Philanthropic judo

February 23, 2009


In Tanzania, five out of every six hectares of potential arable land goes unused through lack of irrigation (sources 1, 2). I met this woman back in 2005 at her farm in Arusha, at the base of Mount of Kilimanjaro, and even though the land around was parched, she was surrounded by greenery.

There is a fascinating story behind this, with design at its very heart.

Teach someone to fish…

0012345-R6-045-21Her water was drawn from a groundwell 20 feet deep, efficiently pumped up by her husband using this treadle pump: the Super MoneyMaker.

The pump is the brainchild of Martin Fisher and Nick Moon, the former an engineer and the latter a craftsman and entrepreneur, who together founded Kickstart in 1991 (formerly ApproTEC). Their aim was to create products which allow poor people in the developing world to start successful businesses.

The logic is working; by investing $35 to $100 in a pump, the average farmer can increase his income from $110 to $1,100 a year.

The result?

So far, 80,000 business have been started in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali. That means over 400,000 people lifted out of poverty. Astonishing, and based on a simple insight:

The Number One Need of the Poor is a Way to Make Money

“The Poor are Not Victims”

“To define people by their conditions rather than their qualities is dehumanizing. When you look past the poverty, you see abilities, resources, and desires. The poor are extremely hard-working and entrepreneurial–they must be just to survive. They don’t want or need to be rescued. They want an opportunity to create a better life for their families.”

From the Kickstart website’s lessons learned.

Right on. Often, the best way to help is to realise that the person in trouble has the will and the capacity to help themselves if given the right tools. The Kickstart website is very clear, concise and full of insights (particularly in explaining what they do), so I won’t go into too much detail here. I have nevertheless picked out three clues on how to make a lasting difference:

1 – Make sure everyone can get stuck in

Aid is commonly seen as a one way street, but it can be provided by creating a supply chain in which everyone involved benefits. On top of increasing the farmer’s income tenfold, the Super MoneyMaker pump (and replacement parts) also provides revenue to the factories that make them the distributors who transport them and the local traders who sell them. Everybody wins.


This takes care. When I visited in 2005 we were shown around a factory where half a dozen workers were assembling pumps using comparatively rudimentary equipment. Production has mostly moved to China now that Kickstart have improved the design and employed higher tech materials and techniques, but I am struck by the simplicity of a design which could be manufactured in a workshop like the one below. 

Just an aside; in this case the economics pointed towards lower cost, higher tech China, but what other designs could enrich a local economy by letting it produce them?

2 – Sell, don’t give

Kilimanjaro 160

By making the Super MoneyMaker a commercial product which costs up to a year’s salary, Kickstart provided a strong incentive to use it properly.

There is strong evidence that the price of a product affects how we perceive its quality (apparently, expensive wine tastes better). The purchase also acts as a form of commitment to the idea that the farmer will use this pump.

Kickstart say that “less than one-third of pumps given away are used to create a new enterprise.”

It is not easy to start a successful business. The cost of the pumps selects farmers with the entrepreneurial will to actually use them to lift them and their families out of poverty.

3 – Measure!

According to Kickstart, every buck invested leads to $15 of profits and wages on the ground. How do they know this?

“Every product comes with a one-year guarantee and every buyer fills out a guarantee form when they buy the product. The guarantee reduces the perceived risk of buying the product, and the forms give KickStart a database of all pump owners.”

“From this database, we select a statistically valid sample of recent purchasers. These customers are visited within a month of purchasing the products, before any impacts have been realized, then again at eighteen months, and again three-years after purchase.”


They then send teams of two (a man and a woman) to track down these customers. This is difficult as most farmers don’t even have addresses.

I can’t stress enough how crucial these measurements are.

In my last post I mentioned a story from Atul Gawande’s great book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. There is another remarkable story, about measurement. My brief paraphrase:

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease. It affects only a fraction of the population but is devastating if untreated, as it screws up the body’s ability to manage chloride; those affected cannot properly digest food and their lungs are slowly made useless by a thick, hardening mucosal sludge. Fifty years ago the average life expectancy for a child with this disease was a paltry 36 months – patients now live into their 40s (and perhaps longer).

The change was catalysed in the 1960s by a young pediatrician from Cleveland, called LeRoy Matthews, who claimed an annual mortality rate ten times lower than his peers. In response, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation commissionned a survey of every patient in the 31 treatment centers active in 1964. This confirmed the difference, and pushed other centers to follow his methods and eventually set up strict, national standards, leading to the dramatic improvement described above.

The monitoring has continued ever since, and in 2006 the field of cystic fibrosis became the first in medicine to fully open up the results of the 100+ centers who treat the disease in the US. Disclosing the top centers has allowed the others to improve yet another notch.

Designing careful measurements of success is one of the most easily overlooked aspects of the design process. It should not be as it forces you to ask the question: what does success look like?

The fundamental tenet of design is iteration, which is impossible unless you measure outcomes.

A bigger thought: problems can be their own solution

Kickstart should be studied for many reasons, but the main one is this: they transformed a system, charitable aid, which is draining and unsustainable for most involved, into one which feeds off itself. They saw the poor not as a black hole of necessity but as an engine for growth.

What other areas could benefit from this counterintuitive approach? Where else are we pouring energy into a system which could fuel itself?

  • Instead of seeing kids as antagonists to the teacher’s attempts at engagement, can schools find tools which make them the drivers of their own education?
  • How can communities harness the entrepreneurial abilities of their criminals to reduce crime?
  • How can we use people’s tendency to waste energy to solve our impending energy crisis?

Sometimes all you need is a great design to allow people to make the difference themselves.


We can all help – I didn’t know this until recently, but the MoneyMaker pump was originally designed by IDEO was involved in their original deep lift pump and is helping design the next generation MoneyMaker. Check out this TED talk by David Kelley from back in 2002 for more.

Another point: Kickstart is one of many great businesses in this space. Read about some of the others in the Design for the Other 90% exhibition site.

Designers should also check out Design Can Change, which looks at a few ways graphic designers in particular can make a difference.