💧 Finding plastic water containers

TL; DR – Rsyzard Kapuscinksi writes about how the plastic water container revolutionised rural Africa. It’s one of the mot relatable stories I’ve seen for explaining how tech can make people’s lives better.

Like a lot of people, I love and dread talking about what I do – investing in and working with tech ventures for global good.

I love taking about the places I work – vibrant, resilient, yet often with basic needs unmet. I love talking about the talented, creative people I work with¹, and how together we’re building a better world through tech. The minute I mention that word though – technology – something happens. Eyes narrow. Why, when working in low-resource communities, are you using tech? What good will that do when there’s 700million people on less than $2 a day, or 260million children out of school? Shouldn’t you start with something less shiny, less complicated, more basic?

It’s a legitimate question.

One story I tell to answer it isn’t from work at all, or the tech world. Rather, it’s from The Shadow of the Sun, Rsyzard Kapuscinski’s beautiful memoir² of decades spent as an Africa correspondent. Shadow of the Sun goes country-by-country through Kapuscinski’s experiences in Africa. This story is in a tangent from a chapter on Ethiopia. In it, he writes about one of the most transformative technologies for the African continent – the plastic container.

But the child’s biggest role is in the home: he is responsible for supplying water. While everyone else is asleep, little boys are rising in darkness and running to springs, ponds, rivers – for water. Modern technology has proven their great ally: it gave them a gift – the cheap, light plastic container. A dozen years ago, this container revolutionised life in Africa [emphasis mine].

It’s so easy to relate to this story about tech. Anyone can grasp the plastic container: what it is, and the impact it has (carrying water easily). It’s less difficult, more grounded than talking about drones, or blockchain, or machine learning. And, as I’ve written before, the plastic container is as much a technology as those more ‘cutting edge’ things. It’s something humans created to further the pursuit of their lives. In this case, carrying water.

Kapuscinski goes on to say:

Water is the sine qua non of survival in the tropics. Because there is generally no plumbing here and water is scarce, one must carry it over long distances, sometimes ten or more kilometres. For centuries, heavy clay or stone vessels were used for this purpose… The division of domestic labour was such that carrying water was women’s work. A child could never manage such a large and heavy receptacle, and in this bare-bones world each house usually had only one.

As all tech should, the plastic container solves a very real problem. It enables better (quicker, easier) the pursuit of some core aspect of life. It does a job that wasn’t being done before, either at all (no plumbing) or at all well (by clay or stone vessels).

It does that job, and gets out of the way before interfering with the life that people are pursuing. It fits in. The venture builder Kitawa Wemo once told me that tech for good types “need to let people make up their own minds about how they want to be”. The plastic water container furthers the pursuit of life, but doesn’t try to shape it. For that reason, it has one up over more modern digital or algorithmic tech.

There’s more:

Then the plastic container appeared. A miracle! A revolution! First of all, it is relatively inexpensive… it costs around two dollars. Most important however, it is light. And it comes in various sizes, so even a small child can fetch several litres of water.

Here’s the second reason I love this story. Not only is the plastic container easy to relate to, but anyone can grasp how it answers three of the most fundamental questions we ask of any technology. Does it work? Do people use it? Is it affordable?

Plastic is light, so children can carry it – it works. Not only that, it comes readily available in different sizes so children of all ages can use it. And it’s cheap. At $2 a container, it can grow by being affordable not only to governments and aid agencies who might distribute it, but to some of the families of children who use it. The plastic container could not have revolutionised parts of rural Africa without such a resounding “yes!” to those three questions.

Trying to answer these questions as elegantly as the plastic container does is the struggle facing more cutting edge technologies trying to improve people’s lives. It’s also the day-to-day struggle of our work as tech optimists. Of course – as you know – it’s never black and white. Like any technology the plastic container has some pretty profound knock on effects. Kapscinski has something to say here too, which I’ll explore in another blog.

If you work in technology, or in trying to build a better world (or both!), you might also have a ‘go to’ story to talk about what you do. Hit ‘reply’ and let me know.

¹ 🍻 to my friends at Brink, and across all the ventures I’ve worked with. Far too many people to name here, but you know who you are.

² Beautifully written, put perhaps with too much creative licence? Perhaps. The section referenced here, thankfully, stays relatively clear of it.

🎬 Thanks to Zahid Mitha and Ben Britton for looking at drafts of this post.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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Banner depicts girls with water jerrycans in N’Gonga, a village in Niger. By NigerTZai. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.