Women are the largest group affected by poverty worldwide. Betsy Teutsch has written an outstanding book on 100 tools they are using to improve their lives.
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- Betsy is the author of 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, which serves as a reference on simple, low-cost tools that women are gaining access to across the globe.
- Women represent the largest group disproportionately affected by poverty.
- Betsy has been influenced by many sources, including projects in microfinance, environmental sustainability, and technology.
- She hopes to raise awareness of these tools among interested parties in developed countries and among service providers in developing countries.
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This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
Betsy Teutsch is an author and activist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 2015, she published a book titled 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, which serves as a reference on simple, low-cost tools that are helping women improve their lives around the world. I couldn’t recall any other book on poverty that was as unique as Betsy’s, so I talked with her about what inspired her to write it and about how folks like you and me can get involved.
I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Betsy is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.
This is Episode 24. You can read along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/024.
As I’ve pointed out before on this podcast, we’re living in one of the most fortunate periods of human history by measures of health and safety. This is also true for measures of poverty, which have been on the decline worldwide since the 19th century. For most of our history, at least in Western societies, only a small percentage of us lived above poverty—for example, that would have only been five percent of us in in 1820. Subsistence was the best that the rest of us could hope for until recently. Economic growth and new technologies have changed that.
According to data from economist Max Roser, about 9 out of every 20 people on the planet lived on $1.90 or less per day in 1981, which wasn’t that long ago. In 2015, that was down to about 2 out of 20. That’s an awe-inspiring thing—I mean, that’s billions of people, with a B, whose lives have been improved—but there are groups of us who are still struggle with poverty more often than others, and this has been the case throughout history. In the context of Betsy’s work, women represent the largest group.
Part of why poverty is on the decline worldwide is because women have been given access to tools that can help them work more efficiently, start businesses, and invent new tools for others. Something that I’ve learned in my interactions with Betsy is that those of us in quote-unquote developed countries often think of global poverty as a burden on us, that it’s up to us to solve these problems for the people who are affected.
However, Betsy pointed out to me that this isn’t the whole story. People in developing countries, particularly women, are just as industrious as they are in wealthier countries, and have created many of the tools she’s featured in her book. A major problem has been helping entrepreneurs and inventors in developing countries engage with those in other developing countries. That’s changed in the last few decades thanks to the Internet, cell phones, and in this case increased pressure for gender equality.
Even though global poverty is the lowest that it’s ever been, there’s still a ton of work to do. Part of the overarching solution will require collaboration between leaders and with people on what they need, then connecting them with others in similar circumstances, instead of telling them what they should do and then half-expecting results.
Betsy’s book chronicles many different variants of this approach. What I love about personally is that it provides introductions to many projects and products that I’d never heard about, and it presents opportunities to get involved with each of them. It’s also a testament to human ingenuity, with lots of stories about people finding things we take for granted like trash and turning them into life-changing objects.
We didn’t get into it much, but Betsy is involved with many of these organizations, so I’m humbled that she made time to talk with me. Here’s Betsy Teutsch, the author of 100 Under $100.
Interview with Betsy Teutsch
JM: I’m blown away by this book you’ve written. Would you mind talking about it a little bit?
BT: The book grew out of my excitement when I went looking to see how women were involved in technological solutions for poverty alleviation. That sounds like gobbledygook, but basically women are living in extreme poverty around the world. We’re talking about maybe a billion women. They are living without infrastructures that you or I take for granted: no electricity, no running water, no sanitation, very weak health systems where they live, hardly any functioning school systems, very little transportation available. How do we get these women out of poverty? They’re already working incredibly hard.
There are all kinds of designs, delivery systems, and tools, but it’s hard to get them to the women who need to use them to improve their lives. That was my curiosity, what’s out there. I found such inspiring women who themselves are highly trained engineers from elite institutions like Stanford and MIT. They have jumped into this field and are helping to build it. It’s called humanitarian engineering. They sometimes call it tech for good or development technology. It’s something like how you figure out how a solar light can make a huge difference in a family’s life, how do you sell the solar light, how do you get it to the family that needs it, and what is the next step.
By doing a lot of research, I discovered pretty quickly that this was a rich field, and under-reported on, I’d say. We tend to be focused on bad news more than good news, and I found a lot of great news.
JM: What was your first exposure to these types of issues?
BT: I worked for an organization called GreenMicrofinance. I guess my first exposure was to microfinance, which has been around for a whole generation or more.
Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize for furthering the concept. He was not the only originator, but he being an economist from Bangladesh had an audience, a vocabulary, and a commitment to trying it. He was frustrated as a young economist. When he looked around at the university where he taught in Bangladesh, he saw such impoverished women, just in dire poverty. He was thinking, ‘What good is economics if we can’t get these women what they need and they are working so hard?’ He lent them, personally, small amounts of money, and they turned out to be great credit risks.
The really poor are generally unbanked, so they can’t get credit the way you or I—like, they can’t a credit card—and they don’t have any property or deeds to anything, so they have no collateral. That’s the same in the United States for low-income people. It’s really hard to borrow money; that why people have these incredibly high payday loans. The loan shark was how they were keeping afloat. By lending small amounts of money at a much lower interest rate, many of them were able to work their way out of extreme poverty.
They founded the Grameen Bank. It’s a generation later, and there’s a huge debate as to whether microfinance actually helps women get out of poverty or if it’s a stop-gap measure. There are so many variables, [so] it’s really hard to tell. Everybody agrees that financial services are crucial for the poor. That was my first exposure.
I came in being interested in sustainability and green design, primarily focused in my own community—really focused on my own house [and] how to green my life more. I worked for this organization called GreenMicrofinance, and they mesh the two concepts: microfinance for the developing world; and clean, green technology that was taking off. This was about seven or eight years ago.
So here’s the deal, Josh: if you have one solar panel, on my house that might power one appliance; it would not power my whole household. It still would need many solar panels, and I would need it to be very sunny. Once solar panel for a home in the developing world has a huge impact because people don’t have any electricity at all. When you can access even the small amount of electricity that a solar panel puts out, then you have a new day for the extremely poor. What people use a solar panel for in the developing world is lighting, and that means now that we have LED lights, the solar charge goes really, really far.
They are also charging cell phones on them, and that has turned out to be a big driver of demand in the developing world. People have crappy kerosene lamps. They don’t like them, but they have some light. They absolutely have to charge their cell phones. Cell phones are a real lifeline for people. It’s been transformative. That was my first exposure.
When I looked at the cell phones, there’s a much lower percentage of ownership and participation by women than men. Also, the solar industry in the developing world, the whole supply chain, is pretty male-dominated. It seemed to me that, if the women stand to benefit the most—they’re the ones that are staying at home and that are in the home—if they are going to get solar, they need to be exposed to it, they need to understand it. They need to lobby their husbands for it, shame their husbands into it, whatever needs to happen to get them solar. That was my initial entry point.
JM: At what point did you decide to write a book about all of these things?
BT: I was trying to avoid writing a book. [laughs] It’s a big undertaking.
I started out as a blogger and a communications director for that organization I mentioned, GreenMicrofinance. I love blogging, telling the story, having a nice photograph that illustrates the points of the story, and having a narrative. That was familiar to me.
I decided that I wanted to do something in this area of technology matching up with women, both women who are designers of technology and these idealistic engineers that go to the developing world, sit down, and help people figure out how to do things better. I didn’t think I was going to write about it, per se, as a book. I was also interested in the end-users and what the impact of these tools would be. If a woman gets a better stove, does it really change her life?
Pinterest was a new social media website at the time—this was about three years ago. You had to get an invitation to join Pinterest. I got intrigued because Pinterest is a way to catalog images. If you have a story with a picture that you read somewhere—usually what sticks in my mind is the picture. I remember the image, [then I] have to go back in and remember what the story was about. [laughs] I started to keep track of these interesting stories by the photographs. Pretty soon, I fell so in love with the images that I had more and more. Eventually, I had to start subdividing them into Water, Sanitation, Energy, Farming. I found an amazing amount going on.
About half of the world’s small, agricultural farmers are female. When you hear the word “developing world farmer,” you automatically imagine a male. Half of them are women. That’s astounding. We need a lot of pictures to get that point across. There is an immense amount happening in public health, and that has a lot of engineering and science, as well as low-tech, combined. I had so many images. In almost every image, there was a woman doing the job: a woman scientist, a woman farmer, a woman construction worker. They were all doing it.
That suddenly hit me, that having a book that was illustrated with images of women doing the work would really hit home to people, that we’re not trying to come up with handouts to people. What women need is better tools so that their work will be more productive. Seeing women at work is a compelling narrative. I embarked on this book led by the photographs. The photography that I was able to locate is amazing, really beautiful, and vibrant.
Every single woman in the book is doing something. They are working hard, and I think we all can be inspired to be of service to people that are working so hard with so little resource.
JM: Just as an aside, do you know if Pinterest is aware of this project?
BT: I have tried to contact them, but they don’t have any easy entry point. In the introduction to the book, I made a point of thanking Pinterest, and on my website I thanked them. I have never found anybody at Pinterest. I think I emailed somebody that might be interested and I never heard back.
