In praise of the low-tech

A trip back in time to the Mekong Delta shows the virtues of low-tech, no-waste enterprises that run on a human scale

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 4:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 4:53am

Writing a science and technology column, you tend to get caught up in the newest or Next Big Thing - Big Data, big discoveries, high-speed trains, high-speed trading. And living in Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta region of mass production and massive infrastructure, you're immersed in the mentality that bigger is better and hi-tech is best.

But a recent trip to the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is a necessary reminder that local, low-tech and small-scale work just as well. In fact they often work better in developing countries, because they are appropriate to their context, making use of simple, affordable technology, local resources and homegrown skills to provide for the community's basic needs. This is quite alien to most of us in Hong Kong, where our food, shelter, energy and other needs are now met by huge, centralised systems, managed by corporations or government, using complex, capital-intensive technology requiring globally sourced components and legions of employees.

As the tourism pitch said, "A trip through the Mekong Delta is a journey back in time." And sure enough there's not much mechanisation to be seen in the picturesque rice paddies, coconut plantations and rural cottage industries (though mobile phones and base stations are ubiquitous). It's a journey to the strange old world of human-scale production and organisational simplicity. Here, the technology involves low-cost designs that are easy to use and repair, the raw materials are locally sourced, and the producer is also the consumer.

Visits to village factories in rural Ben Tre province called to mind that seminal work, Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered by E.F. Schumacher (1911-77), the British economist who advocated "appropriate technology" that is small-scale, decentralised, labour-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound and locally controlled. He argued against costly transfers of complex technology to developing economies and dehumanising production systems that make people adjuncts to machinery. His thesis was much broader, of course, encompassing a whole philosophy of living, and has since evolved into what today is called sustainable development.

Schumacher's vision of "a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful" made sense when I saw coconuts, rice and clay processed into food, fuel and bricks using low-tech tools and "people-centred" skills, leaving nothing to waste.

In one of many coconut factories (see picture) on the banks of the Mekong and its tributaries, a truck or barge delivers hundreds of green coconuts from surrounding plantations. Three workers split open the coconuts in a swift downward stroke on an upright blade. They strip off the husk from the shell in two more strokes. Another worker scoops the white flesh out into a basin. Within a couple of minutes, a coconut is deconstructed into its elementary components. The fresh flesh is used to make coconut milk. Copra, the dried meat, is used to extract coconut oil. Coir, a natural fibre extracted from the husk, is used in products such as doormats, brushes and mattresses. Meanwhile, other workers feed baskets of the discarded shells into a nearby kiln to be made into charcoal for domestic and industrial use.

Outside a village up another tributary, a large airy shed housed about a dozen workers turning delta-grown rice into dried hu tieu noodles for the local market. A vat of ground rice and tapioca starch bubbles on a stove. Women ladle the milky batter onto large skillets where it is cooked like large pancakes, which are then lifted off with a rattan paddle and stretched onto oblong bamboo frames. The frames are placed out in the sun to dry for the day. Workers then gently peel the dried rice sheets off the frames, stack them and feed them individually into a cutting machine from which they emerge as thin noodles. Bundles of noodles are wrapped in paper, and that's the finished product ready for sale. It's low- tech, labour-intensive, man-machine interaction at a very basic level. Again, little is wasted.

Hillocks of rice husks also fuel the scores of high-domed, beehive-shaped brick-firing kilns clustered along the river banks. The clay is extracted in the region, cut into bricks with wire stretched taut on a hand-operated machine, air-dried and fired in batches in the kilns, first at low temperatures to remove moisture from the bricks, then at much higher temperatures for up to two weeks to solidify them. That's why the need for tons of rice husks, which workers shovel into the kiln through a grate. Burning rice husks makes use of agricultural waste that's plentiful locally, but burning them at this volume is also heavily polluting. The kilns' chimneys emit plumes of dark smoke containing climate-changing pollutants such as black carbon. Vietnam's government is trying to phase out these small brick-making businesses -about 10,000 of them - because of their adverse impact on the environment and health.

Pollution is a serious downside of many low-tech practices, of course. But, coming back to Hong Kong's leaden skies and dismal Air Quality Health Index, high technology does not necessarily lead to sustainable development either.

Schumacher was championing appropriate technology in the 1970s during the Industrial Age, when what he called "gigantism" was taking over the industrialised world with mass manufacturing, mass markets, powerful corporations and technology geared to profitability instead of people's well-being. His "small is beautiful" idea can still be seen in things like farmer's markets, niche branding, the locavore movement and return to craft skills. It speaks to the very human preference for systems that we can control and understand, and technology that serves our needs rather than making us slaves to the machine.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant with an electrical engineering doctorate and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked at AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM