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High-tech versus smart tech, a north-south divide

A spin-off startup from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), the Swiss company Bloom Biorenewables extracts cellulose and lignin from waste wood to produce chemical products. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Gaetan Bally)

Technology has a massive role to play in meeting the 2030 deadline for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), says Julia Binder, head of Tech4Impact, an EPFL-sponsored platform promoting sustainable entrepreneurship. But technical solutions have to be adapted to the realities on the ground – especially in the global south.

Upon its creation in 2019, Bloom Biorenewables, a spin-off startup from EPFL, developed a brand-new technology to convert cellulose and lignin, two molecules naturally present in wood, into chemical products such as perfumes or artificial flavours. With this new chemical process, the start-up is contributing to a shift towards a circular economy in which waste products are given a second life by extracting these molecules. It is also in line with SDG 12, aimed at ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. 

This, according to Binder, further highlights the key role played by technology in the ongoing sustainable transition: “We’re running against time. We’re on the way to failing many of the goals that have been set out. But technology has a massive role to play because we can scale our impact across industries, across contexts, and across countries.”

The Swiss start-up could rely on a favourable environment to create what it presents as a one-of-a-kind technology. For starters, it received both academic and networking support from EPFL. And the size of the Swiss chemical industry, which accounted for 4.8 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2016, also ensured there was a market for this kind of new high-tech chemical process.

When it comes to creating technological and sustainable solutions in developing countries, the story is very different. “When you have a high-tech solution and you try to just bring it to the global south, you find that the ecosystem isn’t always ready for this solution,” Binder says.

As these countries have to deal with more basic, pressing needs, such as access to electricity or clean cooking fuels – both of which are still lacking in most sub-Saharan countries – the technical solutions have to be adapted to the realities on the ground. Otherwise, the project might simply fail.

As part of an initiative led by the UN Development Programme, called the Growth Stage Impact Ventures, Tech4Impact oversees the screening of start-up companies in developing countries. When assessing the companies’ technological innovations, they paid close attention to their differing technical capacities. 

“It needs to be considered in the context: just because we know a technology in Switzerland, it does not mean that they have had this technology around for quite some time in Nigeria. So we always look at this combination of ‘Is it innovative?’ but also what is the necessary technology for the realities on site,” Binder adds.

Read also: UN initiative shows investors the way to finding impact ventures in developing countries.

Powerstove, one of the selected companies who presented their projects during an online pitching session last Thursday, is one example. Based in Nigeria, it created a cook stove that uses solar energy to generate the electricity it needs to function. It thus avoids using more polluting cooking fuels, such as charcoal, while remaining relatively easy to implement from a technical point of view – a good example of what Binder calls “smart technologies”, as opposed to high-tech ones.

Even with this in mind, technology has a major role in the sustainable transition to come according to Binder, notably because “technology has always been a key driver for innovation. If you think about the Industrial Revolution and many other historic examples, it was always technology that really introduced fundamentally new and disruptive innovations. And I believe that when we look at the current sustainability debate, this is exactly what is needed: we need a fundamental, disruptive innovation – and for that I think that technology can really play a massive role.

In the end, as the last UN SDG Report showed that the world was not on track to deliver on most of its objectives, the question remains: will it be sufficient?