RDRutherford

May 23, 2007

Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages

Filed under: LDCs, Technology — rdrutherford @ 8:51 pm

Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages
Solar Flashlights

FUGNIDO, Ethiopia — At 10 p.m. in a sweltering refugee camp here in western Ethiopia, a group of foreigners was making its way past thatch-roofed huts when a tall, rail-thin man approached a silver-haired American and took hold of his hands.
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The New York Times

A Houston oilman brought the solar flashlight to Fugnido camp.

The man, a Sudanese refugee, announced that his wife had just given birth, and the boy would be honored with the visitor’s name. After several awkward translation attempts of “Mark Bent,” it was settled. “Mar,” he said, will grow up hearing stories of his namesake, the man who handed out flashlights powered by the sun.

Since August 2005, when visits to an Eritrean village prompted him to research global access to artificial light, Mr. Bent, 49, a former foreign service officer and Houston oilman, has spent $250,000 to develop and manufacture a solar-powered flashlight.

His invention gives up to seven hours of light on a daily solar recharge and can last nearly three years between replacements of three AA batteries costing 80 cents.

Over the last year, he said, he and corporate benefactors like Exxon Mobil have donated 10,500 flashlights to United Nations refugee camps and African aid charities.

Another 10,000 have been provided through a sales program, and 10,000 more have just arrived in Houston awaiting distribution by his company, SunNight Solar.

“I find it hard sometimes to explain the scope of the problems in these camps with no light,” Mr. Bent said. “If you’re an environmentalist you think about it in terms of discarded batteries and coal and wood burning and kerosene smoke; if you’re a feminist you think of it in terms of security for women and preventing sexual abuse and violence; if you’re an educator you think about it in terms of helping children and adults study at night.”

Here at Fugnido, at one of six camps housing more than 21,000 refugees 550 miles west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Peter Gatkuoth, a Sudanese refugee, wrote on “the importance of Solor.”

“In case of thief, we open our solor and the thief ran away,” he wrote. “If there is a sick person at night we will took him with the solor to health center.”

A shurta, or guard, who called himself just John, said, “I used the light to scare away wild animals.” Others said lights were hung above school desks for children and adults to study after the day’s work.

Mr. Bent’s efforts have drawn praise from the United Nations, Africare, Rice University and others.

Kevin G. Lowther, Southern Africa director for Africare, the largest American aid group for Africa, said his staff was sending 5,000 of his lights, purchased by Exxon Mobil at $10 each, to rural Angola.

Dave Gardner, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company’s $50,000 donation in November grew out of an earlier grant it made to Save the Children to build six public schools in Kibala, Angola, a remote area of Kwanza Sul Province.

“At a dedication ceremony for the first four schools in June 2006,” Mr. Gardner said in an e-mail message, “we noticed that a lot of the children had upper respiratory problems, part of which is likely due to the use of wood, charcoal, candles and kero for lighting in the small homes they have in Kibala.”

The Awty International School, a large prep school in Houston, has sent hundreds of the flashlights to schools it sponsors in Haiti, Cameroon and Ethiopia, said Chantal Duke, executive assistant to the head of school.

“In places where there is absolutely no electricity or running water, having light at night is a luxury many families don’t have and never did and which we take for granted in developed countries,” Ms. Duke said by e-mail. Mr. Bent, a former Marine and Navy pilot, served under diplomatic titles in volatile countries like Angola, Bosnia, Nigeria and Somalia in the early 1990s.

In 2001 he went to work as the general manager of an oil exploration team off the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea, for a company later acquired by the French oil giant Perenco. But the oil business, he said, “didn’t satisfy my soul.”

The inspiration for the flashlight hit him, he said, while working for Perenco in Asmara, Eritrea. One Sunday he visited a local dump to watch scavenging by baboons and birds of prey, and came upon a group of homeless boys who had adopted the dump as their home.

They took him home to a rural village where he noticed that many people had nothing to light their homes, schools and clinics at night.

