Fighting Poverty in Kenya by Selling Water Pumps to Poor Farmers

July 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Spencer Michels reports on the story of how a California man sees the chance to increase access to clean water in Kenya through the use of foot-pumps.


JIM LEHRER: Next: A California man takes a business approach to combating poverty in Africa.

“NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s a strange sight on the roof of a building in San Francisco: Martin Fisher, the co-founder of a nonprofit called KickStart, demonstrating a pump called the Super MoneyMaker that he developed for sale in poor countries, mostly in Africa. It’s a device designed to make a big dent in poverty.

MARTIN FISHER, co-founder, KickStart International: It is cheap. It is extremely robust. It won’t break down. It’s very lightweight. You can carry it to the field. You can take the whole thing apart with your hands, put it back together, because a farmer doesn’t even have a screwdriver in rural Africa.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even cheaper is a hip pump that KickStart also sells. Fisher, a mechanical engineer by training and a former Fulbright Scholar, co-founded KickStart 10 years ago, after discovering that large-scale rural water projects and programs to give farm equipment to poor Africans, projects he worked on, failed after a few years.

MARTIN FISHER: It’s not very cheap, because you have to set up a whole distribution network to give things away. It completely kills local initiative. It kills the local private sector. And people don’t really appreciate things that they get given. They don’t use them fully.

SPENCER MICHELS: Instead KickStart sells its pumps to very poor farmers, with the promise that they can make money with it.

MARTIN FISHER: Their number-one need is a way to make more money. And, so, if you’re going to sell them a tool or piece of equipment, it has to be a moneymaking device. If we buy something, we’re going to make sure we use that thing, and especially when you’re very poor.

SPENCER MICHELS: When Fisher began to sell, rather than give away, pumps, he was flying in the face of most social theory. He was treated as a heretic by some in the aid community. But he understood that quite well.

MARTIN FISHER: I went over to Africa as a socialist and came — after about five or six years of hitting my head against the wall, became a small-C capitalist. And the thing is that it actually worked.

SPENCER MICHELS: And the pumps worked as well, because, Fisher says, only 4 percent of the farmland in the continent is irrigated, compared to 42 percent in Asia. With climate change, rain is becoming less dependable.

At the University of California at Davis, one of America’s premier agricultural schools, Mark Bell teaches international ag development and travels the world studying what works and what doesn’t. He agrees with Fisher. The well-meaning tradition of nonprofits in developed countries, giving tools and equipment to poor people in Third World countries, is a poor model.

MARK BELL, University of California, Davis: If you go in and say, here’s a freebie, then people are going to say, sure. Give it to me. And when you leave, you know, who knows what happens to it. But if a farmer is given the opportunity to assess and then makes the decision to buy, I think that’s the real proof that this is something that is beneficial to him.

SPENCER MICHELS: Near the Davis campus in California’s Central Valley, agriculture is conducted on a big scale. The state and the federal government move water over long distances from the mountains to the farms. Irrigation is a way of life here.

You might wonder why an African farmer couldn’t irrigate his crops with a simple setup like this one in California. Well, for one thing, he probably doesn’t have any electricity, and he couldn’t afford the pump. And, besides, why would he need this much water for a tiny plot of land?

But the basic need remains, according to Bell. Water can change lives.

MARK BELL: If they can have water, you’re removing a huge risk. You’re providing them with security of income. And that’s often the key to getting some stability into the farmers’ livelihoods, because, once they have water, then they’re assured a yield, and then they can — then they can start thinking about diversification.

SPENCER MICHELS: In towns and cities in Kenya, KickStart has set up 450 retail shops that sell pumps, made cheaply in China, and has set up demonstration stations. The foot-operated pumps are sold for $100, a lot of money for an African subsistence farmer.

They work on small plots of land, up to two acres. And they are often operated by a husband-and-wife team. Streams and lakes provide the water, but the pumps have supplanted the old method of buckets carried by hand.

Daniel Karange (ph) saved for months to come up with the money for one hip pump. It worked. And now he’s thinking of more.

MAN: I want to add, myself, another pump. Now, this time, I will get the Super MoneyMaker, because I want now to cultivate a large piece of area, where I can grow more crops, commercial crops.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Fisher, it takes a lot of stories like Karange’s (ph) to make a difference.

Are you making an impact, or is it a drop in the bucket?

MARTIN FISHER: So, you’re right. It’s really a drop in the bucket. We have got basically by now half-a-million people out of poverty. So, that’s 100,000 families out of poverty. But the potential for these pumps in Africa alone is somewhere between 15 million and 20 million pumps.

SPENCER MICHELS: A huge problem in rural areas with poor communications is getting the word out that the pumps are worth the investment.

MARTIN FISHER: If you’re very, very poor, you actually don’t even tell your family that you made a lot of money, because, if you do, your extended family will come and beg from you. You certainly don’t tell your neighbors. They will be jealous of you, and they will also beg from you. And so there’s almost no word of mouth about good news of making money in Africa.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Fisher and his colleagues have persisted for a decade, using donated funds, not to buy the pumps, but to promote them. Follow-up research by KickStart is showing good results, and the World Bank has praised the approach. Besides Kenya, KickStart is now selling pumps in Tanzania, Mali, and Burkina Faso.