Appropriate Technology, Vocational Training and a few thoughts on Sustainability

As promised, this is the follow-up report on the time I spent with SABG in Awassa, Ethiopia.

The idea of using appropriate technology to serve the poor and to increase their standard of living is by no means a novel one. I was quickly reminded of that point last week by a friend who has been doing development work in Africa for over twenty years.

For some reason, I have been digesting and contemplating his comments for the better part of a week. Ultimately, his point was that appropriate technology ‘just doesn’t work.’ Reasons for this failure include a lack of interest among the rural poor to adopt and invest in these technologies, lack of a full-spectrum market to service these technologies should they break-down, ownership and responsibility issues, and a lack of education on the importance and potential of a said technology to increase a persons standard of living.

I had to agree that merely providing the technology does little, if nothing, to increase the standard of living among the rural poor. It’s comparable, if you will, to giving a Roman-era road builder a new bulldozer equipped with GPS and a laser grading system. Out of curiosity he may try it, but as soon as it breaks down (which wouldn’t be long in the hands of an inexperienced operator) it would sit idly by – a huge waste of investment capital. Not to mention the fact that, without training, he likely did more destruction than production.

Now, that’s an exaggerated example, but not by as much as one might think. At this point, one might launch into the discussion of what exactly defines appropriate technology. You might argue that ‘appropriate’ implies the end user knows fully how to operate and repair the technology – thus the above example is entirely out-of-line.

For reference, others have defined appropriate technology as such:

                ‘An appropriate technology is usually characterized as small scale, energy efficient, environmentally sound, labor-intensive and controlled by the local community. It must be simple enough to be maintained by the people who use it. In short, it must match the user in complexity and scale and must be designed to foster self-reliance, cooperation, and responsibility.’ – Amadei (2004) from the essay, ‘Poverty Reduction through Irrigation and Smallholder Markets (PRISM)” by Kebele Ayele and Shibru Tedla. Published in ‘Best practices and technologies for small scale agricultural water management in Ethiopia,’ 2006.

                ‘Intermediate technology (as Schumacher liked to call it) is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer from the technology of the rich. One can also call it self-help technology, or democratic or people’s technology – a technology to which everybody can gain admittance and which is not reserved to those already rich and powerful.’ –late economist EF Schumacher, ‘Small is Beautiful,’ 1973.

My friend conceded, however, that appropriate technology has a place in the development spectrum if, and only if, there are checks and balances in place to ensure that repair and maintenance is covered in some capacity for at least ten years. Simultaneously there must be an investment in educating and persuading the local community of the importance of the technology and also in how to operate and maintain it.

Finally – and I’m sure you’re wondering by now – how does this tangent relate to Selam Awassa Business Group (SABG). Well, primarily SABG is a production center of appropriate technology and a vocational training center. Therefore, I feel it is important to highlight what SABG is doing to contribute, in sustainable ways, to the appropriate technology movement and to capacity building among the rural community.

First of all, SABG production center is a for-profit enterprise. SABG operates because there is a demand for their products. On the face of it, this implies that people understand how to use these appropriate technology products and that they find value in them. This would automatically discredit the argument that appropriate technology is not applicable because it implies that it is so fully applicable that farmers are themselves demanding it and using their own capital to acquire it.

If only it were so simple. While some of SABG’s customers are, in fact, rural smallholder farmers, many are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Many of these NGOs could be simply giving away the technology with little follow-through on education, repair and maintenance, or any attempt to measure social impact. SABG production center should not be faulted, however, for other organizations’ lack of follow-through (assuming there is a lack of follow-through). The production center promotes and produces appropriate technology and leaves the tasks of education, repair and maintenance, and measuring social impact up to partner NGOs.

Subsequently, through the production of appropriate technology, SABG also funds (with help from donors) and operates an on-site vocational training college. Selam Awassa Vocational Training College trains students in mechanical engineering. The program is designed to be a three year program in which students have an opportunity to get much needed hands-on experience through the workshop (even working on the production side of the business in their 2nd and 3rd years) during the day, and then theoretical instruction at Awassa Technical and Vocational Training College in the evening.