With a little research, he discovered that close to two billion people around the world go without affordable access to light.

He worked with researchers, engineers and manufacturers, he said, at the Department of Energy, several American universities, and even NASA before finding a factory in China to produce a durable, cost-effective solar-powered flashlight whose shape was inspired by his wife’s shampoo bottle.

The light, or sun torch, has a narrow solar panel on one side that charges the batteries, which can last between 750 and 1,000 nights, and uses the more efficient light-emitting diodes, or L.E.D.s, to cast its light. “L.E.D.s used to be very expensive,” Mr. Bent said. “But in the last 18 months they’ve become cheaper, so distributing them on a widespread scale is possible.”

The flashlights usually sell for about $19.95 in American stores, but he has established a BoGo — for Buy One, Give One — program on his Web site, BoGoLight.com, where if you buy one flashlight for $25, he will buy and ship another one to Africa, and donate $1 to one of the aid groups he works with.

Mr. Bent, who is now an oil consultant, lives in Houston with his wife and four young children. When he is not in the air flying his own plane, he is often on the road.

Traveling early this month in Ethiopia’s border area with Sudan, Mr. Bent stopped in each town’s market to methodically check the prices and quality of flashlights and batteries imported from China.

He unscrewed the flashlights one by one, inspecting the batteries, pronouncing them “terrible — they won’t last two nights.”

On his last day along the border, Mr. Bent visited Rapan Sadeeq, 21, a Sudanese refugee who is something of a celebrity in his camp, Bonga, for his rudimentary self-made radios, walkie-talkies and periscopes.

The two men huddled in the hut, discussing what parts would be needed to power the radio with solar panels instead of clunky C batteries. “Oh, I can definitely send you some parts,” Mr. Bent said. “You can be my field engineer in Ethiopia.”

Will Connors reported from Fugnido, Ethiopia, and Ralph Blumenthal from Houston.

May 21, 2007

The Return of the Idiot

Filed under: South America, Venezuela — rdrutherford @ 11:59 pm

The Return of the Idiot
Throughout the 20th century, Latin America’s populist leaders waved Marxist banners, railed against foreign imperialists, and promised to deliver their people from poverty. One after another, their ideologically driven policies proved to be sluggish and shortsighted. Their failures led to a temporary retreat of the strongman. But now, a new generation of self-styled revolutionaries is trying to revive the misguided methods of their predecessors.
Ten years ago, Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, and I wrote Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, a book criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary. The “Idiot” species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs—revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law—derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct.

Because of the inexorable passing of time, today’s young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira’s pop ballads to Pérez Prado’s mambos and no longer sing leftist anthems like “The Internationale” or “Until Always Comandante.” But they are still descendants of rural migrants, middle class, and deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy displayed in the glossy magazines they discreetly leaf through on street corners. State-run universities provide them with a class-based view of society that argues that wealth is something that needs to be retaken from those who have stolen it. For these young Idiots, Latin America’s condition is the result of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, followed by U.S. imperialism. These basic beliefs provide a safety valve for their grievances against a society that offers scant opportunity for social mobility. Freud might say they have deficient egos that are unable to mediate between their instincts and their idea of morality. Instead, they suppress the notion that predation and vindictiveness are wrong and rationalize their aggressiveness with elementary notions of Marxism.

Latin American Idiots have traditionally identified themselves with caudillos, those larger-than-life authoritarian figures who have dominated the region’s politics, ranting against foreign influence and republican institutions. Two leaders in particular inspire today’s Idiot: President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Chávez is seen as the perfect successor to Cuba’s Fidel Castro (whom the Idiot also admires): He came to power through the ballot box, which exonerates him from the need to justify armed struggle, and he has abundant oil, which means he can put his money where his mouth is when it comes to championing social causes. The Idiot also credits Chávez with the most progressive policy of all—putting the military, that paradigm of oligarchic rule, to work on social programs.

