Steve Collins, founder and Executive Director of Valid. (photo by Asa Mathat)
Leave it to a technology innovators’ conference to frame the relief of global malnutrition as a business opportunity. Other sessions at this week’s Techonomy meeting in Tucson described how technology is transforming developing communities and how mobile devices are already ubiquitous in Africa. But Steve Collins, an MD from Ireland devoted to improving nutrition in Africa, says think of it this way: People unaffected by irreversible brain damage—often the effect of malnutrition in infancy—are more likely consumers of technology.
Collins spoke here at a breakfast roundtable called “The Nutrient Economy: Revolutionizing Global Health and Nutrition.” David Aylward, Senior Global Health and Technology Advisor for Ashoka, an organization that takes a venture capital approach to finding and funding social entrepreneurs around the world, hosted a conversation with Collins and another Ashoka fellow, Naila Chowdhury, an IT expert from Bangladesh.
Aylward says Ashoka’s focus on a nutrient economy seeks to ensure that nutrients are infused at every step of the food chain to create improvements in vitality and health for women, children, and workers in the developing world. Collins and Chowdhury demonstrated the economic incentive for technology companies for improving access to nutrition for people in the developing world.
Collins says lack of nutrients is the cause of 3.5 million avoidable deaths annually and the greatest cause of poverty. In Nigeria, he says, malnutrition is the cause of brain damage in 40 percent of children before age 2. “If brains are permanently damaged you have less uptake of mobile devices,” he says.
Chowdhury, who formerly headed up IT for the Grameen Bank, describes what happened in off-the-grid Bangladeshi villages when her team put solar power and mobile technology into the hands of illiterate women. The “village phone ladies” became local icons as distributors of information on wellness, nutrition, maternity, hygiene, immunization, and how to grow organic food at home. Ultimately some women also became entrepreneurs, selling products over the phone.
Over 10 years, Chowdhury says the program witnessed a decline in child mortality rates and increases in household income and education. And, she adds, “When the phone ladies demonstrated they could handle complexity of technology, it became easier to propagate the wellness of women.” It’s also a fair bet that the ladies are marketing targets for technology upgrades.
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