Adapting to a new way of business

Marketplace Staff May 7, 2007

Adapting to a new way of business

Marketplace Staff May 7, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: A new exhibit opened Friday at the National Design Museum in New York. It’s not quite cutting-edge stuff. It’s about design with a social conscience, aimed at encouraging rural entrepreneurs in the Third World. Doing well and doing good at the same time, you might say.

The basic idea’s already happening in Cambodia with a company called Development Technology Workshop, or DTW. Rachel Louise Snyder caught up with the man who runs it in Phnom Penh.

RICHARD PULLEN: This is just a really simple collapsible walking cane . . . that is obviously just a golf grip, you know, this is just aluminum . . . this is just elastic running through the middle of it and an end, you know, and a forged end.

RACHEL LOUSIE SNYDER: Richard Pullen is describing a walking cane for the blind. It’s one of two dozen products DTW has redesigned from the industrialized world to fit the developing world.

This year, they’ll turn over $2.5 million. Call it engineering meets altruism and commerce.

PULLEN: Now, we sell these out of Cambodia for $11 U.S.

They’d sell for 45 in the U.S. Two hundred on the table in front of us in pink flowered cloth bags are headed for Tibet. Thousands more have gone to Africa.

So how do they do it?

PULLEN: So we look at a product, we design it using local materials, local staff, local skills as well. So its pointless giving village . . . you know, communities really high-tech bits of kit and they can’t get parts.

Take the Touch Typer Braille Writer, which Pullen says sells in America for about $900. His version doesn’t require electricity and it’s made of metal — so if you drop it, it’s the floor that breaks.

[SOUND: Typing]

PULLEN: This is our version, which looks a little bit crude. It’s like a small version of an old-fashioned, manual typewriter.

[SOUND: Ding]

PULLEN: But this is actually selling now around the world for only $150 U.S.

Some ideas come from everyday observations and the solutions are simple. How does a man without arms brush his teeth? A toothbrush tied to a pole.

Others — like how does a landmine victim in the countryside collect water — are more challenging for Pullen. And we haven’t even gotten to “The Tempest.”

[SOUND: Buzz saw]

PULLEN: Basically obliterates anything in its path.

Pullen compares the yellow Tempest to an angry three-and-a-half ton lawn mower.

PULLEN: What it actually does, it’s a remote controlled machine that actually goes into the minefield . . .

And chains and cutters on the front spin at 1,300 RPMs and clear all the vegetation ahead of the deminers.

PULLEN: They work in probably the most harshest environment. You know, they’re getting blown up, they’ve got vegetation, they get mistreated by the users. So, you know, it’s a pretty shocking life for the machine, to be honest.

So far, Tempests have gone to Mozambique, Congo, Laos, Senegal and a bunch of other countries. They sell for $120,000 U.S. The next closest thing on the market is half a million.

PULLEN: We’re not specialists in demining or in road equipment or blind equipment. And that works in our favor, because we don’t come with the preconceptions. And we just basic, back to basics . . . what can we buy, what’s used locally here, what skill . . . what’s the skill levels available. And that’s what we come up with.

Ideally, he says, their creations will become small, private businesses run by Cambodians. It’s happened already.

A whiteboard in his office lists the projects in the works and a dozen more in the dream phase.

Then there are a few closer to home. His new daughter, for example. Well, let’s just say her stroller has the best suspension you’ve probably ever seen. And she definitely has some racing stripes in her future.

PULLEN: It was fine before, but I just thought it needed to be upgraded a little bit.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I’m Rachel Louise Snyder for Marketplace.
Richard Pullen, DTW’s general manager, with the Braille Writer

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