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A Brazilian engineer who developed a system for bringing electricity to people in rural areas, an Indian microbiologist who harnessed bacteria to clean up oil spills, and one of South Africa's leading biotechnologists have each been honoured in this year's World Technology Network awards.

The awards, which were announced earlier this month in San Francisco, United States, recognise outstanding achievement in 20 categories, including energy, education, policy, ethics and the environment.

The social entrepreneur prize — for people who apply technologies to social problems in a sustainable way — was awarded to Brazilian Fabio Luis de Oliveira Rosa, who has spent 20 years developing systems to bring electricity to people in isolated rural areas.

Rosa, the executive director of the Institute for the Development of Natural Energy and Sustainability in Porto Alegre, initially developed a low cost electrical grid for rural areas that went on to supply electricity to one million in Brazil.

"Then, I developed another approach to serve people using solar photovoltaic energy," says Rosa. "It is a completely new concept business approach that can bring electricity to poor people in a completely sustainable approach, without subsidies."

Amitabha Sadangi, executive director of International Development Enterprises — India (IDEI), was a runner up in the same category. IDEI produces irrigation technologies designed to one-fifth of the cost of competitors and scaled down to fit the small agricultural plots of India's poor farmers.

"Smallholder farm families in India have now purchased half a million IDEI treadle pumps, investing US$12.50 million of their own funds and earning a net income over US$189 million on their investment," says Sadangi.

In the biotechnology category, Jennifer Thompson of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, was nominated for her research into genetically modified (GM) maize.

"Maize is the staple diet of many Africans, often being eaten three times a day," says Thompson. "Two of the greatest scourges of maize in sub-Saharan Africa are the maize streak virus, and stresses such as drought and heat."

Thompson's team is developing GM maize able to resist the virus — which can wipe out entire crops — and to tolerate environmental stresses such as drought conditions.

Banwari Lal, head of biotechnology at India's Energy and Resources Institute was nominated for an award in the environment category for his work developing 'Oilzapper' a biological product able to clean up oil spills.

"Oilzapper is the first product developed by assembling five naturally occurring bacterial species, which can biodegrade all the fractions of crude oil, oily sludge and drill cuttings," says Lal. Describing the importance of the technology, Lal says that it has been used to reclaim more than 5,000 hectares of contaminated Indian cropland, and to clean up polluted lakes.

"The Oilzapper technology is cost-effective and environment friendly," adds Lal. "Every major oil company in India and the Middle East now uses it."

Also nominated in the environment category, were scientists responsible for the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden's DNA bank. The DNA bank houses genetic material from species found in Brazil's threatened Atlantic rainforest, and will allow scientists to research plants whose genes could confer resistance to pathogens or yield new drug candidates.

Other prize-winners and nominees from developing countries include Cristian Cox, director of Chile's Ministry of Education, who won the education award, and Claudia Zea of Colombia's EAFIT University who was a runner up. Both led projects that created internet-based networks and content for schools throughout their countries.

The awards have no financial value. Instead, all the individual winners and finalists are invited to become life fellows of the World Technology Network, which now has more than 800 members in more than 60 countries.

The network describes itself as "a global meeting ground, a virtual think tank, and an elite club whose members are all focused on the business or science of bringing important emerging technologies of all types into reality".

It organises annual summits and other meetings, and produces World Technology Intelligence, a quarterly publication available online. The awards programme has been running since 2000.

Sponsors of the network include Microsoft, Nasdaq, CNN, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the journal Science.