Trendy vs. Mundane, Imagination vs. Impact—The Innovation Dilemma

Published: Dec. 12, 2013

By Paul Stephens, for devex

About Powering Agriculture

Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development supports the development and deployment of clean energy innovations that increase agriculture productivity and stimulate low carbon economic growth in the agriculture sector of developing countries to help end extreme poverty and extreme hunger.

Would improving diesel technology have a more immediate environmental impact than trying to introduce solar energy for “smart irrigation”?

The question was raised at a high-level panel discussion on Wednesday, and came across as a bit of a reality check for attendees during a daylong event to announce the winners of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s “Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development,” which was full of idealistic talk about technologies that could change the world by providing clean energy to poor farmers.

The question pointed at a fascinating debate that’s captured the imagination of social entrepreneurs and innovators for a while: Should funding go toward innovations that are trendy and likely to capture the imagination of the public, or more mundane solutions that nevertheless promise to have a huge impact relatively quickly?

Bob Nanes, vice president of technology for iDE, an organization that works with thousands to improve irrigation system—including diesel pumps—for small-holder farms in developing countries, brought up the issue after iDE received USAID funding for its innovative solar pump.

“I’ve heard that in India, if you just matched the pump properly to the engine that’s running it, you could probably save one-third of the fuel—which is probably going to do more in the next five or 10 years than us trying to introduce solar,” Nanes said.

He continued: “But we’ve had trouble selling that idea because everybody wants [solar] … It’s easier for me to get a grant for solar than to say I want a diesel pump to work more efficiently.”

Nanes added that both avenues should be pursued, and that technologies shouldn’t be divided into good or bad.

The 12 winning organizations highlighted on Wednesday were awarded collectively $13 million in seed money to test their innovations in the field and bring them to scale. The contest aims to promote innovative ideas that otherwise may not reach their potential. Several awardees said the funding would be critical to testing their innovations.

The presentation of awards—from smart grids in Haiti to solar-powered refrigeration for farmers in Mozambique—was impressive, but these entrepreneurs will now face strict field testing.

Meanwhile, fixing and upgrading those diesel pumps in India might be a good idea.

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