Ask Dayo Olopade Anything: Trimming The Economic Fat

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 8 2014 @ 8:42pm

In the next video from the Nigerian-American author of The Bright Continent, she details how Africans often turn scarcity into an advantage:

To further illustrate those points, she shares the story of a particularly resourceful project in Malawi that would put many American hospitals to shame:

Compare that with a Japanese toilet product that Dayo cited in her recent NYT op-ed on lean economies vs fat economies:

The story of Toto, a Japanese company that created the Otohime, or “Sound Princess,” illustrates the great divide. Now installed in thousands of restroom stalls across Japan, the device mimics the sound of flushing water. The Sound Princess solved a problem of affluence: women were continuously flushing public toilets to mask the sounds that come with using them. Toto’s innovation saves them the embarrassment. The portable, purse-friendly version is a best-selling consumer product in Japan.

In a lean economy, toilet-related innovation looks a lot different. In the densest areas of African cities, one time-honored form of waste disposal is the “flying toilet”:

bundling refuse into a plastic bag and chucking it as far as possible. It’s understandable: Most people in Africa’s informal settlements lack the basic dignity of modern sanitation. Waste-contaminated water breeds disease, and fear of crime keeps many from using public toilets at night. The “flying toilet” is a stopgap solution — with obvious drawbacks.

The Umande Trust, a community organization in Kenya, came up with a better plan. They helped build a massive cylindrical biodigester that composts the output of a fleet of toilets. Umande charges a few pennies per use, making about $400 per month. Better yet, the system doesn’t drain the water supply like traditional flush toilets, and it creates biogas that powers a community center and heats water for the 400 residents who also shower there every day.

The Sound Princess represents a vanity innovation for the top of the pyramid, where you can also find software that will allow you to find a parking spot or a date, to “farm” fake digital crops, to shake your iPhone to simulate the sound of a whip. They solve problems that arise when the basics are taken care of. But when the status quo is a flying toilet, anything goes. Lean economies — however challenged they might appear — translate minimal resources into maximum social impact.

In another followup on the lean/fat dynamic, Dayo reflects on the consumption bloat often found in the West:

The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa can be purchased here. Dayo’s previous videos are here.

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