Changing the World, With Drones and Sanitary Pads

04/20/2015 03:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015


Giant puppets were one of the unusual features of SwitchPoint 2014 in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. © Ted Richardson Media, courtesy of IntraHealth International

One is just back from the Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu, where he's been carrying out a detailed assessment of the damage caused by last month's Cyclone Pam. His Vanuatu quest is a perfect example of his life's passion of merging the disparate worlds of advanced computing and humanitarianism.

Another is trying to rock the world of young African women by the simple act of providing them with locally made sanitary pads so they don't miss work and school. Turns out sanitary pads -- which Western women take for granted -- can be life-changing for those who don't have them.

And another, who grew up without education and in extreme poverty, is now combating poverty and gender inequality himself. He has had great success building schools in the worst slums of Nairobi. New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof even says he might be the next Mandela.

All of these young people are trying to change the world in very different ways. Along with at least 50 other speakers, they will be in Saxapahaw, North Carolina April 23-24 for the fourth annual SwitchPoint, a global gathering organized by IntraHealth International. I hesitate to call it a conference because that implies long, boring presentations. SwitchPoint takes the opposite approach. It brings together the brightest thinkers and entrepreneurs to create new partnerships and brainstorm on solutions to pressing issues. It is part TED talk, part World Economic Forum and part cultural festival, set in a former cotton mill on the banks of the Haw River.

Digital Humanitarians
Patrick Meier has just returned from an assignment spearheading the World Bank's UAV response to the damage wreaked by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, where his team was quantifying the damage in order to determine how much funding is needed for reconstruction efforts. UAVs are unmanned aerial vehicles or, as the military calls them, drones.

Making sense of all this data -- like the aerial imagery from Vanuatu -- is a major challenge for humanitarian organizations and the reason they are turning to people like Meier, who he has dubbed "Digital Humanitarians," which also happens to be the name of his new book. Indeed, Meier and fellow Digital Humanitarians are currently crowdsourcing the analysis of the World Bank's aerial imagery of Vanuatu and using artificial intelligence to make sense of this huge dataset.

Meier's Vanuatu assignment capsulizes perfectly his professional passion, which is straddling the worlds between humanitarianism and advanced computing.

Conversations between the two groups don't naturally happen, says Meier: "There's no reason for a seasoned humanitarian professional who's never heard of advanced computing or artificial intelligence to talk to an institute that carries out such work. Their worlds are so different that humanitarians don't even know what questions to ask, or what's possible. And folks in the advanced computing space don't understand anything about the humanitarian space, or how to communicate what's possible."

Meier thinks one person like himself is "a drop in the bucket," but he also thinks progress is starting to be made. "We need a lot more people who are comfortable in these different areas of expertise. Not necessarily experts in any one of them, but familiar enough with both communities to catalyze and facilitate the kind of collaboration we need. "

Keeping Girls in School with Sanitary Pads
Nadia Hitimana is changing Africa, one sanitary pad at a time. In Rwanda, where she lives, and many other poor countries, young women forfeit their future for lack of something as basic as a sanitary pad. They stay home from work or school when they are having their period, out of embarrassment and inconvenience, because they cannot afford sanitary pads.

Hitimana and her social venture called Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) manufactures and distributes affordable and eco-friendly sanitary pads in the Eastern Province of Rwanda made from banana fibers. They buy the fibers from local banana cooperatives.

She says that the pads are keeping girls and women in school and jobs. "With my experience as a health education worker, when we talk to girls in rural areas, using a rug or a piece of cloth, and replacing that with a pad is a kind of a dream."

Hitimana is only 26 but already recognized by U.S. President Barack Obama (through the Young African Leaders Initiative) and Queen Elizabeth (through the Queen's Young Leaders program).

Rising from Poverty, to Fight Poverty
Kennedy Odeda was born and raised in Kibera, Africa's largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where he grew up experiencing the devastating realities of extreme poverty. In 2004, he started Shining Hope for Communities with a soccer ball and a few shillings. Today, Odede runs two shining girls' schools in Kibera and Mathare slums, along with a clinic, a water and sanitation program and job training classes. In 2014, SHOFCO served about 50,000 individuals in Kibera and Mathare, and expects to serve 70,000 by the end of 2015. Kristoff recommended SHOFCO as one of the "Gifts that Change Lives."

"I think everybody in the world hopes for a better life," says Odede. "I am a man who believes in hope. I knew my life would not be the same [as his earlier poverty], as progress is part of life. But I think what happened to me it is a little bit extreme. Success in my life has fulfilled its mission which is to help my community and my country."

When he meets kids nowadays in the slums of Kibera and Mathare, he tells them to dream big. "My advice is that they will make it but they should not forget where they come from," he says. "They should not dwell much on success as success is only important when it positively affect the lives of others."