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Using camels to deliver health care in rural Africa

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At first, the project sounds like the opening to a bad joke - what do a camel, a refrigerator and a vaccine have in common?

For Mariana Amatullo, director of Designmatters at California's Art Center College of Design, the elements add up to a riddle in need of solving. That's led her and her team to develop a mobile health clinic that reaches rural African villages.

The problem is too common. In communities lacking proper refrigeration and access to roads, vaccines that need to be chilled are rendered ineffective.

That's where the camel comes in.

"The use of camels is well-suited to reach remote, scattered, nomadic communities," says Amatullo. "This door-to-door approach has been found particularly effective, as few individuals in this population have the means to reach urban clinics and hospitals."

On a budget of only a few thousand dollars, the team worked in partnership with the Nomadic Communities Trust and Princeton's Institute of Science and Technology of Materials, to cheaply build a solar-refrigerator on a bamboo harness.

From there, the beast of burden can traverse the rugged terrain administering health care with a team of doctors and nurses.

Here in North America, our technology is often focused on next generation. As devices become more and more integrated in our lives, it's hard to imagine a world without them. That's where we tend to forget that not everything is universally effective.

Sometimes, we need to take a step back in order to make these advancements work in a less-technical setting.

Appropriate technology has been argued since the 1970s by economists like E.F. Schumacher. In his book Small is Beautiful, he argued that advanced, Western technology would rarely work in less-developed nations. Instead of infusing our culture into others, he wanted "to find out what people are doing, and help them do it better."

The tractor is the timeless example of technology gone wrong. The machine revolutionized agriculture in the West. Many assumed it would do the same for farmers in Africa. But, the continent lacked the infrastructure to maintain them. When importing parts and skilled mechanics proved expensive, the revolutionary technology was left to rust.

That's exactly what Amatullo is looking to avoid.

"Long-term sustainability of a design for development projects like this one indeed relies on bringing innovation to communities in a collaborative fashion," she says. "The solutions are not only the result of technical expertise and skill, but also from knowing how to ask the right questions and from the willingness to watch carefully and listen."

This led the team to look for materials that were locally available and easily replaceable. For example, originally made of aluminum, the saddle was converted to a more flexible and lightweight bamboo. And, in recognizing a lack of electricity, the solar panels were designed to take into account the long distances and can be taken apart and used as lighting by the mobile clinic's doctors.

"A delicate compromise has to be struck to design a system that can meet the physical dimensions and restrictions dictated by the size of the camel and saddle design, and at the same time provide enough amperage to power the refrigerator for about a day, even in conditions without sun," explains Amatullo.

Two saddle systems are currently operating in Northern Kenya with another team testing in Ethiopia. Amatullo expects that after one more round of design and engineering adjustments, the project will be ready for a full launch.

"We have designed it with the objective to have it be replicable and scalable in other poor rural communities," she says. "Certainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but one could also imagine adjustments made for other regions in the world as well."

Of course, those adjustments will come with new rounds of watching and listening. But, both skills are necessary to solving the riddle.