Earlier this year the Berkeley Lab released their “50 Breakthroughs” study – on the 50 most critical scientific and technological breakthroughs required for sustainable global development.

SkollWorldForum.org asked Diana Jue, social entrepreneur and co-founder of Essmart, to reflect on a pointed insight from the Berkeley Lab report:

“Too often, technologies are hammers looking for nails, and incremental technologies with little impact are far too often over-celebrated because they offer compelling narratives about the technologists and entrepreneurs who create them.”

This quotation is very true. Unfortunately it’s these incremental technologies with little impact that get funded, because their inventors have a great back story or because the products photograph well and are promoted as the next world-changing device

But since there is actually no demand for the product, nobody buys it. Such new technologies only exist because funders think they’re “good” for people.

My Essmart colleagues and I have come across products that receive a lot of attention in the US and abroad, but on the ground, they’re actually the last things that people would want for themselves and their families.

These are products like the LifeStraw (because no one actually wants to drink dirty water from a puddle, despite a built-in filtration system) and Soccket (because no one really cares that a soccer ball will harness energy). There are entire technology sectors that only exist in the world of philanthropy and social impact, not because people want them, but because funders think people need them.

We spend time on the ground asking what people want, since most of the time, what people want is actually what they need to make a living, support their families, and move up in life.

One of the requests that we frequently get is for headlamps. Our customers have defined certain specifications for this headlamp and, as product distributors, Essmart has searched high and low for someone who already makes it. We’ve even asked existing manufacturers in the social impact space to consider making one.

But we haven’t found the product yet, and no one seems to want to take recommendations from customers. It’s surprising how passive certain companies can be toward their target market, and I think it reflects a problem that exists in the technology-for-development space.

What’s your technology?

My colleagues and I have been developing Essmart for three years now, working on the ground and fundraising. I cannot tell you how many people ask us at the beginning of our pitch, “So… what’s your technology?”

Essmart doesn’t have a technology. We’re a rural distribution company, and our innovation is in our process, not in some product.

Processes are where the real gaps are in development. Even in the public sphere, there are usually funds available for infrastructure projects, but there are frequently massive difficulties in implementation.

The same problem happens in the technology-for-development space. Technologies exist that have the potential to benefit the lives of low-income users, but the processes for getting the products to them are broken. That’s why Essmart exists: to fix the process of rural distribution.

Unfortunately, compared to a fancy new technology, processes are completely unsexy. They can’t be photographed easily, and they’re difficult to describe. But it’s more important for broken processes like rural distribution to be fixed so that new technologies can become actual solutions.

The difference between technologies that make it and those that don’t

Life-improving technologies that make it to the people they’re aimed at all have two things in common: paying customers and an ecosystem that supports sales. Products that make it have users who aren’t merely seen as beneficiaries passively receiving goods from charitable organizations.

Instead, the designer and entrepreneur understand that users are active agents who make their own decisions and will invest in a products when they see its value. The designer and entrepreneur also consider the processes by which the products are sold, as new technologies cannot be introduced in a vacuum.

Quite often, well-intentioned product designers create technologies to address needs that face the world’s bottom billion. And, quite often, although these inventions can solve the technical aspects of the problem, they fail to resonate with potential users. The products were designed without an understanding of what’s valued by the user.

For example, many designers know that the potential users of their products are going to be very poor. As a result, they design for affordability, removing features that they deem unnecessary and making the product as bare bones as possible.

We’ve seen that this strategy often doesn’t work. Within our network, customers want value for money.

In our catalogue, we have solar lanterns of different prices. There’s a $10 lantern, and there’s also a $35 lantern. Which sells more? The $35 lantern, because it’s better quality, brighter, and also works as a mobile phone charger.

There are many other examples of designers creating life-improving technologies without understanding how the end user values or undervalues the result.

Right ecosystem for distribution

Understanding what customers value is one aspect of getting products to them. The other aspect of getting life-improving technologies to people is ensuring that the right ecosystem is in place for distribution.

We’ve seen so many product-based social enterprises propose that their products will magically sell due to “word of mouth” once the first users experience the social and economic benefits of using the product. This just doesn’t work.

There need to be ecosystems set up that introduce innovative, life-improving technologies to customers. These ecosystems need to handle marketing and creating awareness about the technology and the problem it solves, distributing the product, and providing after-sales service for it. No life-improving technology will sustainably make it to customers without these elements in place.

Distribution: lessons learned

We’ve learned a lot of things through our experiences with distribution. It’s not an easy sector to break into, but there are huge potential gains from distributing products well. As one founder of a well-known solar lantern company once told me, “The product is king, but distribution is God.”

Trust is key, as products and information move through relationships. Our customers trust their shopkeepers’ opinion on products, and this is a relationship that we piggyback on when distributing life-improving technologies.

Our direct customers are rural retail stores, not villagers. Our job is to get the shopkeeper on board. He’ll do the rest.

After-sales service is not optional. This is what makes it possible to sell durable technologies. Villagers in our south Indian market are used to cheap products that are imported from China. These products break within three months, but people buy them because they’re affordable and available.

A more expensive, higher-quality product requires much more upfront investment, so you have to guarantee the end customers that their money is protected, through after-sales service.

Gender matters. Low-income, rural areas in developing countries are not the same as small towns in America. Male and female customers and salespeople are not the same.

We’re learning more about this through our work and research, but there is indeed a difference between how men and women use and value products. If you are a distributor, it would be to your and your customers’ advantages to be aware of these differences and to market your products appropriately.