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The following blog originally appeared on UnFolding.ca (LINK) by Mike Levin.  It is a great piece.

When Nokero started marketing solar lights to replace the use of dirty fuels, it joined a growing list of companies wanting to help improve health in developing countries. Then CEO Steve Katsaros met Firdaus Kharas and recognized the Ottawa social entrepreneur’s creative ideas about behaviour change. They started a new project. Here’s why it matters:

Why trillions of dollars aren’t working

No matter how industrious, content and smug we may be as Canadians, there’s always been an itch that has never be adequately scratched. During the past four decades the federal government has spent about $400 billion trying to do something about it. Yet the irritation hasn’t gone away.

So we attacked it as individuals, spending billions more on trying to help all those starving brown babies and suffering adults in the world’s poorest countries. We’re part of about $2 trillion in ODA (official development assistance, better known as aid) that donor nations have given during the 40 years to those who aren’t as lucky in where and how they were born. Disappointingly, the results have been less than brilliant.

Investing in infrastructure, empowering communities and building better mousetraps are all beneficial: daily distress doesn’t plague the world like it did in the 1970s. But Holy Cow, there are still a lot of people virtually bereft of clean water, electricity and health care. And there’s no shortage of rich people trying to change that, from Bill Gates down to Miss Pringle’s Third-Grade class.

In 2010 Katsaros joined the queue of technicians creating alternatives to poverty’s status quo. His Denver-based start-up Nokero produces solar-powered lights and chargers that can replace dirty fuels like kerosene (Nokero = No Kerosene), cheap candles and cow dung that the poorest of the poor use for illumination at night. If you breathe toxins, you’ll be toxic.

The company’s products are inexpensive ($10-20) and easily maintained, as long as they are used properly, and not dissimilar to those of other companies like Tough Stuff andGreen Light Planet that have sold hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of units into Africa and Asia. The problem is, there’s more than a billion people who don’t have access to electricity, and even if each was given a solar light, there’s no guarantee they’d all be used?

One of the many reasons that trillions of dollars in aid haven’t solved the poverty problem is that the products or systems being funded too often never become part of people’s daily patterns. Soap only works if people use it all the time; malaria medicine only controls the disease if accompanied by continuing protection like insecticide-laced mosquito nets.

ODA hasn’t had the expected effect because donors often forget that their “targets” are humans, with as many personal and cultural proclivities as our own list of quirks. This problem has become a painful cliche: “if we build it, you will come.”

The reality is something different: “Maybe we’ll use/buy it, maybe we won’t. Just don’t tell us how to live our lives because your teeth are straight and your breath smells minty-fresh.” The recent clean cookstove campaign is an example of how the best intentions can fail and fail again when in-country users don’t buy in. Understanding behaviour change means understanding empathy. If it’s possible to truly grasp how poor villagers feel about traditional things like cooking and lighting, it might be possible to figure out how they internalize other traditional forces, such as governance and tribalism.

Discovering how cultures work

That’s why a new campaign by Katsaros and Kharas could reinvent the do-gooder paradigm. Kharas has understood the theory of culture shift for a long time.

He’s the one who gave up a good government job in the mid-1990s to produce television series, and then listened to his progressive soul closely enough to produce three award-winning public-service announcements (PSA) campaigns aimed at changing global behaviour, with a social-justice twist.

In countries worst hit by HIV/AIDS, the animated condoms ofThe Three Amigos (2005) became a television phenomenon, coinciding with and almost surely contributing to the world’s first decrease in new AIDS cases. Buzz and Bite (2008) is in tough in the fight against malaria, and No Excuses (2011) bit off a huge chew by trying to shift cultural justifications for domestic violence.

Kharas is a bit of a dreamer but he does understand that real change today comes through horizontal factors like networking and cultural empathy, not from top-down commandments. For years he’s told me that each individual is his/her own culture; therefore behaviour change can’t be imposed, only negotiated, often through entertainment. (Is rock and roll really better than classical music because you’re allowed to dance to it?)

In April the two men had lunch at Yale University’s Global Health and Innovation Conference.  “Firdaus is the voice of reason to me. I met him and immediately got (how to make solar replacement work),” says Katsaros.

They decided the PSA campaign would have to be generic, no mention of a specific company’s products. “Bringing awareness to alternative energy (in the developing world) needs to be a conversation so the PSAs have to leverage it as an industry. Sure there’s lots of us who run this as a business, to sell, but we all have to understand the core issues and not cram it down people’s throats,” Katsaros explains.

So Kharas is off to Kenya, India and at least one other country where access to electricity is sparse. He wants to understand cultural attitudes toward traditional versus modern lighting, and he’ll try to discover what values people attach to technology and which tradeoffs are needed to change everyday behaviour.

Then he’ll take the mix, add humour and a cast of trans-ethnic animation characters and create five 30-second PSAs and a 10-minute film for broadcast.

The Yuck Factor

Not even Google has an algorithm like this tucked away somewhere; there’s too much human nature to consider. Dr. Val Curtis discovered this just before she attempted one of the first individual behaviour-change campaigns in a developing country.

Curtis is a British tropical-medicine doctor who works mostly in West Africa. She’d spent years trying to convince locals to habitually wash their hands with soap and water after going to the toilet to cut down the deaths each year from bacterial disease. Her plan wasn’t working so she asked for help from the masters of behaviour change: the marketing departments at Procter and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive.

She figured if they could convince people that white teeth, smooth skins and soft fabrics were indispensable parts of life, they could do just about anything. Her goal was to make hand washing an automatic habit in life by creating something called the “Yuck Factor,” where people could be made to feel disgusted by having dirty hands, such as after cooking with grease.

Curtis used a series of PSAs in Ghana and saw hand washing after using the toilet increase by 13 percent and before eating by 41 percent. She took a lot of flak for using Western habit-forming propaganda methods, probably from the same critics who hold fast to the top-down style of development aid. The New York Times did a greatbusiness piece on the project.

So Kharas and Katsaros are on the same path with solar power. There’s a “Yuck Factor” associated with breathing kerosene fumes every night. It’s also a great environmentally friendly play for rich people. But mostly it seems to be a progressive idea whose time has come. Everything is in place, except broad customer acceptance.

This is where Firdaus Kharas stops listening to ODA reports and sits with people around kerosene lamps. The PSAs will fit local broadcast formats but unlike his previous campaigns will also be available on mobile platforms because in many countries there are more mobile phones than houses with electricity.

He plans to have an example spot ready for broadcast at the Global Social Business Incubator in August at Santa Clara University. And if this PSA campaign has the same success as The Three Amigos or Curtis’ hand washing, development officials will have to take a long look at how they’re marketing their projects.