Sixty percent of global poverty is rural; reaching 90% in Bangladesh and 65% to 90% in Sub Saharan Africa. An estimated 1 billion people do not have access to all weather roads and, more than 60% of all people in poor countries live more than 8 kms from those that do exist. And anyone who has viewed the Last Mile video on this Blog will see how infrastructure and transportation issues are pressing right to the dockside.

Add to these stark facts the fall in commodity prices triggered by the global financial crisis as well as a drop in investment flows into the developing world and individual Millenium Development Goals are under real pressure to achieve their targets. It is time to look at a cross cutting theme – transport and infrastructure.

Affordable roads are the key

Let’s face it. How can we eradicate extreme poverty (MDG 1) without the connectivity to link problems with their solutions and, how can we empower communities if they lack the financial resources to link them to the markets they need for sustainable growth?   Let’s look at the missing link.

We need to explore connectivity (roads, tracks and waterways) and mobility (mechanised and non-mechanised transport) as a means to make things happen. First, connectivity.

Road transport is hooked on gravel and bitumen. For those in areas with poor local materials it is expensive to buy in and way beyond the budgets of cash strapped  governments let alone the stakeholders in remote rural areas. We need affordable solutions that can transform connectivity. Let’s look at Engineered Natural Surfaces (ENS) such as hard packed stone; cobble stones; burnt clay paving or, a radical system using enzymes.

Kunning Province in Western China is as far away from the high rise landscape of Shanghai as you can get. This is where the highways fade to minor roads and then, into dirt tracks – dusty in the heat and dissolved under rain. Here, a natural biological product has been combined with local materials to construct 80 miles of clay based road connecting three townships to markets beyond.

The system was developed in Utah forest areas where environmental concerns prohibited the use of conventional materials. Steve John of the innovative firm Caringfornature makes a strong case for the methodology: “this is an affordable and environmentally sound solution that can lay the foundations for sustainable communities. And locals can deliver it for themselves.

How does this work? A liquid based formulation of naturally occuring enzymes are mixed with water and sprayed on the prepared road surface, this natural protein reacts with the clays within the soil and makes the clay hydrophobic and the compression (rolling the road) drives out the water effectively binding the soil particles together, as water can no longer penetrate the particles, the net result is the same as “firing” the clay like you would with a clay pot.

This hard surface can support heavy and light vehicle usage. An added benefit is the ease of construction, as it is mostly a question of ploughing the road area, racking flat, spraying the enzyme and water mixture and rolling flat, most local farmers will already have the majority of the equipment needed in every day use. Using a natural product as a road construction material ensure the environmental imapct is always minimal. In fact, a significant additional benefit is the enzyme’s capacity to percolate down through the soil beyond the 150 mm of treated depth to 240 mm. This dramatically reduces the impact of weather and traffic wear on the road surface.      

The benefits case is compelling. It is ideal for rural roads and the costs fall well below local alternatives – a specific comparison depends on local market pricing for conventional materials.  There is another crucial application – potholes. Go back to the Last Mile Video and explore the potential to use this system to deal with the state of post monsoon roads. This is not just affordable. This is vital. And another benefit before we move on – if the route becomes obsolete, you can plough this surface and grow product immediately. Try that with tarmac.

As recently as 2000, excluding South Africa, the African road network was 18% less than that of Poland. This graphic illustration of the need demands a closer look at ENS solutions. After all, with the credit crunch in full swing and commodity prices falling to reduce cash for the Majority World affordability must be the key driver of vital infrastructure investments.

An Independent Evaluation on Tanzania by the International Finance Corporation in 2000 adds the issue of electrical power to the connectivity imperative and, in a speech made by President Kikwete, the lack of power and infrastructure is highlighted as the main impediment for growth and a crucial catalyst to trigger vital progress. We will explore a range of ideas on power in another Post.

After connectivity, we need to consider mobility – motorised and non motorised transportation alike. Already, a Transformational Logistics toolkit is taking shape around a set of simply modal options.  For example, variously adapted bikes and low cost intermediate vehicles or low cost motorcycles are more than fit for purpose in remote rural areas. In 2007, TVS used the eChoupal service to sell over 37,000 small motorbikes into areas that their conventional sales team could not reach and this adds broadband to the infrastructure recipe for success in much the same way as the catalogue opened up the Amercian West in the 19th century.

There are other opportunities with the roads that exist. Algiers is a city with virtually no traffic lights. Each crossroads is a negotiation and bottlenecks exist where flow is needed. One of the constraints is the lack of electrical power. What about solar powered LED lights that take advantage of the latest technology and make the traffic flow. This is leap frog technology in much the same way as mobile phones replacing land lines. There are many more innovations of this type that can improve connectivity and mobility.

The use of Mobile phones covered in a previous Post on this Blog illustrates further ways in which physical and virtual infrastructure can combine to generate improved quality of life for remote rural communities.  

Let us not forget market ready packaging and passive refridgeration as other elements of gearing up for self sufficient sustainability in remote rural communities. More must be done in this area and, we will be featuring other innovative solutions in coming weeks.

Affordable connectivity and mobility provide the framework and the tools for logistics to transform outcomes in the fractured, developing and emerging world.  And as the Recession bites, it is increasingly clear that these vital cross cutting themes ARE the catalyst to revitalise efforts to deliver ALL the Millenium Development Goals and generate significant value for money. After all, the MDGs are far from plug and play – they all need power, connectivity, mobility and, skills to make the investment work and to ensure that this advance is sustainable.

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