Five years ago, at the Aspen design summit, I said that 90% of the world’s designers spent all of their time addressing the needs of the richest 10% of the world’s customers. I also said that before I die I want to see that silly ratio turned on its head. What followed was an amazing sequence of events that included the creation of the traveling exhibit Design for the Other 90% at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum; the formation of D-Rev: Design Revolution, a Palo Alto based non-profit incubator for the design and mass market of radically affordable technologies; and earlier this year the launch of DR100, an initiative to create courses providing hands on experience with the ruthless pursuit of affordability in one hundred universities in the West and in developing countries. Last week, the Health section of the New York Times published a special issue called “Small Fixes” which described a rapidly growing movement applying the principles of Design for the Other 90% to biomedical technology.
All in all, the New York Times issue is very exciting for the Design Revolution movement, though it barely scratches the surface of what is needed. It exposes about 20 or so low-cost technologies to solve problems of global health in the developing world, some of which have the potential to make a big impact. But to push this further, we need a revolution in affordable on site testing for the basic major diseases.
In many cases of malaria in rural area clinics, if they are treated at all, the clinicians make a guess at which kind of malaria they are dealing with. The stage is set for better treatment with low cost testing for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that can be done at clinics on site. Beyond testing, we must not forget the need for techniques to ensure patient follow-through and completion of treatment. One exceptional example of this is an organization in India called Operation ASHA: a non-profit with a 97% completion rate in treating patients with tuberculosis. The Operation ASHA model uses a method called eDOTs to keep track of each patient with an electronic fingerprint tracking system that allows them to ensure no dose is missed.
Stanford’s Design for Extreme Affordability class has produced other good examples of biomedical technologies for poor customers, such as a 20-cent inhaler used by people in developing countries as an alternative to the expensive inhalers used in the West.
There has also been an increasing amount of work on creating a low cost computer. India recently announced the production of a $35 tablet computer for students (which costs $50 pre-subsidy); their goal is to get it down to $10. With the same energy, a $50 microscope could be invented, which would have a sizable impact on global health.
Biomedical technology is around a $10 billion industry, with the potential to be even more profitable. In the same way, radical affordability is a big business for developing countries. Just as we need a revolution in simple fixes for health issues, we need simple fixes for education, water, and energy. With the design revolution underway these are in the process of coming to fruition.
Viva la Revolución!
Paul In The News – New York Times Article: An Entrepreneur Creating Chances at a Better Life by Donald G. McNeil, Jr.
The 13,324 miles of canal system in Pakistan’s Sindh province irrigates 12 million acres of land. That’s a canal that’s long enough to cross the United States three times! This canal system and others like it make as significant a contribution to feeding the world’s growing population as the introduction of the green revolution’s miracle seeds.
But big canals come with big problems. Namely, rampant corruption, water wastage, numbingly inefficient operation and maintenance as well as millions of acres of productive land ruined through water logging and salinization. Because of water losses from evaporation, leakage, evaporation, poor operation and maintenance and prehistoric methods of flooding fields, most canals unfortunately end up delivering 60% or less of the water they were designed to deliver.
The poorer farmers at the tail end of the canal get the short end of the stick. They get less water less often. The bigger richer farmers at the head of the canal are not similarly afflicted, as they are able to use payoffs and political influence to get the lion’s share.
With three billion new people predicted on planet earth in 25 years I believe that the only option we have in the long run is to convert the majority of existing canal irrigation to more efficient sprinkler and drip.
But this presents a big challenge.
Big canals use complex rotation systems to deliver water to fields only every 12 days or so. Drip and sprinkler systems, however, need to apply water to plants every two to four days.
With the existing 12 day rotation and flood irrigation cycle, plants are waterlogged for a couple of days, have optimal moisture for a few days, and are then starved of water for the last few days until the next 12 day cycle repeats the process. Much like the demand feeding of infants, water delivered frequently by drip and sprinkler creates healthier plants, higher yields, and improved crop quality.
How can we bridge the water delivery gap in a way that favors the tail-enders and smaller farmers that have been getting the short end of the stick? The answer is simple.
The recent emergence of low cost small plot drip and sprinkler systems combined with low cost water storage makes it possible to deliver water to crops every two to four days, and at the same time provide disadvantaged tail-enders with a level playing field.
Every farmer with access to a canal can build a simple low cost water storage pond with a plastic liner. The farmer fills the pond every 12 days when the canal delivers water. Poor farmers use a low cost pressure treadle pump every three or four days to lift water from the pond into a low cost drip or sprinkler system that delivers it efficiently to their crops.
The beauty of this is that each farmer can design and build the right size of holding pond he needs, depending on the volume of water he receives from the canal, the time until the next canal water delivery, the acreage he plans to irrigate, and the water requirements of the crop. Best of all, since small plastic lined ponds and low cost drip and sprinkler systems are cheap, they can be installed by private sector entrepreneurs supported by credit, with savvy farmers earning at least twice their investment back in the first year.
