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DESIGN
Catapult Design
A nonprofit's designs to solve developing nations' problems
by Jacob Resneck
on 15 October 2010
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Catapult Design is a San Francisco-based consortium of engineers, designers and educators largely handpicked from the innovative hotbed of Silicon Valley to find simple, practical solutions to global problems faced by billions of people in the developing world. Around for less than two years their list of accomplishments is impressive from harnessing wind power in rural Central America to dealing with water scarcity in arid regions of Africa.

"We develop products for impoverished communities, working through clients who are primarily based in developing countries," explains co-founder Heather Fleming.

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Hatching a good idea isn't enough. Getting it to the people who need it and finding a way to pay for it is critical lest a good idea languish on paper or stockpiled in warehouses where they are no good to anyone. Take BioLite for example. This Berkeley, California-based company has developed a clean-burning cookstove that generates electricity to charge small appliances like mobile phones. Millions of people are poisoned by toxic fumes from makeshift cookstoves and villagers living off-the-grid are unable to use telephones because they can't charge the handsets even if the village itself is within the network.

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Enter Catapult Design which conducted market research in India, one of the largest market countries and the outlook looks good for the fledging cookstoves.

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Meanwhile in Guatemala villagers are harnessing windpower that would allow villagers to charge a car battery in conditions of about 15 mph of breeze. Catapult is helping develop this project to keep the cost relatively affordable at around $100, well within the reach of rural villages.

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Scarcity of water is an endemic problem in the eastern African nation of Kenya. Households that eke by on $300 a year are also plagued with water shortages and often are forced to cut down trees which exacerbates the problem of dry weather. Catapult spent a week partnering with Komaza, an nongovernmental organization that helps East African farmers. Now in the works is a portable rainwater catchment system that will help individual farmers conserve rainwater to irrigate their crops.

Other projects in the works including super-efficient LED lamps to replace noxious kerosene lamps that exist in areas that lack electrification. The result is a prototype pedal-powered LED lamp that's been distributed across Tanzania.

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