For his part, Bolivia’s Evo Morales has indigenista appeal. In the eyes of the Idiot, the former coca farmer is the reincarnation of Túpac Katari, an 18th-century Aymara rebel who, before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities, vowed, “I shall return and I shall be millions.” They believe Morales when he professes to speak for the indigenous masses, from southern Mexico to the Andes, who seek redress of the exploitation inflicted on them by 300 years of colonial rule and 200 more of oligarchic republican rule.

The Idiot’s worldview, in turn, finds an echo among distinguished intellectuals in Europe and the United States. These pontificators assuage their troubled consciences by espousing exotic causes in developing nations. Their opinions attract fans among First-World youngsters for whom globalization phobia provides the perfect opportunity to find spiritual satisfaction in the populist jeremiad of the Latin American Idiot against the wicked West.

There’s nothing original about First-World intellectuals’ projecting their utopias onto Latin America. Christopher Columbus stumbled on the shores of the Americas at a time when Renaissance utopian ideas were in vogue; from the very beginning, conquistadors described the lands as nothing short of paradisiacal. The myth of the Good Savage—the idea that the natives of the New World embodied a pristine goodness untarnished by the evils of civilization—impregnated the European mind. The tendency to use the Americas as an escape valve for frustration with the insufferable comfort and cornucopia of Western civilization continued for centuries. By the 1960s and 70s, when Latin America was riddled with Marxist terrorist organizations, these violent groups enjoyed massive support in Europe and the United States among people who never would have accepted Castro-style totalitarian rule at home.

The current revival of the Latin American Idiot has precipitated the return of his counterparts: the patronizing American and European Idiots. Once again, important academics and writers are projecting their idealism, guilty consciences, or grievances against their own societies onto the Latin American scene, lending their names to nefarious populist causes. Nobel Prizewinners, including British playwright Harold Pinter, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, and American economist Joseph Stiglitz; American linguists such as Noam Chomsky and sociologists like James Petras; European journalists like Ignacio Ramonet and some foreign correspondents for outlets such as Le Nouvel Observateur in France, Die Zeit in Germany, and the Washington Post in the United States, are once again propagating absurdities that shape the opinions of millions of readers and sanctify the Latin American Idiot. This intellectual lapse would be quite innocuous if it didn’t have consequences. But, to the extent that it legitimizes the type of government that is actually at the heart of Latin America’s political and economic underdevelopment, it constitutes a form of intellectual treason.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR

The most notable example today of the symbiosis between certain Western intellectuals and Latin American caudillos is the love affair between American and European Idiots and Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan leader, despite his nationalist tendencies, has no qualms about citing foreigners in his speeches in order to strengthen his positions. Just witness Chávez’s speech at the United Nations last September in which he praised Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.

Likewise, in presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky has pointed to Venezuela as an example for the developing world, touting social policies that have achieved success in education and medical assistance and rescued the dignity of Venezuelans. He has also expressed admiration for the fact that “Venezuela successfully challenged the United States, and this country doesn’t like challenges, much less so if they are successful.”

But in actuality, Venezuela’s social programs have, with help from the Cuban intelligence services, become vehicles for political regimentation and social dependence on the government. Furthermore, their effectiveness is suspect. The Centro de Documentación y Análisis Social de la Federación Venezolana de Maestros, a teachers’ union think tank, reported in 2006 that 80 percent of Venezuela’s households have difficulty covering the cost of food—the same proportion as when Chávez came to power in 1999, and when the price of oil was one third the price it is today. As for the dignity of the people, the real story is that there have been 10,000 homicides per year in Venezuela since Chávez became president, giving the country the highest per-capita murder rate in the world.

Another nation that certain American opinion leaders have a soft spot for is Cuba. In 2003, Fidel Castro’s regime executed three young refugees for hijacking a boat and trying to escape from the island. Castro also sent 75 democratic activists to prison for lending banned books. In response, James Petras, a longtime sociology professor at the State University of New York’s Binghamton University, wrote an article titled “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights.” In his essay, which was reprinted by various left-wing publications around the world, he defended Havana by arguing that the victims had been in the service of the United States government.