By growing intensively cultivated diversified drip-irrigated off-season fruits and vegetables, tail-enders can earn $1,000 in net income from a quarter acre plot!
Applying the Design Revolution to the Woes of Big Canals
For example, a poor farmer at the tail end of a canal who gets water delivered every 30 days and decides to grow a quarter-acre of diversified off-season vegetables needs about three liters of water/day/sq meter in the dry season. To irrigate 1,000 sq m for 30 days requires 3,000 x 30 = about 90,000 liters of water storage. That’s a plastic lined pond about seven meters long, seven meters wide, and two meters deep. If he uses his own labor, he should be able to build it for about $200 (a plastic cover isn’t needed for short term storage).
Now I can already hear irrigation experts snickering about this shabby looking ugly duckling of a rustic pond lined with plastic – a good solid cement tank would be much more substantial! But the pond with the plastic liner is affordable and effective, even if it lasts three years instead of ten. And in three years the farmer will earn enough income to build a beautiful cement tank if he wants to.
In India, a drip system will cost about $100, and a pressure treadle pump about $40. The farmer should be able to build the whole system and plant his crop for $500 or less, and earn $1,000 in the first year if he or she has learned intensive horticulture. Access to credit will make the whole system sing.
Richer farmers at the head end of the canal can also benefit. They can now make the irrigation water they get go twice as far by building larger water storage ponds and installing larger conventional drip and sprinkler systems powered by electric and diesel pumps. But we need to implement safeguards that inhibit their arranging to get an even bigger share of water than they currently get.
Installing on-farm low-cost water storage combined with low cost drip and sprinkler irrigation will level the playing field for smaller, poorer farmers at the tail end of large canal systems. A parallel strategy can improve the yield and quality of crops grown by richer farmers as well. Converting canals to drip and sprinkler irrigation can double the crop and income produced by each drop of available irrigation water at a time that planet earth desperately needs practical solutions to rapidly escalating regional water shortages.
There are at least 50 million poor farmers who use sprinkling cans to irrigate quarter acre vegetable plots and sell what they grow to customers in cities and towns in Asia and Africa.
I have interviewed hundreds of them, and have no doubt that they can double or triple their incomes with access to improved affordable irrigation, farming methods, and access to markets.
Here is a case in point.
In August, 2009, Bob Nanes, (IDE Ghana), Sue Haley (IDE Africa) and I visited 14 sprinkling can farmers who produce
vegetables for the million or so people who live in Kumasi, Ghana.
Here’s what we learned.
Kumasi bucket farmers typically grow vegetables in swampy runoff areas that are too wet to build houses on.
They first cleared the land, and then built 1.5 ft deep hand dug drainage ditches, running on both sides of 3.5 ft wide raised beds, to drain the bogs
where they grow vegetables.
Irrigating by bucket is extremely labor intensive. To irrigate a quarter acre plot, a farmer has to spend seven hours a day every day to fill his sprinkling cans from a waterhole, carry the water to the raised beds, and then sprinkle the vegetables.
If they chose to hire labor to do this work, the going rate amounts to $50 (US) a month, or $150 for the three month dry season when vegetables command the highest price.
They sell their vegetables to wholesalers, usually women, who buy a whole raised bed of vegetables at a time and sell them to market stalls in Kumasi. Farmers earn $2-$6/day over the three months of the dry season for their work, and earn additional smaller income by growing vegetables outside of the dry season.
Doubling the Incomes of Kumasi Bucket Farmers
The key constraint to improving the livelihoods of the bucket farmers we talked with was the incredible labor requirements of sprinkling can irrigation.
There seems to be a fairly simple solution to this.
A simple quarter-acre low cost drip system with a gravity tank installed at the water source would cut the labor requirements from seven hours to one hour a day. The farmer would lift the water to fill the water gravity tank, and the drip system takes care of everything else, delivering the water uniformly to the plants. The $100 investment in the drip system would be repaid two or three times over in the first growing season from the savings in labor and improved crop yield and quality. After the first year, the farmer could use some of the profits to buy a treadle pump to lift water into the gravity tank, reducing labor costs even more.
Access to more land is available. With reduced labor costs, farmers told us they could either rent more land where they were already farming or further out from the city, where land is cheaper. The demand for vegetables in Kumasi far outstrips the supply. With the same7 hours of labor a day, they could produce vegetables on three times as much land, and triple both their crop and income in the dry season.
The same kind of opportunity exists for the 10 million or so sprinkling can farmers all over Sub Saharan Africa. In each location, sprinkling can farmers can take advantage of a different group of opportunities, depending on their circumstances. One group might double their income by using treadle pumps, another from better fertilizer, seeds and farming practices, and others might see their incomes grow from improved direct access to vegetable buyers.
The opportunities are limitless. The only thing that stands in the way of new found prosperity for sprinkling can farmers is limited access to affordable improved irrigation, farming and markets, and our continuing blind arrogance and ignorance about poverty at the grass roots.
How Sprinkle Can Farmers and 700 million Farmers like Them can move out of Poverty