Project Nanhi Kali girls in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. Anand Mahindra, the current chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., founded Project Nanhi Kali in 1996 with the belief that educated women could substantively contribute to the economy, while curtailing the dowry system and child marriages. (Project Nanhi Kali photo)

San Jose, Calif. – South African Olympic medalist Wayne Ferreira – who faced down the likes of Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick during his 15-year career in tennis – has mastered an equally-formidable challenge in retirement: creating water out of air.

“We’re basically making it rain every day,” Ferreira told India-West at the San Jose, Calif., offices of Tech Mahindra April 23. Ferreira and Rajini Shailender, Indian American vice president of Tech Mahindra’s Technology Business unit here, showcased innovations to Sharad Sapra, director of the UNICEF Innovation Center, and Tanya Accone, UNICEF Senior Advisor on Innovation.

Sapra and Accone were visiting San Francisco Bay Area companies last month to develop potential partnerships for products aimed at solving the world’s most-pressing crises.

The co-founder and president of EcoloBlue, based in Lafayette, Calif., said he hoped his invention would mitigate water crises throughout the developing world. A large-scale version of the machine is capable of producing 2,500 gallons of water per day, by simply sucking up humidity in the environment. The liquid is processed through a filtration system that delivers potable water in about four hours.

In India, Ferreira envisions EcoloBlue standing alongside aquifers – sparked with energy from renewable sources – refilling water that is pumped out each day. The machine could also be used alongside village wells – which remain the primary water source for about a third of the country’s population – ensuring a consistent supply of potable water for a thirsty rural India.

“This is not going to solve a drought, but it can help out in a very large capacity,” said Ferreira. “The desperation for water is getting worse; every day I see more and more potential.”

EcoloBlue is currently in talks with a couple of companies based in India to develop a cut-down version assembled in India, thereby reducing the cost of manufacturing and bypassing import duties. The company is also working with almond and walnut growers in California’s Central Valley, who have suffered a severe economic crisis over the past four years due to an extended drought. Indian Americans primarily of Punjabi descent produce about one-fifth of the nation’s almonds and walnuts from this region.

“This really flip-fops the idea of thinking about water, how something like this functions in an environment where there is no electricity,” Accone of UNICEF told India-West, calling EcoloBlue a “truly innovative” product. She noted that the machine was already being used in Bangladesh to “recharge” aquifers – pumping EcoloBlue’s water back into an existing water supply.

The machine works best in high humidity climates, where most of the world’s disadvantaged population lives.

Sapra, who is based in Nairobi, Kenya, told India-West that providing information could solve many of the developing world’s greatest challenges, particularly in schooling. “Education should serve two purposes: employability and participation in democracy,” he said, adding: “Informed countries make strong nations.”

In India, teacher vacancy rates and absences have improved over the past few years, largely due to private sector schools, said Sapra, who has served with UNICEF for 32 years, in various capacities. But the poorest people in the country still lack access to a good education, he stated.

“It is unacceptable that where you are born determines the quality of your entire life,” he said, noting that only about 25 percent of Indian students find jobs after graduating. “Young people are angry, frustrated and extremely vulnerable to becoming exploited. We believe in creating a platform where their voices can be heard, participating in community development, rather than passive acceptance.”

UNICEF is working with the Khan Academy to develop a platform on which anyone with a mobile phone can get access to the reputed school’s kindergarten to 12th grade programs.

UNICEF has launched EduTrac – an SMS-based school monitoring system – in Lucknow and areas of Rajasthan. EduTrac allows students to report whether their teachers are present or absent that day, the availability of textbooks and working toilets and incidents of major violence. The information is reported to the Ministry of Education and Sports.

The ministry also uses the system to report to districts when funds have been distributed for payroll. Teachers can report if they have not been paid or underpaid.

In rural Gujarat and Maharashtra, UNICEF has launched the SMS-based “Mother’s Reminder,” to help pregnant women for up to two years after the birth of their child.

Sapra said he was envisioning an interactive radio which would allow people to access knowledge whenever they need it. Farmers could learn the price of their crops before they bring them to the market, allowing them to be competitive. Abused young women in Afghanistan and elsewhere could get advice from a far-away mentor and the best teachers in the world could work with the poorest students on the globe, he envisaged.

UNICEF is working with Tech Mahindra to develop an electronic scooter that is faster than a bicycle — initially for school inspectors in Ethiopia — which can travel 30 miles on a single charge.

Sapra also met with business leaders at Square to develop a platform on which cash remittances can be transferred over a smart phone. The South Asian American diaspora transfers $360 billion back to home countries each year. “This makes financial transaction companies the conduits of change,” said Sapra. The project is expected to launch in July.

Shailender of Tech Mahindra serves on the board of UNICEF’s CauseTech, a crowd-sourcing platform scheduled to roll out this month, which aims to involve people around the world to address issues relating to clean water, access to education and energy supplies, along with sanitation and health care. The project aims to partner private sector companies to collaboratively develop solutions.

Shailender highlighted some of Tech Mahindra’s social responsibility initiatives in India. Responding to the rising epidemic of rape in India, the company has launched “Fight Back,” a small sensor worn on the body or in jewelry which sends out an alert to a woman’s friends if she is in danger. The device, activated with a light touch, also sends out a Facebook message; a GIS/GPS tracking device sends an alert to the nearest police station and allows police to detect the location of the woman. Nearly 1,500 devices have been distributed in Hyderabad.

The Tech Mahindra Group also spearheaded Nanhi Kali to support primary education for low-income girls in India. The company has also worked with the Indian government on project EMRI, which provides 911-like support to the ailing in India. The call is answered within three rings; and within 20 minutes, an ambulance reaches the victim’s side.

“I find it extremely gratifying if even one life is saved,” said Shailender.

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