Noted Castro sympathizer Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, a French newspaper that champions every unsavory cause coming out of the Third World, maintains that globalization has made Latin America poorer in recent years. In fact, poverty has been modestly reduced in the past five years. Globalization has given Latin American governments so much revenue from the sale of commodities and from the taxes paid by foreign investors that they have handed out cash subsidies to the poor—hardly a solution to poverty in the long term.

Two decades out of date, Harold Pinter delivered a flabbergasting account of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in his 2005 Nobel lecture. Perhaps thinking that a vindicatory look at the populists of the past might help the populists of today, he said that the Sandinistas had “set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society,” and that there was “no record of torture” or of “systematic or official military brutality” under Daniel Ortega’s government in the 1980s. One wonders, then, why the Sandinistas were thrown out of power by the people of Nicaragua in the 1990 elections. Or why the voters kept them out of power for nearly two decades—until Ortega became a political transvestite, declaring himself a supporter of the market economy. As for the denial of Sandinista atrocities, Pinter would do well to remember the 1981 massacre of Miskito Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. Under the guise of a literacy campaign, the Sandinistas, with the help of their Cuban cadres, tried to indoctrinate the Miskitos with Marxist ideology. But the independent-minded Indians refused to accept Sandinista control. Accusing them of supporting opposition groups based in Honduras, Ortega’s men killed as many as 50 Miskitos, imprisoned hundreds, and forcibly relocated many more. The Nobel laureate should also remember that his hero Ortega became a capitalist millionaire thanks to the distribution of government assets and confiscated property that the Sandinista leaders split among themselves after losing the 1990 elections.

The current enthusiasm with Latin American populism extends to correspondents for major news outlets. Take, for instance, some stories filed by the Washington Post’s Juan Forero. He is more balanced and informed than the luminaries mentioned above, but, from time to time, he betrays an uncanny enthusiasm for populism of the kind that is sweeping the region. In a recent article on Chávez’s foreign largesse, he and coauthor Peter S. Goodman paint a generally positive picture of the way in which Chávez is helping some countries rid themselves of the strictures imposed by U.S.-backed multilateral agencies by providing them with enough cash to pay off their debts. Supporters of this policy were quoted favorably and no mention was made of the fact that Venezuela’s oil money belongs to the Venezuelan people, not to foreign governments or entities allied with Chávez, or that those subsidies have political strings attached. Note Argentine President Néstor Kirchner’s attack against the United States and his praise of Chávez during a recent visit to the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz, in return for Chávez’s commitment to back yet another bond issue on Argentina’s behalf.

THE PROBLEM WITH POPULISM

Foreign observers are missing an essential point: Latin American populism has nothing to do with social justice. It began as a reaction against the oligarchic state of the 19th century in the form of mass movements led by caudillos who blamed rich nations for Latin America’s plight. These movements based their legitimacy on voluntarism, protectionism, and massive wealth redistribution. The result, throughout the 20th century, was bloated government, stifling bureaucracy, the subservience of judicial institutions to political authority, and parasitic economies.

Populists share basic characteristics: the voluntarism of the caudillo as a substitute for the law; the impugning of the oligarchy and its replacement with another type of oligarchy; the denunciation of imperialism (with the enemy always being the United States); the projection of the class struggle between the rich and the poor onto the stage of international relations; the idolatry of the state as a redeeming force for the poor; authoritarianism under the guise of state security; and “clientelismo,” a form of patronage by which government jobs—as opposed to wealth creation—are the conduit of social mobility and the way to maintain a “captive vote” in the elections. The legacy of these policies is clear: Nearly half the population of Latin America is poor, with more than 1 in 5 living on $2 or less per day. And 1 to 2 million migrants flock to the United States and Europe every year in search of a better life.

