paths of innovation in developing countries. In other words, it is necessary to understand how and why eco-innovation occurs in a great variety of contexts different than the western industrialised countries. In the last decade, indeed, the dynamic of innovation in the West has been largely studied and understood. We know that, once a dominant socio-techno paradigm is well established, only incremental changes tend to take place. The exiting question for the future research agenda is if emerging countries are able to trigger new frames. If so, many other questions will become germane. How much will they consume? How will they keep warm, cook, move and so on?

In this scenario it is relevant to formulate a very stimulating hypothesis: Emerging countries are a fruitful reservoir of innovations and sustainable practices. In order to validate such an assumption, it is not only crucial to provide evidence that eco-innovation is taking place somehow in there, but also to identify the factors that drive and govern this process. It would not be surprising to discover that sustainability and resilience in the developing world still rely on social values and traditional knowledge.

Nevertheless,  it is intriguing thinking that emerging economies, at least potentially, might trigger a new alternative frame, it becomes extremely important to quantify the extent of such a change. The last decade has seen an increasing connection between emerging countries like China, Latin America and some African countries. China is already exchanging infrastructures for natural resources in Africa and Brazil is playing a similar role with its neighbours. As they share expectations and problems, it would be interesting to understand the process of sustainable practices diffusion between these countries. Even more important might be to find out if those practices can potentially have a disruptive impact on industrialised countries leading to what Seely-Brown calls Innovation blowback[iii].

According to Carlota Perez, who has deeply studied the dynamic of the Kondratieff cycles of modern capitalism, the next socio-technical revolution is likely to be a Sustainable Transition[iv]. As R. Kaplinsky argues, “there are many reasons to believe that changes originating in the South will become a major driver of innovation in the 21st century[v]”. it is probably  too ambitious to think that Emerging Economies will lead a global sustainable transition, but it is  improbable that they are going to be simply passive spectators.

[i] C.K. Prahalad, 2010. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. 2nd edition. Pearson Education.

[ii] J. Martinez-Alier, 2002. The environmentalism of the poor: a study of ecological conflicts and valuation. Edward Elgar.

[iii] J. Seely Brown, 2005. Innovation Blowback: Disruptive management practices from Asia. McKinsey quarterly.

[iv] C. Perez, 2002. Technological Revolution and Financial Capital. Edward Elgar.

[v] R. Kaplinsky, 2011. Schumacher meets Schumpeter: Appropriate technology below the radar. Research Policy 40. 193-203.

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