Intermediate technology refers to tools, basic machines, and engineering systems that poor farmers and other rural people can make or readily buy to better support themselves and improve their well-being. It is a step between traditional tools and systems that are inefficient and advanced technology that is both highly expensive and impractical for the needs of impoverished areas.
Proponents of intermediate technology say that items easily adaptable for rural needs can lead to greater productivity while minimizing the dislocation often associated with technological changes. Much intermediate technology can be built and serviced using locally available materials and knowledge. It generally is seen as more harmonious with the environment and with traditional ways of life, designed to focus on people rather than making them servants of machines.
Intermediate technology tends to favor labor-intensive solutions over capital-intensive ones, although labor-saving devices are also used where this does not mean high capital or maintenance cost. In practice, appropriate technology is often described as using the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location. Its proponents generally demur from the belief that technological development is inherently synonymous with progress.
Although generally associated with relatively basic devices, often made out of old machine parts or cloth or wood, it can also involve advanced technology, such as energy-efficient light bulbs or small adsorption refrigerators, that can provide a benefit to poor, rural populations. It sometimes combines cutting-edge research with simple materials. For example, medical research into the spread of cholera has led to the use of cloth filters, sometimes made out of old saris or other articles of clothing, to collect water in a way that substantially reduces pathogens in poor villages where disinfectants and fuel for boiling are not readily available. At the other end of the spectrum, high-efficiency, white light-emitting diode (LED) lights are used in remote areas of Nepal, replacing kerosene lamps or wood fires that emitted pollutants and posed a fire risk.
The term intermediate technology is sometimes used interchangeably with “appropriate technology.” However, appropriate technology more often refers to the use of environmentally friendly and energy-saving approaches in industrialized countries, as opposed to the application of useful devices in rural, less-developed areas.
Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, a British economist and statistician who critiqued Western economies, is credited with coining the term intermediate technology. His ideas became widely distributed through his influential 1973 book Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher later
created the Intermediate Technology Development Group, which assisted rural communities to develop simple and practical technologies. Schumacher's emphasis on sustainability came at a time of increasing ecological concerns and energy shortages, and he became highly regarded within the environmental movement.
The emphasis on intermediate technology can also be traced to Mohandas Gandhi, who advocated small, local, mostly village-based technology to help India's villages become self-reliant as part of their struggle against the British and wealthy Indians. Gandhi favored simple devices such as the bicycle and the sewing machine. He believed the powers of technology should be produced and used artfully, benefiting local economies. He became known for championing the spinning wheel, or charka, which his followers used to produce cloth locally to cause the British monopoly on textiles to collapse. Concerned about systems that favored production over workers, he said, “It is better for a machine to be idle than a man to be idle.”
When Schumacher and his colleagues created the Intermediate Technology Development Group, they focused on gathering information about tools and methods suitable for poorer rural areas and small towns in developing nations. An example of their work is a cassava grinder in Nigeria. Cassava, an important food source in Nigeria, has to be ground and dried before it is cooked. Residents who lacked access to good mechanical grinders often hurt themselves or spent many hours at grinding with such tools as tin cans with holes punched in them. The intermediate technology solution in this case was a cassava grinder built out of old bicycle parts and hacksaw blades. Highly efficient, it enabled people to grind about 16 pounds of cassava root in five minutes. The group also helped develop low-tech agricultural tools, building methods, bicycle-drawn ambulances, and even egg trays.
Although such simple technologies are generally preferred by intermediate technology proponents, they also see a role for carefully designed modern industrial plants. An example would be the construction of a costly factory to process sugarcane and maize stalks into fiberboard. Even though it may employ relatively few people, it could benefit many farmers whose stalks would otherwise have gone to waste as well as villagers who could use the fiberboard for housing and clothing.
Although intermediate technology tools developed in conjunction with local residents are generally popular, there have been cases in which they failed to win over villagers. For example, engineers with a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Compatible Technology International, attempted to improve the lives of Guatemalan women who labored many hours to hand-shell corn. The engineers produced a corn sheller that consisted of a piece of wood with a hole in the middle. By pushing a cob of corn through the hole, the women could shave off the kernels far more quickly. But the women preferred to continue hand-shelling corn, explaining to the engineers that they enjoyed the time together. The lesson for intermediate technology developers: sometimes time-saving devices are not welcome.
In many cases, however, intermediate technology innovations have made a great difference in developing countries. Examples of intermediate technologies follow.
Locally available materials, such as adobe, compressed earth blocks, and straw bales can be used to build durable structures. Those who live near volcanoes can mix volcanic ash with lime to make a type of cement that does not need heating. In some cases, products from a nearby city may provide building materials. New technologies can provide simple and inexpensive options as well. For example, a product manufactured in the United Kingdom known as Concrete Canvas provides a sturdy alternative to tent cities. Builders pump up the
air bladder to provide temporary scaffolding, lay out the canvas on top of the air bladder, and pour water on the canvas. After the canvas dries, the air bladder can be removed, leaving a basic structure as large as about 600 square feet that can last for several years. The structure is waterproof and fireproof.
