Wealthy: Kickstart

Can a carpenter and an engineer lift Africa out of poverty?

Judging by the actions of Martin Fisher (who has a PhD in engineering) and Nick Moon (a former carpenter), that question can be answered with a resounding yes. The organization they founded, KickStart, helps design and implement business systems that allow rural Africans, for the first time ever, to rise above subsistence levels of income.

Mechanical engineers design and carpenters build, so it would be natural to guess that KickStart’s focus is on designing and building things that rural Africans could use. In fact, Fisher and Moon met each other doing just that. Working at a nonprofit in Kenya for five years, they helped design wells, build dams, and provide better farming equipment. The charity conducted workshops and training efforts to ensure that local citizens could put the infrastructure to good use.

But it didn’t work.

The pair discovered that technology, even when effectively used, is not enough. It has the potential to transform lives, but only as a building block in a much more encompassing approach—one that requires Big Picture Design.

In 1991, Fisher and Moon founded KickStart. It operates on a deceptively simple premise: poor people need more money. Simple, because of course poor people need more money. Deceptive, because there are many wrongheaded ways to try to make the poor wealthier.
Giving money directly would seem to have its merits, and certainly there are cases in which financial contributions have been quite successful. But the history of foreign aid, especially to Africa, shows that it has not lived up to its promise at all. Regions that are continually at war, that fill their coffers by selling their natural resources, that are ruled by greedy despots, or that are closed off from world markets because they are entirely landlocked—regions like these have problems that development aid, all alone, cannot address.

Educating schoolchildren would seem to be another no-brainer in combating poverty. And, in fact, much data support the relationship between a country’s average level of educational attainment and its wealth. But improving education is something that occurs over the long term. Unfortunately, it is not an immediate remedy for families struggling to find a meal tomorrow. Plus, providing improved education at a grand level is exceptionally challenging in its own right.

What about improving a region’s infrastructure? Once again, there is some merit here but not enough. For example, roads allow the rural poor to migrate to larger cities where there may be better opportunities. This provides an escape route for rural Chinese peasants, for example. But their exodus only improves the rural communities they came from because of the money they remit from better jobs they find in urban factories. The opportunities for relatively well-paying employment in cities, however, are not nearly as available for rural Africans. Plus remittances, though they provide a source of income to those left behind, do nothing to directly improve their capabilities and opportunities.

Maybe, then, making improvements in more local infrastructure could be the key to rural wealth: a community well, or tools for creating dwellings or other buildings, or machinery to make farming more productive. This is what Fisher and Moon were doing before they started KickStart. And it wasn’t working. Why?

Because no matter how valuable these improvements were, they were still simply physical technologies. In their design and manufacture, a critical element had been overlooked: they didn’t create opportunities for people to make money.

A dam or well might have been part of a system for providing water to a village, but because it belonged to the community, it effectively belonged to no one. People don’t wash rental cars, and rural African farmers wouldn’t maintain and repair a community-owned dam or well. It wasn’t “theirs.” And so the dam or well would fall into disrepair and eventually fail, no matter the value it provided.

Fisher and Moon took these lessons to heart. If the problem was that poor people needed more money, KickStart’s solution would be a market-based approach to development. In short, it would create technologies that entrepreneurs could use to make money.

Big Picture Design

Now, when they go to the drawing board, Fisher and Moon realize that they have to design much more than great technologies. They have to design business-delivery systems in which everyone makes money. And everything has to be taken into account.
KickStart’s design work begins by identifying profitable business opportunities for others—the rural entrepreneurs who can make money from running small-scale businesses. KickStart personnel then design the technology that these entrepreneurs will need to make a go of their business, plus the technology and manufacturing processes necessary to produce the technology for the entrepreneurs.

KickStart also designs the processes it thinks best for obtaining the raw materials it uses to manufacture its new technology, and for distributing these items to its customers. Often these methods create new business opportunities for local citizens at various points along the chain of supply and distribution.

