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July 27, 2008

Ex-aid worker develops appropriate-tech irrigation pump

As an aid worker in Africa, Martin Fisher says he saw a twofold problem: A lack of irrigation made it difficult for impoverished rural farmers to make money, and the irrigation pumps provided by many foreign aid programs lay broken and unused.

“All too often we do more harm than good,” says Mr. Fisher. “I realized that when it comes down to it, a poor person has only one need: A way to make more money.”

Fisher, an aluminum expert by training, has developed a series of low-cost, manual water pumps that can be used to irrigate farms up to two acres in size. In turn, farmers can increase their yields and grow produce for market.

“It’s providing a tool. If that’s all it was that would be good,” says Erik Hersman, a South African expat who blogs about ingenuity on the continent at Afrigadget.com. “But what Martin Fisher’s doing is he’s encouraging people to start a business – to be entrepreneurs.”

Sometimes, Mr. Hersman says, these tools and the money they create spur additional innovation and spin-off businesses, like pumping services.

Aid, not handouts
One of the more popular pumps Fisher has designed, the Super-MoneyMaker Pump, looks a little like a baby blue Stairmaster workout machine. When a farmer steps on the foot pedal, its pistons convert the stomp into a strong suction that can draw water uphill. The pump’s durable, lightweight design is built with replaceable parts, and swapping in new pieces doesn’t require any tools.

“But there’s no point in designing it if it can’t get to people,” Fisher says.

To distribute the pumps, he and his business partner, Nick Moon, established KickStart in 1991 (they later incorporated as a San Francisco-based nonprofit in 2001). The group now has offices in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali. It has 225 employees, all but six of whom grew up near the KickStart office where they work. There’s even a YouTube video promoting the tool. The pumps cost as little as $100, which Fisher says is the true market price, not subsidized by his group.

“We don’t give anybody anything,” he says. “It’s technology and the power of marketplace that can take people out of poverty. It’s really about the power of design and technology.”

Today’s push for “appropriate technology” has its roots in the 1970s oil crisis and a 1973 essay collection by British economist E.F. Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.”

Some early adherents, like the now-defunct New Alchemy Institute, designed labor-intensive tools that saved resources to reduce environmental impact, but lacked a sustainable way to fund and distribute the technology.

Now, small-scale, human-centered designs appear to be gaining traction among development groups and high-tech companies attempting to distribute “appropriate” mobile devices that are ergonomic, accessible, and worth hard-earned money.

International Development Enterprises (IDE) has also designed treadle irrigation pumps, many of which were distributed in Bangladesh.

Fisher says an irrigation tool holds the most potential to lift a family out of poverty, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that only 5 percent of land is irrigated, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent of Asia.

These KickStart micro irrigation pumps draw from groundwater, which could be depleted with a high concentration of pumps but are less damaging to the environment than flood or channel irrigation.

“Nobody’s going to look after the environment if they can’t take care of their kids,” Fisher says. “They’re going to do whatever they can do to survive.”

Because the pumps aren’t powered by electricity or cheap fuel, “It has a built in disincentive to overuse,” says Casey Brown, an assistant research scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society in Palisades, New York. “The potential seems to outweigh the risks.”

At a recent conference in Cambridge, Fisher was awarded a $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for his work. He says he hopes to use the funds to refocus his efforts back in the lab, developing more efficient pumps and rapidly creating additional prototypes.

CS Monitor

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