If anybody out there’s listening and you happen to work for Pinterest, I’d love to help you tell your story.
JM: In going back to some of the innovations that you’ve seen, what are some of the projects that stick out in your mind?
BT: There is an immense amount going on, as I mentioned, in solar. Solar panels, the kind that go on a rooftop and also a little charging panel like you would find on a small appliance, have gotten more efficient and cheaper. A solar lantern, which replaces a kerosene lantern, now costs about $10, maybe even less. Anything solar is exciting.
I was quite astounded by the new kinds of contraceptives that are available. That’s a public health issue as well as a health issue, but also a poverty issue. When women—and men, for that matter—don’t have access to family planning, they have big families that it’s hard to provide for, and the planet can’t sustain the kind of population growth we have.
There’s something called long-lasting injectable contraceptives. Through the Gates Foundation and a number of other initiatives, you can get a long-lasting silicone implant. It’s the size of a matchstick, maybe a needle, and it goes under the woman’s arm, upper inside arm. It’s discrete, no one needs to know it’s there, and it last for five years. The negotiated price for a woman in the developing world, in the countries that participate, is $9 for five years. What that means is that she only needs to go to the clinic to have it injected, and it doesn’t require a physician. They train women and then these health workers—that’s what they do all day long, so they’re good at it.
Quite often, it’s a real ordeal for women to get to a clinic. If they get there, the clinic might not have stock, they might not have staff, it might be closed. This way, you’ve taken a lot of the strain off of the health system. It’s completely reversible; it just needs to be removed, and fertility returns. That is something I think we need to get the story more. That was a big surprise.
I was surprised at some of the innovations that are building on tried and true technologies that haven’t been widely disseminated. Not everybody wants to talk about diarrhea, but if you’re talking about health in the developing world, hundreds of thousands of children die of diarrhea every year, which is completely preventable. They pick up diarrheal diseases from untreated water. Often, they’re malnourished, so an infection goes through them really fast. What makes diarrhea fatal is dehydration.
About fifty years ago, they came up with something called oral rehydration therapy. It was to treat cholera, and it’s the same problem, where people were dying similarly from Ebola—you become so dehydrated. It’s simply clean water, a little bit of sugar, and a little bit of salt. It has to be the exact proportion. Once you have that serum, it teases the body. It confuses the body into retaining the water rather than expelling it.
In some countries in the world, this is standard treatment. In the United States, if your kid gets sick, you go to the CVS and buy a bottle of this stuff. It has brand names: when my kids were little, it was called Pedialyte—I’m sure there are many others on the market. If you look, they just have sodium chloride and glucose—that’s water and sugar. In countries like Zambia, for example, the rate of treatment was 1 percent, even though we’ve had this cheap treatment for fifty years.
Why do people not know about it? It’s because it was treated as medicine, and medicine is not sold typically at the neighborhood, village kiosk. They would have to go to a clinic to get it. [It’s] the same I just mentioned: if they got themselves to a clinic, the clinic might not be open, it might not have any stock, they might charge them and they don’t have enough money to pay for it.
Somebody had the bright idea, his name is Simon Berry. He said, if Coca-Cola can get to the ends of the Earth with their product, we should be able to get rehydration salts where they need to be, which is in the village. He took this simple treatment and packaged it in a bright packet with a little drinking cup in it so they could have the right amount of water and measurements. The packet of salt and sugar was pre-mixed, so you just drop it into the little cup. They got the price down through all kinds of negotiation with all kinds of suppliers, and it has been astoundingly effective.
What they turned it into was an over-the-counter item that you go buy whatever you buy from your neighborhood place. The kiosk vendor makes a couple of cents on each sale and is happy to have it in the store because it brings women. Everybody’s child is sick eventually, and they have to come into his store or her store. It’s been an interesting supply chain innovation in packaging and design. We’ve had the product all along, we’ve had the solution: we just didn’t know how to get the solution where it needs to go.
ColaLife has an immense amount of data, which is all open-source. It’s wonderful reading at their website, which is colalife.org. They don’t have anything officially to do with Coca-Cola, they just use Coca-Cola’s supply chain. It turned out that nobody cared about Coca-Cola. Once they got into the same place where Coca-Cola was sold, the vendors were happy to come and pick up their product, too.
JM: It reminds me of a story that I read about a few months ago. Somewhere in the developing world, there was a problem with iron deficiency—
BT: You’re probably talking about Lucky Iron Fish.
