Interview with Kickstart: making the anti-poverty pump

March 11, 2009

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A few weeks ago I wrote about Kickstart, the innovative company which has already helped half a million poor African people to lift themselves out of poverty. By designing products like the SuperMoneyMaker pump and selling them instead of giving them away, they make sure that 80% of them are used to start businesses, which does two thing: 1) it takes the average farmer’s income from $110 dollars to $1100 a year and 2) absolutely flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Wonderful!

After the post the great folks there got in touch and Ken Weimar, Senior Development Officer at Kickstart agreed to answer a few questions. Read on below.

The tools to end poverty.

Raphael D’Amico: What Kickstart brings to poor communities is tools which allow them to help themselves, so the design is all important.  When you and your designers were creating these tools for poor African farmers, what preconceptions (Western or otherwise) got in the way? How did you get into the minds of your future customers?

Ken Weimar: Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome was the very western idea of tools and technology to save time and labor.   Saving labor is good, right?  Well not if that “labor” is someone’s job.  We love to save time because it feels so scarce and precious.   But in the developing world, time and labor are a poor person’s greatest assets—they have them in abundance and they can be quite valuable. That’s why our designs are focused on turning time and labor into cash rather than “saving” them.

R: How did you involve locals in the design process? 

K: This was a team effort and our team is mostly  Kenyan engineers and craftsmen.    As a bunch of guys our first approach was to make the pump as powerful as possible and that meant long treadles.  But we quickly found that women did not like that.  The bigger stride required by the longer pedals is hard to do when you are wearing a skirt.  Plus the longer treadles meant the users backside was elevated to about eye level and women thought it unseemly.   So we reconfigured the treadles, stepping them down to keep the user lower to the ground, and went to work to increase the power with a more efficient valve design.

R: Was there any local design ability?

K: Yes, of course.  There is a tremendous amount of creativity born out of hardship. It is amazing to see how creatively EVERYTHING in Africa is reused.  We have a whole team of locals in our Tech Development department.   Some are trained engineers, others are skilled fabricators. In Africa we have creative craftsmen and tinkerers, and we have trained engineers.  What we are missing are the entrepreneurial inventors who can create the tool or technology that can be widely adopted.

R: What made you pick IDEO as a collaborator?

K: Martin has  known David and Tim for a long time and has a great deal of respect for the work they’ve done in creating the Design School at Stanford.  Any engineer could do the calculations we need, but I think IDEO shares our vision and loves to work around the challenges.  A lot of people would have been stumped by the limitations of the raw materials and processes available to us in East Africa.  IDEO jumped in with us and said, “OK, we know the limitations, let’s work around them.”

R: What were the characteristics of your most successful designers?

K: Tenacity, of course, is a needed in any good designer.  But you said “successful” so let’s interpret that to mean that a design gets widely adopted and used and maybe even changes the way we live.  To be successful then means thinking way beyond the design of the “thing”.  Creating a new machine is the easiest part (and this is plenty hard).  But you have to be able to understand the economics, you need to be thinking about how is my “thing” going to get from my workbench to a factory to a store and ultimately into the hands of a consumer.  And you need to be able to design these systems as you are working on the design of the thing.

R: In 2005 I had the privilege of visiting one the workshops where the MoneyMaker was being made. How many others like it were there, and what made you move production to China?

K: If you saw our factory, you saw one of the most advanced manufacturing plants in Africa.  And I am sure you recall it was pretty primitive.   You want a design challenge?  How about this:  you are trying to create a design that can be mass produced locally, but the raw materials can vary as much as 10% in dimensions from one batch to another.  Manufacturing in China opens so many more options for manufacturing that just don’t exist in Kenya.  We can also ship to anywhere in the world more easily from China.  Like everyone else, we can manufacture more cheaply in China, which means we become more self sufficient.

Of course everyone asks about creating jobs.   Well, we’ve created maybe 50-75  jobs in the manufacturing of our pumps, and over 100,000 jobs through the use of our pumps.  Helps put that decision in perspective.

R: The most impressive thing about Kickstart is the way you’ve flipped the traditional view of aid – instead of seeing the poor as a burden to carry, you’ve realised that they can help themselves, why is why you charge for the MoneyMaker pump and created a supply chain where everyone benefits.

K: Thank you, yes! It is about sustainability.  Everyone uses that term differently and often to mean “when are you going to stop asking me for money”.   It’s a valid question but not the most important.  The most important measure of sustainability is “will the people who are helped, stay helped?”  The next is “can additional people avail themselves of this solution without additional cost to the donor?”  That is the beauty of and the importance of the supply chain.  As long as there is demand, and each player makes a profit, our pumps (or anything distributed this way) will be available to everyone who wants one.

R: How did you develop this approach? Did you try any others before this one?

K: Oh yes indeed.  Nick Moon and Martin worked on every kind of development/aid programme you could imagine.  They were both were idealistic young guys and went to Africa wanting to make things better.  They built schools and ran training programs and built factories and installed huge water systems and not a single one of their projects lasted more than a few years past the end of our involvement.

Perhaps the first lesson they learned what that giveaways don’t work—not because the recipients are ungrateful, but because we tend to give away what we want to give rather than what is actually needed.

R: How did you go about creating this sustainable system? What were the challenges?

