As the founder of International Development Enterprise (IDE), the organization
that started popularizing treadle pumps in Bangladesh twenty-five years ago, I am
delighted to have a chance to comment on Martin Fischer’s paper. I would like to
focus on three things.
I very much agree with Martin that increasing income is the single most
important first step out of poverty for the 1.1 billion people who survive on less
than a dollar a day.
I applaud KickStart’s success in helping thousands of very poor farmers in
Kenya and Tanzania move out of poverty by increasing their income with treadle pumps purchased from private sector supply chains. This provides a much
needed model of success for sub-Saharan Africa.
I would like to examine the remarkable global impacts that more than two
million treadle pumps have made in the hands of dollar-a-day poor rural people, and explore what we can be learned from this experience that we can apply
more broadly to poverty eradication initiatives.
The most important point Martin Fischer makes is that “if you ask a person in a poor place what they need most, they will tell you that it is a way to
make more money.” I couldn’t agree more. Over the past twenty-five years, I
have had long conversations with more than three thousand farmers who earn
less than a dollar a day, and walked with them through their fields. When I ask
them what they need most to move out of poverty, virtually all of them say that
the most important thing they need is to find ways to significantly increase
Martin describes his disappointment when he surveyed the appropriate
technology movement in Kenya in 1985, and had to conclude that the movePaul Polak
A Practical Path to
Innovations Case Discussion: KickStart
A Practical Path to Increased Income
ment was essentially dead. Twenty years ago, I talked to a bright young man
who was part of a team of people developing a tool carrier for farmers in Africa.
He was convinced this new technology would be a major breakthrough,
because it would carry out all of the functions of plows, cultivators, seeders,
harrows, and carts, all with one basic tool. I had already talked to a lot of small
farmers by then, so I asked him a simple question: “How much will it cost?”
He scratched his head, and said he thought that was an interesting question.
He said he would make some calculations and get back to me. Right then I
knew that the tool carrier would never work. If you think like a tinkerer solving a technical problem, you will likely be able to come up with a technical
solution. But if you don’t design it for poor people as customers, it will likely
never be adopted. The first step in design for the poor is identifying the critical
affordability price point at which poor people become willing to vote with their
feet to buy it. To me, that was the tragedy of the appropriate technology movement. E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful inspired thousands of gifted
people around the world. The tragedy is that the appropriate technology movement it inspired was implemented by technical tinkerers rather than hardheaded entrepreneurs who design for the marketplace.
If you think of the poor as recipients of charity instead of as customers, you
invariably design goods and services that are too expensive to be affordable for
them as customers. Effective tools have to be customer driven and market driven if they are to have any hope of being brought to scale. The key reason that
treadle pumps have had such a remarkably positive impact on poverty in many
countries is that their design was shaped and hardened by disciplined customer
feedback, and their marketing and distribution by the private sector around the
world was shaped by the poor customers who voted with their feet to buy them.
I applaud the success that Martin Fisher, Nick Moon, and KickStart have
had in helping more than 65,000 very poor families in Kenya and Tanzania
move increase their income by purchasing and installing treadle pumps, as well
as increasing the income of enterprises making, distributing and installing
them. Kickstart accomplished this by adapting the treadle pump technology
widely disseminated by IDE in Asia to the specific conditions of Kenya, and
establishing effective local private sector distribution and marketing systems.
As has now been thoroughly demonstrated in many developing countries, the
income-enhancing impact of treadle pumps comes not from the technology
alone. Rather, treadle pumps are effective because small farmers need affordable water control for their crops in order to switch from subsistence crops to
labor-intensive high value crops, like fruits and vegetables that they grow for
The impressive leverage KickStart obtained by using treadle pumps to stimulate increased smallholder income through growing and selling cash crops
mirrors IDE’s earlier experience in Asia. Here is an example of the leverage
innovations / Davos 2008 55
obtained from donor investments in IDE’s treadle pump program in
Bangladesh, which began in the mid-1980s.
Here is a brief overview of the remarkable global impact that the treadle
pumps, a single affordable irrigation technology, has had on the lives of poor
people worldwide. Since Gunnar Barnes and his colleagues at the Rangpur
Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS), supported by Lutheran World Service, introduced treadle pumps in Bangladesh in the late 1970s, and IDE launched its
global marketing and dissemination initiative in the 1980s, some 2.2 million
poor rural families in developing countries have purchased and installed trea56 innovations / World Economic Forum special edition
Table 2. Global Treadle Pump Sales
*IDE's TP project ended in Bangladesh in 2003 and in India in 2004, but private
sector sales in these countries continue
**Numbers compiled from EnterpriseWorks' website (www.enterpriseworks.org)
*** Personal communication, Ministry of Agriculture of Malawi, 2005. Another
80,000 pumps on on order.
A Practical Path to Increased Income
dle pumps. The impact of these treadle pumps on the net annual income of
smallholders exceeds US$220 million a year, not counting the increased income
of private sector supply chain enterprises making, selling, and drilling wells for
Because profitable private sector supply chains are designed to be the
instruments for putting the technology in the hands of small farmers, they continue doing so after formal project funding is terminated. The private sector
continues to sell and install 55,000 treadle pumps a year in Bangladesh and
India after IDE’s and development donors support for the program terminated. The multiplier impact on the economies of developing countries is already
in the range of $1 billion a year or more. All this is from one single affordable
water lifting technology customized for small farms!