BT: Lucky Iron Fish is a very simple, low-tech solution, although they’ve studied it and tweaked it. It’s a fish made out of cast iron. It’s about the size of a paperweight, maybe three inches—I have them here. When you put it in water and boil it, it excretes detectable but tiny amounts of iron. For iron deficient families, which is almost everybody in Asia because it’s a rice based diet, it raises their iron levels so they’re no longer anemic after a couple of months of using it, as directed.
It’s really clever. You can put it in soup, or what they recommend is boiling a little water with the iron fish in it and then that’s the drinking water for the day. I guess you have to boil it so that it gets to a hot enough temperature to excrete. That’s also a solution that is worldwide. It’s a worldwide problem. People are anemic in the United States, too, so it would work just as well in the United States.
It’s also a great design story. Their first go-round, these social businesses used the model like in Silicon Valley startups, where you keep iterating and keep testing your product to see what people like. Their first go-round, they just had a lump of wrought iron…not wrought iron…
JM: Cast iron.
BT: Cast iron. Nobody liked it. It was so aesthetically unappealing, they couldn’t imagine just using it. They went back to the drawing board and they came up with the shape of a fish, which is a good luck symbol in Cambodia, where they are based. It’s a Canadian company, but they do their work in Cambodia. That was widely accepted because fish are perceived as good luck, and people like the idea of putting this cute little fish in their soup pot.
JM: How are you active in these causes now, aside from writing the book?
BT: It’s a great question. I feel like they’re all kind of my children, so I follow them all on Twitter and Facebook. On my Facebook page—if you’re at Facebook, you look for 100 under $100. When one of them posts that they’ve gotten an award or some new version of their product, I keep updating and posting on Facebook so people that have read the book can keep learning more about the companies. Some of them I’ve been touch with.
One of them, one of the ideas—I wanted to do something local. I live in Philadelphia. We have poverty, but the solutions in my book are designed for the developing world, not for rich-world poverty, which is intractable and much more expensive to address. I wanted to do something local. One of the tools in the book is a clever way to build in the developing world when you have a lot of garbage. It’s called an ecoladrillo. It’s Spanish, and that means eco brick. What they do is take a plastic bottle, which in developing world would not be recyled.
I just got back from Guatemala, and everywhere you go, you see piles of plastic trash. It’s overwhelming, and imagine when you live in Guatemala, you don’t think that’s out of the ordinary. I couldn’t take my eyes off all of this garbage.
JM: That’s because there’s no sanitation system in place, correct?
BT: Yeah, they don’t have any waste management. If they want to get rid of trash, they have to burn it. That’s, of course, not environmentally smart, it’s wasting all the assets of the trash, and you need people assigned to collect it, which they don’t seem to have.
In some places—it was invented in Guatemala—they take a big, plastic bottle, and they fill it with trash. It has to be inorganic trash or it will decompose in the bottle. Once they fill it and compact the plastic, it becomes a construction brick. They’ve built schools out of it, you can build walls. You can build most anything. It’s earthquake resistant, and it has good insulation factors.
It’s a clever solution because it’s taking what was a scourge and upcycling it into something usable. It’s less expensive to build with these than it is with cinder block or whatever. Some of the places we were in were so remote, I could see that trying to bring in a load of cinder block would be incredibly costly. Cinder block or any brick needs to be fired, and that had a high carbon footprint, whereas this has no carbon footprint because you’re taking waste.
I decided it would be fun to do a project like that in my home community. I have a school that has taken up this idea. These fifth graders are going around, collecting bottles, and filling them up with trash from their school and, I presume, from their home. Their going to build a ga-ga court with it, which is sort of a raised volleyball, curved wall. It’s fun because they’re getting their families involved, it’s educational. It’s environmental education.
I am making these bricks myself. I’m kind of an eco-nut. I buy carefully to begin with, not to buy things with too much packaging. I cannot believe how much plastic waste that I could not recycle before that I can now put in my bottles. [laughs] Stay tuned on that one.
I hope it takes off in the United States. It’s labor intensive, but it’s a great solution.
JM: That school is located in Philadelphia?
BT: Yeah, it’s called Plymouth Meeting Friends School.
JM: That would be fun.
BT: I would like to see more. Now when I walk around the neighborhood, I sometimes pick up trash on the ground because I think, ‘Oh, that’s perfect for my bottles.’
JM: That would be a good incentive to do that, yeah.
What is it about these issues that resonates with you? What’s compelled you to be involved?
BT: What’s compelled me to be involved, I think, is two things. One is the age and stage I’m at in life. I’m a grandmother, I have a business but it’s gotten to the point where I’m not retired but I’m not working full time, either. I don’t need to anymore, which is great, so I felt like I had one big project in me still. I wanted to do something that had some bigger impact. This felt like—helping two billion people, two billion women seemed important.
