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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Market-Based Solutions to International Development?

If you walk around the Harvard Business School, you can't go more than 2 days without hearing certain buzz words: "market-based solutions," "base of the pyramid business models," and "social entrepreneurship" to name a few. The common theme is integrating private sector approaches to international development and poverty alleviation efforts. The concepts are certainly fascinating, and even I find myself intrigued by conversations about venture philanthropy firms, private equity firms working in emerging markets, and cool business ideas that serve the poor. We can talk the talk, but what sort of companies out there have really walked the walk? Here are 3.

1. LifeStraw. Designed by Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen, LifeStraw makes dirty water clean. It is a 25 cm long, 29 mm diameter plastic straw that contains of point-of-use water filter in its base. The manufacturers have priced it at US$2. LifeStraw removes 99.999% of waterborne bacteria, 99.99% of viruses, and 99.9% of parasites. It can be used for approximately 1 year (700 liters) before the filter must be replaced. As a result of killing disease-causing microorganisms, it can prevent diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. LifeStraw is a for-profit product, for sale both directly to consumers but also many non-profits have worked with LifeStraw to purchase and distribute it in humanitarian crises (most recently the 2010 Haitian earthquake and the 2010 Pakistan floods).


2. Banana Leaf Sanitary Pads. Elizabeth Scharpf, founder and CEO of Sustainable Health Enterprises (S.H.E.), is working to address a major underlying cause of female absenteeism in school and in the workplace: mensutruation. The alarmingly high rates of absenteeism in schools and in the workplace that resulted from women reluctant to come during their menstrual periods is a reality in many developing countries. The #1 reason? Sanitary pads are too expensive. In order to create a more affordable option, S.H.E. now works with local Rwandan women to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality, and eco-friendly sanitary pads made from banana tree fibers. Since 2009, S.H.E has also trained 5,000 Rwandan women to set up their own sanitary napkin micro-enterprises. Scharpf has become part of the movement that Nicholas Kristof calls the D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution.

S.H.E. Sanitary Pads Being Manufactured in Rwanda

3. ClickDiagnostics. One of several companies competing in the telemedicine space, ClickDiagnostics is a software program that allows for community health workers to use a hand-held interface to do a quick differential diagnosis and send photographs to remote physicians. ClickDiagnostics has experimented with several interfaces/platforms for the software, ranging from smartphone apps to more basic flip phone mobile technology. The for-profit company sells their technology to Ministries of Health, NGOs (including BRAC), universities, and hospitals for use in Bangladesh, Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. If anyone knows more about the telemedicine market, I'd love to learn more about how ClickDiagnostics measures up to its competitors. Maybe the MD's out there can also shed some light on the scale-ability (or lack of scale-ability) of telemedicine.

Community Health Worker Using ClickDiagnostics Mobile App

Would love for others to add to my list of favorites, as well. For those interested in exploring social entrepreneurship further, check out the upcoming Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, March 5-6, 2011.


  1. Apparently it's my lot in life as an economist to be the skeptical naysayer. The other two products look great, and Banana leaf sanitary pads might be awesome, but there are good reasons to doubt that menstruation is a major hindrance to school attendance. My advisor did an experiment where she looked at the effect of menstrual cups on attendance and found that it was zero:

    Sanitary products are still awesome (and she did find some positive effects) but they're not a panacea for differential school attendance by gender. I'll grant that things could be different in Nepal than in Africa but I can't see a good reason why that would be.

  2. Jason,
    Thanks for sharing the link to your advisor's research. I also had some skepticism about female school attendance increasing since the reason cited is cultural stigma. Just because a female now has access to an affordable sanitary pad does not eliminate that cultural stigma. But even if S.H.E. is providing nothing more than a cheaper product and local employment, I suppose that is still a positive contribution.


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