Even in Latin America, part of the left is making its transition away from Idiocy—similar to the kind of mental transition that the European left, from Spain to Scandinavia, went through a few decades ago when it grudgingly embraced liberal democracy and a market economy. In Latin America, one can speak of a “vegetarian left” and a “carnivorous left.” The vegetarian left is represented by leaders such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Despite the occasional meaty rhetoric, these leaders have avoided the mistakes of the old left, such as raucous confrontations with the developed world and monetary and fiscal profligacy. They have settled into social-democratic conformity and are proving unwilling to engage in major reform—which is why Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is not expected to top 3.6 percent this year—but they signify a positive development in the struggle for modernizing the left.

By contrast, the “carnivorous” left is represented by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. They cling to a Marxist view of society and a Cold War mentality that separates North from South, and they seek to exploit ethnic tensions, particularly in the Andean region. The oil windfall obtained by Hugo Chávez is funding a great deal of this effort.

The gastronomy of Argentina’s Kirchner is ambiguous; he is situated somewhere between the carnivores and the vegetarians. He has inflated the currency, established price controls, and either nationalized or created government-owned enterprises in major sectors of the economy, but he has avoided revolutionary extremes and paid his country’s debts to the International Monetary Fund, albeit with the help of Venezuelan credit. Kirchner’s ambiguous position has been helpful to Chávez, who has filled the power vacuum in the South American Common Market to project his influence on the region.

Oddly, many European and American “vegetarians” support the “carnivores” in Latin America. For instance, Joseph Stiglitz has defended various nationalization programs in Morales’s Bolivia and Chávez’s Venezuela. In an interview with Caracol Radio in Colombia, Stiglitz said that nationalizations should not cause alarm because “public firms can be very successful, like the Social Security pension system in the United States.” Stiglitz has not called for nationalizing major private or publicly traded companies in his own country (the Social Security system was created from scratch), and he seems unaware that, south of the Rio Grande, nationalizations are at the heart of the disastrous populist experiences of the past.

Stiglitz also ignores the fact that in Latin America, there is no real separation between the state’s institutions and the administration in charge, so government companies quickly become conduits for political patronage and corruption. Venezuela’s main telecommunications company has been a success story since it was privatized in the early 1990s; the telecommunications market has experienced an increase of about 25 percent in the past three years alone. By contrast, the government-owned oil giant has seen its output systematically decline. Venezuela today produces about a million fewer barrels of oil than it did in the early years of this decade. In Mexico, where oil is also in government hands, the Cantarell project, representing almost two thirds of national production, will lose half its output in the next couple of years because of undercapitalization.

Does it really matter that the American and European intelligentsia quench their thirst for the exotic by promoting Latin American Idiots? The unequivocal answer is yes. A cultural struggle is under way in Latin America—between those who want to place the region in the global firmament and see it emerge as a major contributor to the Western culture to which its destiny has been attached for five centuries, and those who cannot reconcile themselves to the idea and resist it. Despite some progress in recent years, this tension is holding back Latin America’s development in comparison to other regions of the world—such as East Asia, the Iberian Peninsula, or Central Europe—that not long ago were examples of backwardness. Latin America’s annual GDP growth has averaged 2.8 percent in the past three decades—against Southeast Asia’s 5.5 percent, or the world average of 3.6 percent.

This sluggish performance explains why about 45 percent of the population is still poor and why, after a quarter century of democratic rule, regional surveys betray a profound dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and traditional parties. Until the Latin American Idiot is confined to the archives—something that will be difficult to achieve while so many condescending spirits in the developed world continue to lend him support—that will not change.

If you win a Nobel, you get a free trip to Scandinavia, a shiny gold medal, some cash, and, most important, a shot at intellectual immortality. But becoming a laureate doesn’t make you immune to stupidity, especially when it comes to Latin America.

Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2005

Ignoble Quote: “The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government … The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance.” —Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Dec. 7, 2005

Reality Check: Harold, hate to break it to you, but it was actually the Nicaraguan voters—not the United States government—who kicked the Sandinistas out.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2001

Ignoble Quote: “Chile has had impressive success over the past 15 years. . . . [It] imposed capital controls. It only privatized part of its copper mines, and the privatized mines arguably did not perform better than the nationalized ones, though the profits were sent abroad, while the profits of the nationalized mines could be used in the nation’s efforts to develop.”
—International Herald Tribune, Feb. 14, 2007

Reality Check: If the policies Stiglitz cites—capital controls, nationalized mines, and government intervention in allocating the profits generated by commodity exports—explain Chile’s success, why isn’t any other Latin American country with the same policies nearly as successful?

Günter Grass, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1999

Ignoble Quote: “Cubans were less likely to notice the absence of liberal rights . . . [because they gained] . . . self respect after the revolution.”— Dissent, Fall 1993

Reality Check: How would you feel, Günter, about trading your bourgeois liberal rights, including the right to publish, for a bit of Cuban dignity?

Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Prize, 1992

Ignoble Quote: “For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography, and autobiography . . . I was a survivor . . . who had to convince the world to look at the atrocities committed in my homeland.”— Press conference, United Nations, Feb. 11, 1999

Reality Check: Menchú was defending herself against charges that she had fabricated parts of her autobiography—making herself sound more downtrodden than she was—when she wrote about her life as an ethnic Quiche Maya in Guatemala. Why lie when there are plenty of harsh-but-true stories to be told? — AVL

May 16, 2007

Burning wood to power fridges

Filed under: LDCs, Technology — rdrutherford @ 11:09 pm

A consortium of UK universities hopes to bring affordable domestic appliances to rural areas of developing countries by developing a device that acts as a refrigerator, cooker and power generator all in one, powered by locally available biomass fuels such as wood.

The SCORE (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity) project, led by the University of Nottingham in England, has been granted £2 million (US$4 million) to develop the device using a technology called thermoacoustics. The United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have contributed 80% of this funding.

Thermoacoustics takes advantage of the way that sound waves can be produced when a gas is heated unevenly. In a thermoacoustic engine, such as the Stirling engine developed in the nineteenth century as an alternative to steam power, these pressure sound waves drive mechanical motion.

This process may also be run in reverse: the sound waves can be used to extract heat, pumping it from a cool source to a hot sink and thereby inducing cooling.

Thermoacoustic engines and refrigeration units have been used before in high-tech settings, as power sources or cooling units on spacecraft, satellites and military craft for example. But it needn’t be limited to these top-end applications. “In principle, thermoacoustic devices are quite simple and should be able to be made very cheaply,” says Scott Backhaus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a specialist on thermoacoustics who is assisting the SCORE team.

Sound system

In the SCORE device, says the project director Paul Riley at the University of Nottingham, UK, “burning wood heats a gas-filled pipe at one end. The gas moves from the hot part, where it expands, to the cold part, where it contracts. The pipe then resonates rather like an organ pipe.” This produces acoustic pressure waves, which can be harnessed to produce electricity in the reverse process to how a loudspeaker turns electrical signals into vibrations.

The sound waves are also used to drive a second engine that operates as a heat pump to remove heat from a nearby refrigeration unit. And the heat from the burning wood can also be used for cooking in a conventional cooker stove. The fridge and the cooker are connected by “the pipes necessary to carry the hum,” says Riley — but are kept apart so that the heat from the stove doesn’t interfere with the cooling.

The system will only generate electricity and cool the fridge while it is operating as a stove.

One of the main attractions of SCORE stoves is that they don’t need an external electricity supply. “The electric grid in developing countries basically only serves the cities,” Backhaus explains. And many homes are already using a fuel source such as wood for cooking. “Over two billion people use open fires to cook,” says Riley.

SCORE aims to be producing these fridge/stoves in significant numbers within five years.

Do it yourself

Backhaus thinks this goal is feasible, but admits that it is challenging. He cautions that the SCORE team “will have to stay focused on keeping the device inexpensive and not let a desire for technical perfection get in the way of the true goal: improving the living conditions in the developing world.”

