As we enter the season of giving, our final Swiss Utopia stop of the year is The Antenna Foundation, a Geneva-based non-profit committed to providing tech and science solutions for the basic needs of marginalised communities in the Global South. The foundation began 30 years ago as the brainchild of Denis von der Weid, seeking to turn his humanist philosophy into pragmatic interventions that will help see the world differently. “I created the Antenna Foundation in 1989 on the basis of a shocking fact”, writes von der Weid, “[that] 80% of the technologies developed only benefit 10% of the world’s population. Why is this? How have we reached a situation where innovation is at the service of futility and commercial gain, instead of developing research which would help ensure a dignified life for all?” The mandate of the Antenna Foundation is to encourage the development of concrete tools which improve the daily lives of the most disadvantaged, such as chlorination to make water drinkable or disinfect it, or the Argemone, a medicinal plant to treat malaria. This approach is mirrored by a rigorous programme on the ground research and training. The foundation is just the latest step in von der Weid’s career in advocating for social justice through science. He was a rallying voice against Nestlé during the baby formula scandal of the 1970s and the subsequent international boycott against multinational milk companies who were causing infant illness and death in poor communities by promoting bottle feeding and discouraging breast feeding. The Antenna Foundation aims to counteract these instances of “junk science” and ‘bad development’ with evidence-based solutions that delivers real transformation.
Unlike many other non-profits, The Antenna Foundation doesn’t define poverty in terms of income, but rather on the basis access to essential goods. For the foundation, if a person is earning $2 per day, which puts them above the ordinary threshold for extreme poverty, but has no access to clean drinking water or foodstuffs, then the income model of poverty makes no sense. The foundation’s criteria for essential goods covers water, health, light, agriculture, and nutrition, affecting just a little less than half of the global population. The Antenna Foundation’s methodology also differs from the norm in this regard, conducting and promoting the research and spread of technologies that are adapted to the essential needs of the most destitute and fulfil two key conditions: that they enable skill transfer and are sustainable in the developing countries where they are implemented. To accomplish this, the Antenna Foundation collaborates with an international network of scientists on research projects to create bespoke solutions for water and hygiene, agroecology, traditional medicine and energy.
The Antenna Foundation offers a compelling model for incubating solutions and accelerating social enterprises working to redress global inequality and access to essential goods, employing a high-impact model that uses the scientific method to assess its effectiveness. Antenna’s model has developed over the last 30 years of activity to employ three major cycles of activity: 1/ The Research and Development cycle, where Antenna undertakes and participates in research projects in collaboration with an international network of scientists and engineers in fields related to drinking water, agroecology, nutrition, traditional medicine and energy. 2/ The Field Testing approach where we test and validate solutions locally and develop application methods and training. 3/ The Dissemination cycle where we deliver technological, medical and economic solutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America through the development of social enterprises or school programmes, in partnership with major international and governmental organizations and NGOs, as well as other local foundations and associations. Antenna Foundation provides strategic, technical and financial support to implement projects and develop local sustainable and economically viable solutions. In 2021 alone, the Antenna Foundation carried out more than 40 projects in some 20 countries, demonstrating the effectiveness of this innovative model which transforms utopian thinking into practical solutions.