Biomass, sometimes made from bio oil, waste organic matter, vegetable oil, or even feces, can be used for power. Human energy can also be tapped in innovative ways. A nongovernmental organization in Guatemala, Maya Pedal, has developed a series of machines that are powered by bicycles. For example, engineers fitted modified bikes to hand-powered grinding mills and corn threshers, resulting in devices that can mill three pounds of any type of grain per minute.
The sun is also a convenient energy source, especially in remote areas that receive plentiful sunlight. Portable outdoor stoves known as solar cookers are increasingly popular in developing countries. They often use a combination of devices to harness solar heat, such as a mirror or reflective metal to concentrate heat into a small cooking area and a plastic bag or glass cover to trap the heat inside. The sun can also be used to power specially designed LED bulbs. Such devices can provide several hours of light when the battery is fully charged, reducing the need to burn scarce supplies of wood.
Increasing energy efficiency can be as important as finding sources of energy. Rocket stoves and similar wood stoves, for example, burn wood efficiently through a combination of controlled use of fuel, complete combustion, and carefully designed ventilation. Such stoves have been used for cooking in a number of sites in developing countries, including Rwandan refugee camps; they are also used for space heating and providing hot water.
Another innovative device for remote areas that lack electricity is the Pot-in-Pot refrigerator, used to preserve food. It consists of a smaller clay pot inside a larger one, with regularly moistened sand separating the two. The inner pot is cooled by evaporation. Vegetables and fruits can stay fresh as long as several weeks.
With more than 1 billion people lacking access to proper drinking water, the elimination of waterborne diseases is a major focus of intermediate technology. Engineers have pursued various methods to purify water, focusing on the use of locally available materials. For example, clay, diatomaceous earth, or sand can be used to filter water. Chemical treatments may rely on aluminum salts or crushed seeds from certain plants. Water can also be irradiated with ultraviolet light, including light from the sun. One of the most successful, and simplest, water purification devices, known as the LifeStraw, can be worn around the neck. Water is sucked up a straw and through a filter that catches almost all pathogens.
Gathering and transporting water can be as challenging as purifying it. Devices for collecting water in arid areas include large pieces of vertically arranged canvas for capturing water droplets from condensed fog, structures known as air wells that promote condensation from air, and plastic sheets that gather water from dew or frost.
One of the most successful intermediate-technology devices for transporting water is the Hippo Roller. Designed to replace the five-gallon jugs that women would carry on their heads to carry water to their homes from distant rivers and lakes, the Hippo Roller consists
of a 24-gallon barrel attached to a large handle. The barrel can be pushed along the ground in the style of a rotating steamroller.
Engineers have developed a plethora of simple devices for agricultural purposes. Examples range from knapsack crop sprayers to pedal-powered maize shellers. The Universal Nut Sheller, a simple hand-powered tool that relies on a crank, is capable of shelling more than 100 pounds of certain types of peanuts per hour.
Rather than try to supply outlying regions with professionally trained doctors, some NGOs favor training villagers to treat many ailments. The trained villagers treat a majority of health problems, with more severe cases going to small, local hospitals or, less commonly, to larger and more expensive urban media centers. Herbal medicines are sometimes used in lieu of synthetic drugs in cases where their efficacy has been demonstrated. Medical products associated with intermediate technology include the phase-change incubator, which can test cultures at a lower cost than a laboratory or portable incubator, and the Jaipur leg, a rubber-based prosthetic that was developed for victims of land mines. Engineers have also produced a number of wheelchair designs, often made out of recycled parts, that are far less expensive than newer wheelchairs in industrialized countries.
Companies have designed a number of low-cost computers, typically dust-resistant and durable, for use in developing countries. In some countries, children have been given laptop computers, some as small as textbooks, with screens easily readable in bright sunlight for those who go to school outdoors. Those who lack Internet access may be able to use educational CDs and DVDs.
Other devices include wind-up radios for areas without electricity and village phones—cell phones that are sold to residents in remote areas who are trained in using them as a payphone for their villages. Cooperative computer networks provide free or inexpensive Web and e-mail services, while services such as Loband strip out high-resolution images from webpages and render them as simple text, thereby making them accessible in areas with slow download speeds.
The field of intermediate technology is constantly evolving. Numerous NGOs and other groups continue to create new devices and strategies to help rural residents in developing countries, providing an alternative to both traditional tools and larger-scale Western technological approaches.
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Manas Journal. “What Is Intermediate Technology?” http://www.manasjournal.org/pdf_library/VolumeXXVIII_1975/XXVIII-13.pdf (Accessed September 2010).
Ward, Olivia. “$20 Billion Promised at UN for Maternal, Child Health.” The Toronto Star. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/865172--40-billion-promised-at-un-for-maternal-child-health?bn=1 (Accessed September 2010).
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1560500082