Segway inventor’s gift of clean water for Africa
Segway inventor Dean Kamen provides clean drinking water for African communities with his latest amazing invention
Dean Kamen is probably best known as the inventor of the Segway PT, a two-wheeled, battery-powered vehicle, but it is his latest project which he believes really could change the world.
The Slingshot device, which converts even raw sewage or chemical waste into cool, drinkable water, is named for the biblical story of David and Goliath in the hope this little machine could defeat a giant problem in the developing world.
One of the biggest obstacles to development in Africa is water poverty. Nearly one billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water, affecting not only health, but productivity and economic growth.
When the Slingshot was trialled in five schools outside Accra, Ghana, for six months in 2011, the results Kamen saw were “unbelievable.”
“By March of last year, we’d produced 140,000 litres of pure water in these five schools, we’d supported 1,500 school kids,” he says. “In the schools that we were in, the kids show up; they show up healthy, they show up alert, they’re not sick… Everybody loves this machine, every place we tried it.”
But the machine which made all of this possible started life as a by-product.
“Like many things in my life, it was serendipitous,” says Kamen. “We were trying to create a dialysis machine that could be used in people’s homes.”
“The problem we had is we’d developed a machine the size of a VCR, but you need 100 gallons of medical grade sterilised water to use it.”
“And people don’t have that outside of a hospital – even where you’ve got clean water coming out of the tap, that still isn’t pure enough, and it’s difficult to ship IV bags to places a long way from a hospital. So we came up with this way of sterilising the water in a machine the size of a fridge, which can be beside the bed while you’re dialysing overnight.”
“And I thought, why couldn’t this be used to provide water for people all over the world?”
The Slingshot works by boiling, evaporating and condensing water, separating it from contaminants and killing bacteria. This technology has been used to purify water for years, but the central innovation of Kamen’s machine is its compact size, which makes it portable enough for use in remote locations.
The device is also energy efficient, using less energy than a standard hairdryer to produce enough water for 300 people daily, and can run on electricity or diesel. It can also be connected to another of Kamen’s inventions, the Stirling engine, a generator powered by anything from methane and kerosene to decomposing cow dung, making it perfect for rural villages not connected to the electricity grid.
However, without an effective method of distribution, Kamen knew he would be unable to reach these remote locations or bring the production of the Slingshot down the cost curve to make it viable.
“Each unit cost hundreds of thousands of dollars because we were effectively custom building each one.”
“So I approached this little start-up company from down in Atlanta called Coca-Cola,” he jokes. “Because I could only think of one company that has the global reach of this company and its distribution networks.”
To his delight, Coca-Cola leapt at the chance.
“What made it really exciting to me is the fact that when they came to ’negotiate‘ they said look, we don’t want to negotiate for any commercial rights to this machine. We really believe in your vision, and if Coca-Cola is even perceived to be trying to make money by extorting money from the poorest people in the world to give them clean water, there isn’t enough profit to be made to make it worthwhile.”
“But instead, the Coca-Cola company could leverage its incredible distribution system, so at relatively low cost to them, it could get these machines around the world and help make healthy kids and healthy moms and healthy villages.”
Coca-Cola’s involvement may be philanthropic, but it could have major implications for local economies. According to the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, on average $8 is returned in increased productivity.
Kamen wryly acknowledges there could be some fringe benefits for Coca-Cola in lifting people out of water poverty: “they’ll become healthy so they can buy Coke’s other products.”
The use of Coke’s distribution networks is also an investment, providing African entrepreneurs with an opportunity, as Kamen explains: “In some cases, nobody will make money – where they put them in schools, clinics or where NGOs or governments will essentially give out the water to people at that school, or after disasters.”
“But there will be some places where, in a village for example, in order to make it a sustainable situation, a machine can be put there and local entrepreneurs will be able to run old dishwater or any water through the machine, turn it into very high-value potable cool water, so they can sell it at a very low price and still make a profit… So I think the long term possibility is that in a lot of places around the world, small, individual entrepreneurs will be using these machines to make money and supply the basic human need for water.”
In most developing countries, it is usually women whose time and energy is taken up by walking an average of 6km a day to haul back around 20kg of water for the family, and according to Kamen, it is women who stand to benefit as entrepreneurs.
“Coke believe, based on their experience, that women in the developing world tend to be more responsible, more focused and essentially better at taking on the job of becoming an entrepreneur. They have a program within Coke called 5 BY 20, which aims to empower five million women by the year 2020 to be local entrepreneurs and they think one of the best opportunities to become an entrepreneur is in fact through our Slingshot program.”
Kamen has high hopes for the future of the Slingshot.
“The trials ran very well so Coke said, let’s do the next level of scale up. The plan is to trial in five more countries this year, including South Africa, Mexico, Paraguay and couple of others we haven’t yet figured out. The rest of this year will be just trials, and if things go really well the goal is to scale it up so it can be put all over the world and be a major source of good health for millions of people.”
Does he think this could spell the end for water poverty?
“I hope so.”
Rebecca Cooney 2013