Paul Polak thinks big and designs small. He aims to cut rural poverty worldwide, and he’s using humble $1 micro–irrigation kits to do it.
"Water is essential to alleviating poverty," Polak says. "If you want to do anything about it, you have to start with small farmers and irrigation."
Unlike the big development agencies, which put their faith in "trickle down" economics fueled by mega–projects, Paul Polak is establishing a new kind of "trickle down" economy, based on individual farmers pulling themselves out of poverty using low–cost tools like micro–drip systems and treadle pumps.
Polak notes that 1.3 billion people in the world are surviving on less than a dollar a day, "about what it costs the average American to subscribe to cable television." Most of these people earn their living from agriculture, usually on less than two hectares of land.
In 1981, Polak launched International Development Enterprises (IDE), a nonprofit group based in Colorado, with the intent of designing technologies that would help the rural poor step out of poverty and hunger. His goal was to design simple, useful, inexpensive tools that could be purchased by poor farmers to improve their yields and allow them to profit from their investment. "Small–scale needs call for small–scale solutions, not mega–dams and industrial–scale development," he says.
If the solutions are small–scale, his ambition for them is not: IDE recently announced its goal of helping 30 million families increase their income by US$500 a year, in the next 15 years. IDE estimates that its efforts have already put $200 million of additional income into the hands of the rural poor annually.
One of the group’s first successes provides a literal as well as figurative way to step out of poverty. IDE’s highly efficient, simple treadle pump costs $25 installed – vastly cheaper than the next available technology, a diesel pump–and–tubewell system that costs $200–$500, and which is uneconomical on small plots. The treadle pump can be manufactured locally in simple metalworking shops, using bamboo or other inexpensive, locally available materials. It is easily and cheaply maintained with standard replacement parts available in local markets. Most importantly, the treadle pump makes use of the only thing poor farmers have in abundance, cheap labor. (And labor–intensive they are: families may have to treadle–pump for 4–6 hours a day during the dry season to irrigate thirsty crops like rice.) On average, IDE says farmers are able to generate more than $100 per year in extra income using the pump. Independent researchers support this claim, and indicate it might even be an underestimate.
While IDE does not manufacture or sell the tools they help develop, they do help create the market for them through farmer training, on–farm demonstrations, and good old–fashioned advertising – albeit a brand of advertising far removed from television spots and glossy magazines. "In Bangladesh, we’ve used a three–rickshaw procession to take a treadle pump to local markets," says Polak. "We’ll have a group of troubadors singing songs about the treadle pump, while another person demonstrates it. We also did a feature movie about its use, which has played to over a million people a year there in open–air theaters we set up."
Poverty Drips Away
Most of the world’s poorest farmers live on marginal lands with unreliable rainfall and no access to irrigation. Even those with a ready water source often cannot efficiently bring it to their fields; many bring water to their plants by the bucketful, and water plants by hand. It has been shown that adding even small amounts of water to supplement rainfed crops can lead to dramatic increases in yields. Farmers who can irrigate in the dry season also have a much better chance of making a profit from their crops.
Despite its seeming simplicity, drip irrigation has always been the province of the world’s wealthier farmers. While highly water–efficient, it is also expensive, costing upwards of $1,500 per hectare to install. Polak saw "a market chasm instead of a niche" in the world’s millions of poor farmers without irrigation for their crops, and has diligently set out to bridge it with low–cost, simple drip kits. IDE has designed, field–tested and marketed a spectrum of low–cost drip systems to the world’s poor farmers, starting with a $1 drip kit that can irrigate 100 plants or 20 square meters of land. IDE’s bigger systems include a 50–liter–tank system that can irrigate up to 100 square meters, and so on up to 1,000 square meters. "You need to break these things into affordable pieces, so the poor can start where they can afford, and add on as they get more money." Polak says a farmer can make $30 using IDE’s $10 drip system. Rapid payback on the investment is a cornerstone of IDE systems, since poor farmers are very risk–averse.
Not only do these micro–irrigation systems increase yields by up to 40%, and use half as much water as conventional irrigation, but they also save energy. Traditional irrigation systems use pumps to move water, but all of IDE’s drip kits rely on gravity. Cisterns or buckets are part of each kit.
IDE products are based on extensive consultation with local farmers. Polak has talked to about 3,000 farmers in the past two decades, in places like Nepal, Bangladesh and Zambia. "All of what we do comes from the farmers themselves," he says. "We go from the grassroots up." Not only do local farmers help IDE design and test products, but local manufacturers produce and sell them. The drip systems, for example, can be made using a $3,000 plastic extruder. "We don’t believe in subsidizing the cost, so these products must be profitable to local manufacturers and dealers." Apparently, they are: in Bangladesh alone, there are now 50 manufacturers of treadle pumps, more than 2,000 dealers selling them, and perhaps 3,000 well–drillers installing them, Polak says. More than two million treadle pumps have been installed in Asia and Africa to date.
In addition to pumps and drip kits, IDE has also developed rainwater harvesting systems for drinking water, which can store up to 3,500 liters of water. These low–cost systems are based on heavy–duty plastic "cisterns" that are much cheaper than conventional cement storage tanks, yet are sturdy and safe. One of these can supply a family of five with clean water through the dry season in Bangladesh. Rainwater harvesting devices are particularly important for Bangladesh, where millions of people have been exposed to dangerous levels of naturally occurring arsenic through groundwater. IDE has also developed a low–cost arsenic filter for use in these areas.
IDE is also developing a rainwater harvesting system for irrigation uses which is "the equivalent of a dam, but miniaturized to the size of single farm," Polak says – and without any of the environmental impacts. The system is being tested in India’s Maharashtra state. "We’re talking about storing 20,000 liters for $40, which can irrigate 100 square meters during the dry season," he says. Farmers can earn $50 with their first crop with such a system, paying for the drip system and "dam." Previously, a $2,000 well was the only other option in that area.
IDE goes beyond simply developing and marketing good technologies for the rural poor: they follow up with trainings and other educational efforts; they help identify high–value crops that are likely to work in particular regions, and they work to develop and sustain markets to supply and maintain the technologies. With some 550 staff members working in eight countries, the group has the ability to check up on the use of its products, and improve them and their use by farmers. While most of their work is concentrated in Asia, IDE office opened an office in Zambia in 1997, and one in Zimbabwe last year.
But Polak knows it will take more than just IDE’s efforts to significantly reduce poverty among the rural poor. "A whole new generation of development organizations needs to find ways to help small farmers increase their income from agriculture. We need more designers to move from designing for the world’s richest citizens to designing for its poorest – above all else, the tools that make a difference to small farmers must be designed to be affordable. The new challenge is to the productivity and income of small farmers, and thereby profoundly changing the face of rural poverty."