The other piece of it is that I love solutions. I love design solutions, and I’m so wowed that we know how to help people improve their lives. I’m not going to say we’re going to get people out of poverty, but we know how to prevent children dying from these horrible diseases. We know how to save women’s lives, we know how to get rid of kerosene and improve the ecology of the world. Kerosene is a fossil fuel. We know all of these things, so I wanted to be part of getting the idea out to people that we can do it.
We can make a big difference. A small amount of money goes really far when you’re working with problems that have a $10 solution.
JM: What can listeners do to help you and the people you serve?
BT: I love that question. Each of the hundred entries in the book—the book is arranged by sector, and there are a hundred write-ups of solutions. I also have an icon at the bottom of the page that simply says YOU. Down there, I have ideas for reader engagement. It can be anything from: some of them have volunteer programs for adult professionals, internships for younger people.
Some of them are looking for advocates: for example, breast feeding. There’s a class you can take online that helps you become a watchdog for the formula industry, which undermines breast feeding routinely, especially in the developing world. They’ll train you [so] you can watch the media and play a real hand. There are courses you can take online. Say you love to bicycle: you can do a bikeathon that raises money to provide bicycles, which are one of the hundred tools.
I designed the book in a way that, if there’s a topic you are excited about, you can see yourself getting involved. I laid out a straightforward pathway. If you’re traveling to the developing world, there’s an index in the back with suggestions. One of the organizations I wrote about is called Global Grins. If you are willing to be an emissary, they will send you one hundred toothbrushes to take where you are visiting in the developing world. Tooth decay is a huge problem for kids, especially because the junk food diet has gotten there ahead of toothbrushing.
[There are] hundreds of ways to be involved. Nobody has the excuse that they can’t think of something to do if they’ve looked at this book.
JM: I’m convinced. [laughs]
BT: [laughs] Great.
JM: Where can we find the book?
BT: The book is available on my website. Most people go straight to Amazon. You [can] Google 100 under 100. My website is 100under100.org. The book is available as a digital book with about four hundred links, but it’s also available as a hard copy book. It looks like a coffee table book. I do go places, and I see that people leave it out and look through it to get inspired. It looks almost like an art book because of all the rich photography. It’s full color.
It’s also a great gift. I think people from a lot of different backgrounds find it inspiring.
JM: Yeah. Like I told you when we spoke before, it’s a beautiful book. I was impressed with how it was all put together, and you really seem like you know what you’re talking about when I flip through the pages.
BT: [laughs] Yeah. Most books about solutions are promoting one solution because they’re generally put out by the source of that solution. I thought that I could be an honest broker here. Some of the solutions are not complete solutions. If any of these problems could be solved with a silver bullet, we would have done it.
I also raise what they challenges are. I think it’s important for people to know what the pitfalls might be.
JM: That’s a good point.
BT: I laid it out as objectively as possible, and I’m still a total Pollyanna. I believe in all these things.
JM: Where can we follow you online?
BT: If you’re a Tweeter, I’m @betsyteutsch. You can follow my blog by subscribing to it at the website. Probably the easiest is to go to Facebook. It’s facebook.com/100under100. Like it, and every time I post something, it pops up. It’s fun to see people all over the world following it.
JM: I imagine that’s gratifying, too.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?
BT: I think I want to close by saying: I want to thank the women that came up with all of these solutions, that are working so hard in the field while I sit at my computer and write about them. [laughs] They’re out there literally doing the heavy lifting, so let’s see what we can do to help.
JM: Anything else?
BT: I think we’re good. Thanks a lot.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
What did you think of this episode? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter at pluralofyou, or contact me via the website at pluralofyou.org.
The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in muddy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.
You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources on the website, and if you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit pluralofyou.org/subscribe to subscribe to the podcast.
If you liked my talk with Betsy, check out the first episode with Jimmy Chen. Jimmy and his team in Brooklyn built an app to make applying for food stamps easier in the United States. Like Betsy said, cell phones are lifelines for those experiencing poverty, so this has been a big help to the people that Jimmy has reached so far. You can find my talk with Jimmy at pluralofyou.org/001.
In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
Check out 100under100.org if you’re interested in the issues that Betsy discussed. She’s obviously put a lot of work into the website, especially the Resources section. She’s making a strong statement with this project that everyone can find some way to get involved in making the world better, and she’s collected dozens of entry points to choose from. If you’ve been looking for a way to make a difference for others, this would be a good place to start.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.