K: It wasn’t easy.  We wanted our pumps in Agro-Vet stores that sell other ag inputs.  Makes sense right?  Well not many were interested at first.  These were new and so much more expensive than anything they ever sold.  Our first retailers were butchers and hairdressers.  But the bigger challenge is getting funders to understand what we are trying to do and how building this supply chain means real sustainability.

R: Was there any cultural resistance as you went up against traditional methods?

K: God yes!  There still is!  There may have been some farmers who thought “if I wait around long enough they’ll just give it to me,” but the bigger cultural resistance was (and to a large degree still is) from the traditional aid organizations.    They think we are unfair to make people invest in themselves.  They think we are simplistic for insisting that the cause of poverty, the very definition of poverty, is not having enough money.

There is always the challenge of dealing with silos.  We get grouped with a bunch of different organizations but don’t really fit neatly in these categories.  For instance, we work with farmers and within the AG sector, but for us , Ag is an economic engine for income generation.  We get grouped with the water sector because we make pumps but for us pumps are  a means to an end.  And we get grouped with the new technology for the developing world group, and we have a lot of friends here, but again our technology has the very specific purpose of generating income, where most other technologies are about reducing a burden of some sort.   The upside is that we have a lot of friends in a lot of sectors, and even if we can’t collaborate, it’s exciting and energizing to talk with other social entrepreneurs.

The downside is that we always seem to be about ten degrees off plumb with major funders.  That is the challenge of being the innovator, the first mover, the leading edge…it takes a while for the world to catch up with you!

R: Where do you see Kickstart going next? 

K: We have just scratched the surface on what is possible with our pumps.  There is a worldwide potential for over 40 million pumps and we’ve sold 125,000.  There is a lot of room for growth.  We’ve got some allied technology, like a pretty effective well-drilling technology that we’d love to get out on the market, and I’ve got a few other ideas I’d love to pursue, but for the foreseeable future, KickStart will continue to be about irrigation.

R: Finally, I wonder if there are other situations which are waiting for this kind of turnaround. Crudely speaking, your products act as a catalyst which allow a community to use the same resources they had before to reach a higher standard of living, which would could otherwise only achieve by pumping money and aid from outside. Everybody wins when this happens – the community get better off and the resources which would previously have been diverted to helping them can go to help another. In business you would crudely call this turning a cost center into a revenue center. 

K: We changed our name from ApproTEC (appropriate technology for enterprise creation) to KickStart because KickStart really captures what we are trying to do—to stimulate economic growth.  A lot of people think that these farmers climb up to some plateau and stay there.  In reality, these people continue on this upwards spiral of prosperity—growing their businesses, diversifying, creating jobs and hiring.  So yes, there is a ripple effect.

The ripple effect we talk about though is better governance.  A fundamental problem in Africa is bad governance.  To be fair, think about where the US was 40 or 60 years post independence—we were heading into a horrible civil war that nearly destroyed our country, so we need to keep post-colonial Africa in perspective.  But in these nominal democracies, you can buy a vote for a handful of rice because people are starving.  But when I have enough money to feed my family you can buy my support for dollar.  When I’m not worried about basic survival, I can start demanding things like roads and schools and electricity and you, as a politician had better deliver or get voted out.  That’s how an entrepreneurial middle class brings better governance.  Not the other way around.

R: I’m sure this could be done elsewhere. For example, schools often see controlling kids as a necessity, hence costly investment in attendance tracking software and reporting of discipline. Maybe there is a product out there that would cast this in another light.

Have you seen any other areas ripe for this kind of shift? 

K: Absolutely.  There are so many goods and services that we want to give away for free that could be provided far more sustainably through the marketplace.  We’ve long championed the idea of franchised, for-profit schools in Africa and our friend Jay Kimmelman is doing just that.  Bridge International Academies will provide a higher quality education for less than what parents might pay to send their kids to public schools.

Medical care is another.  In Kenya (and in most of Africa) the “free” public clinics are so underfunded that you have to bribe doctors and nurses to get care.  Or people pay witchdoctors or charlatans for ineffective or dangerous care.  Imagine if that for less what you would pay for a bribe, you could buy decent care and real medicines.   Our friends at SHEF in Kenya had done some of this and work and others are taking the idea to the next level.

I know, some people recoil in horror to think about asking poor people to pay for things like medical care or education.  But without a tax base these will always be dependent on external donor funding and is that really the model we want to continue?  And think for just one moment about how it would feel if everything in your life was provided by some donor—your food, your clothing, your house, your church, your medicine.  Is there anything “empowering” about that? 

R: What lessons from solving poverty would you apply back to the first world?

K: We’ve always said that solving poverty is Africa is so much easier than solving poverty in America or the UK or Europe.   In the developed world, maybe 10% of the population is a permanent underclass.  These are the people with serious mental health and substance abuse issues who need a lot of “wrap around” services to get to a basic functional level.

 In Africa, 80% of the people are poor.    Within that 80% are all of the people who would have been solidly middle class had they been born elsewhere.  More importantly, within that 80% are the people who would have been doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.  These people still have the same basic intelligence and the same drive and determination.  They just happen to live in a place where there are few opportunities.

No matter where in the world you live, poverty is about money and income (specifically the lack thereof)

Thanks for the great interview and I wish the best of luck to Kickstart getting a pump into the hands of the 40 million farmers and families who need them! 

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