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Dung Pow Zing!

By Tim Worstall - March 27, 2006 12:00 AM

The phrase "Power to the People" has a certain resonance for Englishmen of my age. That photo of Robert Lindsay from the TV show "Citizen Smith" is the reason. The BBC describes it as:

Citizen Smith followed the activities of the Tooting Popular Front, a feeble but ambitious agitprop organisation masterminded by a would-be revolutionary Marxist, Wolfie Smith.

It was a comedy satirizing the myriad groupuscules of the hard left in the UK at that time, the various Maoists, Trotskyists (Vanessa Redgrave was in one, the Workers Revolutionary Party, commonly known as "Vanessa's Loonies"), Titoists, Stalinists and even, if memory serves me right, one that followed Enver Hoxha of Albania (Enverists? Hoxhaists? Actually, I think they were known as, when not the "raving nutters", the Albanians. Much easier to pronounce). Those who write The Economist were obviously exposed to the same show for they had an article (behind the subscription barrier unfortunately) with the title "Power to the People".

The difference is, rather than being an unsuccessful would be revolutionary (or even a TV character), our hero in this story is a businessman and entrepreneur, one Iqbal Quadir. I've written before about how mobile telephones add to the growth of poor societies by increasing communication and thus making markets more efficient. I've also written about Grameen Bank and the work they have been doing with micro-finance, allowing small scale entrepreneurialism amongst the very poorest. Quadir's insight was to combine those two things, seeing that a micro-finance loan to purchase a cell phone could lead to women acting as the village pay-phone. As the JFK School of Governance at Harvard (who hired him to lecture) points out, this was highly successful:

GrameenPhone now has about 400,000 subscribers and 7,000 villages have adopted the program. Since each village has about 1,500 people, Quadir's idea has given "connectivity" to about 10 million people. Villagers are using the phones to get the best price for their crops, find work in neighboring villages and keep in touch with their families who have moved away.

That's 10 million people doing better from the entrepreneurial idea of just one man. This is rather the sort of thing that economist William Easterly is talking about when he says that development will come from the searchers, not the planners. Instead of the bureaucrats deciding, in a top down matter, things from the center, better results will come from people looking around to make money out of the small problems. Not because the big things don't need solving but because only via this bottom up method can any problem actually be solved.

For his next project Quadir has teamed up with Dean Kamen (the inventor, amongst other things, of the Segway, so let's hope this is rather more financially successful, shall we?) to provide, well, power. The essential idea is to produce methane in a bio-digester fed on the local cow dung. This is then fed into a version of a Stirling engine designed by Kamen and used to provide electricity. As The Economist points out:

The main use of electricity was for lighting, says Mr. Quadir: using low-power bulbs, each generator, which provides one kilowatt of power, was able to light up 20 households or shops. This allowed shops to stay open later, enabled students to study for longer hours, and let people enjoy television and other forms of entertainment. Surprisingly, Mr. Quadir found that some households already had televisions, powered using car batteries.[...] This suggests that the potential "chicken and egg" problem that there would be no demand for electricity, since nobody owns any electrical appliances, will not arise.

You've probably already guessed how Quadir intends to get these two new machines, the digester and the generator, into the hands of the populace. Yes, he's going to offer them as a business package, financed by micro-loans.

One small note is that the methane produced by the bio-digester would in fact already happen as the dung decayed naturally. So by collecting and burning it to power the engine our new rural entrepreneurs are in fact fighting climate change for as we know, methane is a gas 20 times worse in its effect than the CO2 left at the end of this process.

Forgive me if I say that I rather like this example of capitalism in action. Small scale entrepreneurs will provide electricity, and thus light, the opportunity to study and entertainment to their fellows, driven by the incentives of their enlightened self-interest, to the benefit of all. Meanwhile, they're cleaning up the cow dung strewn around the place and reducing emissions to boot.

There's one other place out there on the net where discerning readers will find comedy based upon the idiocies of the various Marxist sub-groups. I refer, of course, to the Politburo Diktat. I do hope the Commissar won't mind too much if I steal one of his lines and suggest that we owe Mr. Quadir a massed "clenched fist salute."

"Power to the People!" indeed.

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3 Comments

Good
"Where there's muck there's brass" (Old Yorkshire saying)

Sounds like a really good bottom up idea. Hopefully the international community will prevent local rulers putting tariffs (official & otherwise) on these devices.

Salesmen
Salesmen have been converting bullshit into commissions for years!

You don't need a Harvard MBA to figure how to turn a buck, no matter where you live.

What are the price points?
I've no doubt that these machines are going to find wider use than the 3rd world entrepreneurs they're aimed at (all truly world changing inventions have surprising applications). For instance, it seems as if this kind of thing would do very well at converting small sources of power that are currently being wasted in the 1st world. Garbage dumps burn off methane. Why not feed that back into the grid instead?

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