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3D-Printed Hands, 3-Cent Maxi Pads, and More at SwitchPoint 2015

“When we talk about supporting people with technology, we tend to fetishize both the people and the technology,” said Linda Raftree today. “But the tech we develop isn’t really useful if we don’t include the end users in the process.”

Raftree, cofounder of Kurante, and other experts took the stage today for the second and final day of SwitchPoint 2015, produced by IntraHealth International. And Raftree wasn’t the only one to point out that development without dialogue just doesn’t work.

Lasting progress takes local partnerships, local buy-in, and local leadership.

You can’t use mobile phones to share information fast if you don’t have power or reception, said Merrick Schaefer of the US Agency for International Development—even if mobile phone subscriptions do outnumber the people in the world today.

And you can’t solve diarrhea with awkward, ugly water filters that no one wants to use, said Claudia Harner-Jay of PATH—no matter how well they eliminate pathogens.

Real, lasting global progress takes local partnerships, local buy-in, and local leadership.Take, for instance, the three-cent maxi pad

.Local, Eco-Friendly, and Yes, It Actually Works

In Rwanda, the number of women who miss work each month leads to an estimated loss of US$215 in income per woman, per year. That’s a potential annual loss of US$115 million gross domestic product in Rwanda.

The reason: menstruation—or, more accurately, a lack of supplies to manage menstruation discreetly and hygienically.

Girls often miss up to 50 days of school per year for the same reason, said Nadia Hitimana of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE).Sanitary pads are expensive. And there’s not enough clean water for the continual washing of clothes. So rather than face the stigma and embarrassment of going to work or school while they menstruate, women and girls in Rwanda often stay home and fall behind.

Girls need to be the central designers of a tailored product that meets their needs.

That’s why Hitimana and SHE are partnering with local banana growers to turn banana stems—formerly agro-waste—into sanitary pads for women and girls. They use a patented technology to manufacture pads that are chemical-free, polymer-free, eco-friendly, and economically sustainable.

And—here’s the important part—they work. Not only because they do the job, but because SHE spent a good bit of time talking to local women and girls to find out exactly what they needed and what types of barriers they faced. Those discussions led to a product so effective that SHE is hoping to scale up production across the entire African continent.

“Girls need to be the central designers of a tailored product that meets their needs,” Hitimana said. It’s not about charity—it’s about tapping into local resources and the potential within the community to address a problem.

“Girls’ education is really at the heart of my mission here on Earth,” she said. “As I’m speaking today, we’re also working to have in every public school a girls’ room, where they can wash, change their sanitary pads, rest if they have pain. No one will tease them there. No one is going to see their blood. And no one is going to tell them that they smell.”

The Perfect Medium for Prosthetics

e-NABLE’s members understand just as well as SHE’s that you can’t create a lovable product without tailoring it to the user. In e-NABLE’s case, those users are children with limb differences.A functional prosthetic hand can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. But 3D printing and a global, grassroots, do-for-good community of volunteers are changing that.

When they put on the device, they walk a little taller.

e-NABLE’s 3D-printed hands have a lot to recommend them. At $30-$50, they’re cheap enough that parents can order larger ones as their children grow. The hands are customizable, comfortable, and easy to assemble. And—in perhaps their greatest success—they are beautiful in the eyes of their users (who can choose hands in their favorite colors).

“When they put on the device, they walk a little taller,” noted Peter Binkley of e-NABLE.

“I’ve been using one of these hands for about 2 years now,” said Peregrine Hawthorn, Binkley’s son as well as an e-NABLE collaborator. He took his left hand off and put it back on to demonstrate for the crowd. “By now I’ve incorporated it into my own body mapping. I might reach for something with the hand I forgot to put on this morning.

”e-NABLE has delivered hands to some 1,500 children around the world. But now Binkley, Hawthorn, Jon Schull, and Karyn Traphagen want to reach even more children, especially those who don’t have access to the Internet or other resources to connect to e-NABLE.

And, like SHE, they want to keep up the dialogue with the end users who ultimately benefit—and sustain lasting progress—from these innovative technologies.

Read highlights from SwitchPoint day 1: Digital Jedis, Social Entrepreneurs, and the Real Heroes of Global HealthYou can follow what happened at SwitchPoint 2015 on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Join the conversation: #SwitchPoint