Students in Selam Awassa Vocational Training College are gaining employable skills and a sense of self thanks to the efforts of SABG. All tuition and living expenses are covered and every day begins with a Christian based devotional at 7:45 am, attended by the entire organization. The confidence these students build in themselves, their direction, and the love God has for them combined with the skills acquired in the workshop and classroom have an immeasurable impact on their livelihood and future. Many of the students I met with expressed how very grateful they were for this unique opportunity – provided entirely by efforts of Selam Awassa Business Group and associated donors.

Back to the sustainability issue. SABG is taking a unique approach to sustainably among its three sectors: the production center, providing clean water and vocational training. The production center is a for-profit venture designed to meet the demand for appropriate technology among citizens, the NGO community, private corporations, and the government. The Selam Awassa Drilling Works and Sanitation project is taking direct action in working through rural kebelle’s (communities) to install fresh, clean water wells with pumps. I believe I failed to mention this previously, but Selam Awassa Drilling Works and Sanitation is also taking action to train a local serviceman/woman in specific kebelles by providing him or her with a bicycle for transportation and training in repair and maintenance. Finally, Selam Awassa Vocational Training College is providing the rural poor with employable skills that will, at the very least, ensure they are able to provide for themselves and their families and likewise contribute to the development of their native land.

Now, I’m no expert on sustainability. It is apparent, however, that many of our man-made systems throughout the world have been designed with little regard to sustainability – financial, natural, spiritual or otherwise. In this same development/ sustainability thread is the fact that aid alone cannot and will not develop economies in the third world – development workers, economists and others have been saying this for decades, its nothing new and I’m not claiming to be doing more than stating the obvious. SABG depends on a combination of income generating activities and aid to spur development, economy, education and spiritual well-being in rural Ethiopia.

Currently, the environmental impact of SABG’s work is indirect. Much of the appropriate technology allows farmers to cultivate land intensively (increasing production and fertility of land under cultivation), rather than extensively (farming in such a manner that degrades the land to the extent that it is left fallow in search of more fertile land). Intensive cultivation, in turn, slows erosion, land degradation, and deforestation. Moving forward, maximizing the productivity of land under cultivation and practicing techniques that ensure the land remains productive and fertile for years to come will be absolutely critical. This will not be capable without the introduction and adaptation of appropriate technology throughout the developing world. This should be affordable, locally produced technology which maximizes scarce land and water resources.

Moreover, design and production of this appropriate technology should be in such a fashion that absolutely no waste is produced – or, in a cradle to cradle method (as opposed to cradle to grave). The net environmental impact of production should be positive – rather than simply minimized. This is an idea expressed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, in their novel on sustainable design, ‘Cradle to Cradle.’ The opportunity to address the cradle to cradle philosophy, as it relates to the developing world, is enormous.

Some businesses have embraced McDonough and Braungart’s philosophy and are attempting to address this philosophy in the developed world, but what work has or is being done to address entirely sustainable, cradle to cradle design in the developing world? From my limited view, very little. Two obvious examples: recycling is a foreign concept here in Ethiopia and the cars and buses would fail an emissions standards test miserably – spend any amount of time on the streets of Addis and you’ll quickly be bathed in ‘Ethiopian perfume’ (thick, dark exhaust). 

I could go on, but I imagine by this point I’ve rambled long enough for many of you. I’ve jumped from defending the appropriate technology movement (and thus, SABG), to capacity building via vocational training and spiritual development, and finally to a brief synopsis of sustainability as it pertains to SABG and the developing world as a whole. Obviously, there are stages in the development spectrum and the sustainability spectrum that are, by all means, intertwined. Different levels and areas of development allow for different levels of sustainability but it is my hope that ultimately, all our activities under the sun are in harmony with spiritual, natural and financial sustainability. Though, for now, that’s a lofty ideal.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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