Why has this single affordable small plot irrigation technology been so successful? Over the past 15 years, many people have told me that IDE was very
lucky to have stumbled on the treadle pump. They said that this is a unique
technology, and we will never find another one like it.
I totally disagree. I believe that the biggest impact of treadle pumps is not
the increase in income for the 5 to 10 million families in the world who are likely to install one. Instead, it lies in what we can learn from the treadle pump
experience that is applicable to ending the poverty of the 800 million people
who survive on less than a dollar a day, and earn their living from tiny farms.
A fact that has never been effectively incorporated into development theory and practice is the remarkably small size of the farms where most of the families who earn less than a dollar a day make their living. Farms under two
hectares represent 98 percent of the farms in China, 80 percent in India, 96 percent in Bangladesh, 88 percent in Indonesia, 95 percent in Vietnam, 87 percent
in Ethiopia, 74 percent in Nigeria, 75 percent in Tanzania, 90 percent in Egypt,
98 percent in Russia, and 99 percent in the Ukraine (Nagayets 2005).
More importantly, average farm sizes in developing countries have been
rapidly shrinking. Average farm size in China went from 0.6 ha in 1980 to 0.4
ha in 1990; in India from 2.3 ha to 1.4 ha between 1971 and 1995; and in
Ethiopia from 1.4 to 1.0 ha between 1977 and 2000 (Nagayets 2005). This is
average farm size. The size of farms where dollar-a-day people earn their living
is much smaller—closer to one acre divided into scattered quarter-acre plots.
If increasing the income of poor people is the first step out of poverty, then
the obvious place to start is to increase the income the 800 million or so people who now earn less than a dollar a day from one-acre farms. While most
small farmers put a high priority on growing enough food to keep their families from being hungry, the notion that they should grow surplus rice, wheat,
and corn for the market suggests that they should compete in the global marketplace with Western wheat farmers who farm 3,000 acres with combines and
generous government subsidies. This is clearly untenable.
innovations / Davos 2008 57
To take the first step out of poverty, one-acre farmers need to play to their
strength in the global marketplace, and that is the lowest labor rates in the
world. Their path to increased income is to grow marketplace-driven, highvalue, labor-intensive cash crops. This requires two things:
y Access to a whole new range of affordable small plot irrigation devices,
delivered by private sector supply chains.
y Access to markets for diversified high value cash crops, delivered by private sector value chains.
The treadle pump is only the first of a whole new range of affordable water
lifting, water storage, and water distribution technologies that need to be developed to fit the income generating needs of small farmers. For the past ten years,
IDE and others have worked to developed affordable small plot irrigation systems. Some 200,000 have already been purchased, and I believe there is a global market for at least 20 million of them. Other affordable small plot water
technologies likely to have very large global demand include affordable sprinkler systems, enclosed water storage units, efficient surface delivery systems,
and micro-diesel pumps. The most important thing that we can learn from the
treadle pump experience is how to design affordable, customer driven small
plot irrigation technologies, and how to deliver them in large numbers to small
farm customers through private sector supply chains.
During the late 1980s, when farmers who had installed treadle pumps in
Bangladesh did so well, everybody at IDE believed that all a small farmer needed to move out of poverty was to buy and install a treadle pump. At the height
of the integrated rural development movement I even wrote a paper called
“Segregated Rural Development,” which touted treadle pumps as the answer to
rural poverty. Later on, we found we could apply our intensive rural marketing
techniques to convince small farmers in the hills of Nepal to invest in low cost
drip-irrigation systems. But the farmers ended up not using them much, and
sales went down.
These were maize and millet farmers who had never grown vegetables, and
we had to implement a crash course in intensive horticulture to train them to
switch effectively from growing grain crops to producing off-season cucumbers
and cauliflower for the Kathmandu market. This made them a lot of money,
and sales of low cost drip systems took off. But farmers further away from the
road needed help to link up with traders who would buy their vegetables. This
made it clear to us that the process of generating new income for poor farmers
must start with an evaluation of the markets where they could sell what they
grow, and a recommended list of four or five high-value crops that farmers
could likely grow in their area, and sell in the markets they had access to.
I believe that 500 million of the 800 million dollar-a-day people in the
world who earn their living from farming could move out of poverty by switching to high-value, labor intensive crops, gaining access to the markets where
58 innovations / World Economic Forum special edition
A Practical Path to Increased Income
they can sell them through private sector value chains, and gaining access to the
affordable irrigation tools, seeds, fertilizer, and credit they need to grow them
through private sector supply chains. This is a far cry from a singular focus on
treadle pumps, but it is the remarkable global success of treadle pumps that has
opened the door to learning about the practical path to increased income for
millions of impoverished rural people.
Chapin, R., 1998. “Bucket Kits for Vegetable Gardens.” Chapin Watermatics.
Heierli, U. with Polak, P., 2003. “Poverty Alleviation as a Business.” Swiss Agency for Development
Islam, A.S.M. and Barnes, G., 1991. The Treadle pump: Manual Irrigation for Small Farmers in
Bangladesh. Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service.
Keller, J. et al., 2005. “New Low Cost Irrigation Technologies for Small Farms,” Proceedings of the
International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage (ICID). 19th International Congress on
Irrigation and Drainage. Beijing, September 10-18, Beijing, China.
Nanes, R, Calavito, L and Polak, P., 2003. Report of Feasibility Mission for Smallholder Irrigation in
Bangladesh. International Development Enterprises.
Nagayets, O., 2005. “Small Farms: Current Status and Key Trends,” background paper for the Future
of Small Farms Research Workshop, Wye College, June 26-29