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Saving the World with Stuff: 100 under $100

When I tell people I try to work on women’s economic empowerment from a 360-degree perspective, investment to employment to consumption, they often look perplexed when I say “consumption.”  In the US and the UK, people have become so accustomed to having stuff that they think consumer objects just add trash and  superficiality to daily life.  They don’t see anything worthy in bringing consumer goods to the rest of the world.  (Someone even objected to the sanitary pads work we were doing on the basis that poor rural schoolgirls would become “addicted” to the pads.  Please.)

Many consumer goods are important to health and well-being.  Even the basics are not easily available to the largest segment of the human population–the folks who live in the rural areas of the developing world. In those corners, where there is no plumbing or electricity, very simple innovations can have a massively positive impact.

Some of these innovations are especially important for women, as a new book by Betsy Teutsch shows.  In 150 glossy, well-illustrated pages, Betsy’s 100 Under $100 tells about 100 life-changing products that cost less than $100, some of which can also bring income to women, and also gives tips on how those of us sitting comfortably in a developed country can help make it happen.

While there are loads of worthwhile objects described in this book, I want to illustrate with two items for which I have personally seen need.

Clean birth kits are a packaged set of tools that allow someone to assist in a birth while protecting mother and child from infections that can harm both.  These are needed in remote rural areas where there are no clean birthing facilities, but also in the urban hospitals in some countries where the resources are so strapped that women are told to bring their own sterile equipment.

photo - azyh/ Justin George

Ayzh provides work for women who assemble the kits, as well as safer birthing conditions for the women who use them. Photo courtesy of ayzh.

Betsy features the cute pink bags made by ayzh in India.  Zubaida Bai founded this company  after she became infected while giving birth in an Indian hospital.  The end result was not only many years of ill health and pain, but her ability to have another child.  Ayzh assembles birth kits to be distributed by NGOs or to commercial resellers who make them available to individuals who need them.  Women assemble the kits, so the company provides employment as well as safer birth conditions.

About five years ago, I travelled with UNICEF through rural Senegal, observing the impact of the maternal/neonatal tetanus vaccine that Pampers provides through an annual consumer promotion.  After having visited the hospital in one region, we drove out to several remote villages to watch vaccinations and demonstrations.  The farther out we went (all of it off-road), the more I saw that most women would not even try to make it to the hospital.  The risk was too great they would end up giving birth in the desert.  However, most villages had no clinic or even a clean space for medical care.

Communities were building very small “health huts” that could serve several villages.  These huts were clean, but often poorly resourced.  The UNICEF staff impressed upon me, however, that merely teaching the midwife (if there was one) to clean the knife she used to cut the umbilical cord, and not to seal it with dung, would save lives.  A simple thing like wiping bleach on the blade was a big step.  The need for the tetanus vaccine remained because there were few health huts.  Maternal/neonatal tetanus is problematic in places where there is no clean water and no access to medical care.  Eventually, when all women have access to clean birth, there will no longer be a need for this particular type of vaccine.

In the meantime, clean birth kits are the way to go.  Betsy’s note says you can create the kits yourself and ship them to the United Methodist Church for distribution.  There is also an Australian group, Bloggers for Birth Kits, that has assembled more than 7,000 kits, which are transported by ship to Papua New Guinea, where safe birthing conditions are rare. Another group,, gives handmade cards in exchange for donations toward birth kits destined for Laos–and you can also donate to train a nurse.

Solar Sister sells solar lanterns, like the cool one (in the picture below) that blows up into a small cylinder that looks more like a beach toy than a lamp.  I actually take this particular type of lantern on fieldwork so that I can in my room after dark.  It packs flat, blows up, charges in the sun, and gives off plenty of light, even to read by.

The benefits of these lamps in the communities themselves is hard to overstate. Families have great need of light at night, but when there is no electricity, they are forced to burn kerosene or paraffin.  It’s expensive and a fire hazard.  And the light is not enough to read or work by.  Having lights such as this allows children to study at home.  Women can work on income-generating activities such as sewing or beading.  The whole family’s comfort and productivity is expanded and their budget benefits from not having to buy fuel for lamps.

Luci Sudan

This girl was photographed in a refugee camp in Sudan. Light makes a big difference.  Photo by Sebastien Rich.

The Solar Sisters who sell the lamps in the villages benefit through the income they earn, which in turn benefits their families.  You can contribute to that effort by donating to Solar Sister Business In A Bag.  Each donation is put out as a loan, then when it is repaid, the funds roll over to help another “sister.” They have already trained 1,200 entrepreneurs and brought light to 200,000 people in three countries.

These are just two of the ideas Betsy has profiled in this wonderfully useful book.  There are more on her website which you can find by clicking here.  Women’s and charity groups can find some great ideas here for campaigns to help others. You, too, can help save the world, one consumer item at a time.


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