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The Unknown Inventor Whose Work Is Saving The Developing World

Ashok Gadgil is a professor at UC Berkeley. But in his spare time, he’s come up with solutions for water, cooking, and energy quandaries, improving lives from the Sudan to India. How does he do it? He just likes a good puzzle.

The Unknown Inventor Whose Work Is Saving The Developing World

If you’re a lucky inventor, maybe you come up with one big thing that makes an impact on people. Ashok Gadgil, the winner of the 2012 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, has produced two inventions that have changed the lives of people in the developing world, and is now working on a third. How has he pulled this off?

It helps that Gadgil, a professor in the Department of Civil Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has a science background. But his explanation is fairly simple: "In each case it was becoming aware of how serious the problem was and then being aware that actually there is some technical solution that could help. It’s like you find a puzzle, but the nice thing about this puzzle is that if you solve it you’re making people’s lives better."

Ashok Gadgil with the Berkeley-Darfur Stove. Credit: Lemelson-MIT Program

Gadgil started his career helping developing countries not with an invention, but with a program to promote utility-sponsored energy efficiency. In most developing countries, customers don’t have enough money to pay the full price on electricity, so they get subsidized rates from the government. But when efficient energy technology isn’t subsidized, there’s no incentive for residential customers to use it (using compact fluorescent light bulbs, for example). "My solution was to point out to utilities that if you spend a little amount of money for efficient lamps, you will be selling less subsidized electricity and you get to keep more money," explains Gadgil.

The idea, which Gadgil hatched in the late 1980s, was a success: over 100 million people participate in these utility-sponsored CFL programs in dozens of countries, including Algeria, Cuba, India, Iraq, Panama, Russia, Sudan, and Mexico.

Next, Gadgil turned to another overwhelming global problem: access to clean water. He was inspired to take on the issue in the summer of 1993, when a particularly nasty strain of cholera killed more than 10,000 people in India (Gadgil himself grew up in Mumbai). "That’s when I got interested in finding out why these people died when it should be so easy to disinfect water," he says.

His solution: UV Waterworks, a technology developed in the mid-1990s that uses ultraviolet light to eliminate waterborne pathogens. "The idea was to disinfect water highly effectively but at an extremely low cost and have it be robust enough to work in deep rural areas with almost no tech backup or support, and where a whole village might just have a couple screwdrivers," he says. UV Waterworks devices are currently distributed by WaterHealth International, and can disinfect water for just two cents per 10 liters (that’s about 42 cups of water). The technology provides water to 5 million people on a daily basis in India, Liberia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Ghana.

Gadgil’s most recent invention was not, he admits, entirely his own idea. In 2004, an officer from USAID called him with a tragic problem: 80% of all displaced persons in Darfur are female. The UN World Food Program provides these people with raw food. In order to cook the food, the women would leave the safety of their camps to collect firewood, which left them exposed to armed gangs that would systematically rape them. Gadgil’s challenge was to come up with a more efficient stove so that the women didn’t have to collect firewood so often.

And so he did. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove saves 55% on fuel compared to traditional stoves. The stove, designed by Gadgil and his team with input from women living in Darfur’s camps, is also designed to withstand the environmental conditions—wind and sand—of the region. Version 14 of the stove is now in production. So far, 20,000 stoves have been distributed, and Gadgil is working on a modified version for Ethiopia.

Gadgil is also working on a technology to remove arsenic from water. In the future, he wants to develop something that addresses the problem of overfluoridation of drinking water, which can cause a crippling bone disease. This is all in his free time—Gadgil’s day job is being director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

And as for that award money? "I would love to use it for something that’s high risk and high reward," he says.

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