Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Find the New and Unexpected


~ Joel Elkes

Of Note: Many have written off Africa as incapable of development. Not so fast. While the vast continent may be rife with corruption and lack basic material goods, it boasts some of the most ancient people on the planet, who have learned to innovate or die. A case in point involves the prolific water hyacinth, which invaded the shores of Lake Victoria some twenty years ago. Environmentalists, who were monitoring the situation, expected the worst, and they got it. As the years progressed, the lake became more and more obstructed. The ubiquitous tilapia did not care for the invader, and its fertility dropped precipitously, alarming thousands of fishermen, whose livelihood depended on a good daily catch. What to do? As a first attempt, governments from the three countries surrounding the lake, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and several international agencies stepped in to eradicate the water hyacinth. They met with resounding failure. The innovative fishermen, having no other options and nothing to lose, thought they might be able to exploit the economic opportunity presented by the invasive plant. One person involved explained it this way: "A community-based organization was formed to harvest and process the water hyacinth and manufacture a variety of unusual products. The product line-up is virtually limitless and includes cards, lampshades, sturdy furniture, baskets, footwear, cordage, handbags, fodder for animals and even gas." Prices range from $1 for cards to $1,000 dollars for the beautifully-crafted furniture. On the agenda is the creation of a substitute tea made from the plant, giving real meaning to the phrase making lemonade from lemons. Westerners might learn from this success story that technology does not always provide the answers and that the ancient peoples of Africa may have something to teach us about community and innovation. Indeed, they already have.

Today's Weather Report: It felt much warmer than 9 degrees Fahrenheit today most likely because the sun shone brightly all day. A layer of snow now blankets the icy ground, which has improved dangerous conditions. Australia is currently experiencing flooding in an area the size of Texas, the magnitude of which is hard to fathom. On another note, a group has discovered that dirt may provide the organic material needed to produce small amounts of electricity through normal metabolism. We are not talking lighting up a house here, rather powering up a cell phone. Those with the ability to just plug in a cord might laugh at this novel invention. The 500 million in Africa who live without power may be more excited at the ability to produce electricity from dirt--something they have in amble supply. We can thank the UN for bringing this and other inventions to the attention of a waiting public. Although technology is not ALWAYS the answer, sometimes nothing else will do.