The research team recognizes that the science is only a part of the challenge: success will also depend on ensuring that local communities have enough expertise to maintain and ultimately to produce the devices themselves.

“One of the keys is to make this device simple enough so that it can be produced cheaply by the local population,” says Backhaus. Local researchers and experts from the development charity Practical Action will advise on how to best introduce the new technology. The group is already discussing their project with governments of developing countries.

Burning wood to power fridges: Project aims to bring high-tech device to developing world.

May 10, 2007

GM patent rejected after 13 years

Filed under: Nature, Technology — rdrutherford @ 5:53 pm

Patent for technology to fire genes into soy seeds thrown out.

Ned Stafford
Opponents complained that Monsanto had too broad a patent on GM soybeans.
Punchstock
The European Patent Office (EPO) has revoked a patent owned by global agricultural giant Monsanto for the genetic modification (GM) of soybeans, saying the technique it approved 13 years ago lacked “novelty”.

The technique, which describes a way of creating any kind of GM soybean without reference to the specific genes being introduced, has helped make Monsanto the dominant force in GM soybeans — the company owns nearly 90% of the global market. Opponents complained that the patent gave Monsanto de facto control over all GM soybeans, and have been fighting against it since it was granted in 1994.

At a hearing on 3 May, the EPO revoked the patent. The board’s decision is final, says Rainer Osterwalder, spokesman for the EPO, with no further appeals available.

The decision will no doubt have an impact on other GM technology patents, Osterwalder told Nature. “Case law is important,” he says.

But the patent was due to expire in 2008 anyway. A spokesperson for Monsanto says: “We do not expect this decision to have an impact on Monsanto’s business.” The EPO will not issue a detailed written explanation of the legal basis of its decision for three to six months, Osterwalder says.

Firing line

The application for the soybean patent was first submitted in 1988 by US biotech company Agracetus under the title ‘Particle-mediated transformation of soybean plants and lines’.

The technique, dubbed a ‘particle gun’, involves introducing foreign genes into regenerable soybean tissues by coating on carrier particles, which are physically accelerated into plant tissues. The tissues are then recovered and regenerated into whole sexually mature plants. The progeny are recovered from seed set by these plants; a portion will contain in their genome the foreign gene.

This idea was actively researched by several teams during the 1980s, one of which was the team at Agracetus, according to Ricarda Steinbrecher, a molecular geneticist at the Oxford-based non-profit science watchdog group EcoNexus. Steinbrecher, who served as a scientific expert at the hearing in Munich, notes another use of the technique on onions1 in 1987 was cited in the EPO hearing as an example that others were working on the technology.

Osterwalder notes that GM technology was much less developed then than it is now, and patents in the field were new. “Guidelines are now better developed on whether to grant or refuse these patents,” he says; a higher percentage of GM plant patents are now refused than in the past.

Not the usual suspects

The original patent approval was opposed by a strange mix of groups, including the Canadian environmental group ETC and a long list of big agribusiness firms involved in GM research. One of the opposing firms was Monsanto, which dropped its opposition in 1996 after acquiring Agracetus, thus becoming owner of the patent.

Christoph Then, a GM expert at Greenpeace Germany, which cooperated with ETC in opposing the patent, was at this week’s hearing in Munich. He says representatives from the Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta provided some of the strongest arguments against the patent.

It is “a little strange”, he admits, for Greenpeace and ETC — which are generally opposed to the use of GM soybeans — to be arguing the same side as Syngenta, a manufacturer of GM crops. It was also unusual, adds Then, for Greenpeace to be arguing a case that would effectively give other companies more unrestricted access to GM technologies.

Then says Greenpeace is strongly opposed to any patent that would give a company basic control over a plant species and allow them to restrict access to technology. “For us, this patent was highly symbolic,” he says.

http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070430/full/070430-14.html

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