Tools That Change Lives

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When Martin Fisher arrived in Kenya in the mid-1980s, profit had a dirty name. "There was a Marxist approach to development," Fisher says. "Many development agencies glorified subsistence living and suggested that the cash economy should be avoided as much as possible." To change this attitude, Fisher and his partner Nick Moon, who had both worked for the British charity ActionAid, set up a company in 1991 called ApproTEC (short for the inelegant Appropriate Technologies for Enterprise Creation), dedicated to the proposition that low-tech hardware could transform the lives of Kenya's farmers by making their work profitable. The idea was to design technology that was within financial reach for Africa's poor, would bring subsistence farmers into the market, and could return the initial investment in three to six months. They designed a machine to make building blocks, a press to make cooking oil out of sunflower seeds, and a hay baler. But their biggest success was in irrigation: a small pressure pump called the MoneyMaker that would allow poor farmers to irrigate their land so they could start growing cash crops.

Most African farmers are subsistence farmers because their water source is a rope-and-bucket system. The MoneyMaker allowed farmers to increase planting from an average 0.05 hectares to 0.8 hectares. The pumps resemble stair-climbing exercise machines in modern gyms. The farmer starts the stepper and water is pumped uphill and sprayed from a hose.

Fisher and Moon set up mass production that gave the producers 25-30% profit. They recruited retailers who could sell the pumps at rural shops, at a 16% profit. Farmers could buy the MoneyMaker for $38, or a bigger version for $74.

"It's difficult to convince a very poor person to buy a big-ticket item," Fisher says. "It required a huge amount of mass marketing." The sales push included a pickup truck with a megaphone that visited rural areas and announced demonstrations of the new technology. More than 24,000 are now in operation, Fisher says, producing $30 million a year in profits to the farmers.

Fisher and Moon now plan to expand to other developing areas like India, Brazil and southern Africa. He and Moon have had little support from the aid community, and went years without earning a salary. But they remain pumped about their prospects. They enlisted 35 Silicon Valley engineers to help them design a high-pressure water pump; their next project is a well-drilling rig that can be moved around by bicycle. "We're trying to start a new middle class in these countries," Fisher says. "That's when democracy starts to work."