But KickStart’s design work does not stop there. Even with superior products and effective ways to manufacture and deliver them, KickStart faces a major challenge: its customers-to-be don’t understand its technologies, because they may have never seen anything similar; they don’t perceive the opportunity to make money from using them; and even if they do, they don’t think they can afford them. So the most critical design work that KickStart performs ismarket development, which addresses each of these key issues.

The technology for which KickStart is best known may well be its micro-irrigation MoneyMaker pumps. Most rural Kenyan farmers live on farms not much bigger than a backyard in a suburban U.S. town. These farms are barely adequate for families to eke out a meager living.

But KickStart’s pumps have helped turn these farms into small businesses. Using a MoneyMaker, a farmer can obtain water from a stream or pond or obtain groundwater from beneath the surface (without drawing down the valuable water table) and pump it onto his farm. The reliability of a water source other than rainwater combined with the efficiency of the pump greatly improves the farm’s productivity. Farmers can now grow crops year-round, feeding their own families and selling the bulk of their crop to others. With irrigation, farmers can take advantage of market forces by growing water-hungry but high-value produce, as well as by bringing their crops to market in the off-season, when they fetch the highest prices. KickStart estimates that farmers can increase their earnings tenfold.

KickStart has designed other technologies  (but please remember, its work is much more than making physical devices), including oilseed presses to produce cooking oil, low-cost construction technologies for producing construction building blocks and roofing tiles, and manufacturing technologies to make latrine caps to improve public health and sanitation.

In addition to its all-encompassing approach to design, KickStart follows the principle of Big Picture Design in other ways: looking widely for appropriate technologies, modifying them as necessary, and coming up with brand new ideas when necessary. (Remember: steal shamelessly when you can, invent a new approach when you must.) The MoneyMaker pump is a case in point, illustrating how each of these efforts can lead to a suitable design.

The MoneyMaker was inspired by an American design that had been used for micro-irrigation in Bangladesh for ten years. The farmer operates the pump by standing on two treadles. If you are crafts-y, you may be familiar with treadle-powered weaving looms. If you’re into fitness, think of what you do on a StairMaster.

Fisher and Moon modified this design to make it better suited for Kenya. The original Bangladeshi pump was “suction only,” drawing water from the ground and emptying it into an irrigation channel. The much hillier Kenyan landscape demanded a pumping technology so that water could be sprayed uphill. Thus was born the Super-MoneyMaker, a pump that could pressurize and then spray water to heights of up to fifty feet. This more powerful pump allowed farmers to irrigate a wider area more quickly.

But just as some people with aching knees find a StairMaster too taxing, a number of Kenyan farmers couldn’t operate the MoneyMaker treadles easily enough. So KickStart designed a new technology, a hip pump. This model allows a farmer to swing her hips and throw more of her torso into the pumping action (many farmers are women), making the pump easier to use.

Making It Appropriate

Of course, these variations in design reflect another of the principles we saw with Enterprise for a Sustainable Design: Making It Appropriate.

Though the pumps were expensive for poor rural farmers, costing between $35 and $100, depending on the model, they were still within reach of many. And because they were human-powered, there was no need to pay for gas or electricity to drive them. Their expected payback of three to four months made them that much more financially attractive.

Still, because a pump would likely be the most expensive possession a farmer had ever owned, it had to be strong and durable to ensure that those who purchased it got value from it over time. Because the pumps weren’t being sold by Home Depot or any kind of storeremotely able to offer delivery, they had to be light and portable, too, and small enough to be easily stored.

The technology was also built to be ergonomic, with both treadle- and hip-powered models designed to use larger muscles so that the pump could be operated without injury and for long periods of time.

Thought was also given to making the pumps culturally appropriate. Because more than half the pumps would be operated by women entrepreneurs, treadles were designed as low to the ground as possible so that any provocative, rocking hip motion was not on display.

Making It Stick

Imagine someone trying to sell you an item you’ve never heard of before and don’t even understand, with the promise that it will make your life immeasurably better. It is, however, exorbitantly expensive. You have little money, and you’re extremely reluctant to risk what you have. What is more, when you research this product, you can’t find any information about it. And even if you decide you want it, you have to travel many hours to obtain it. Would you buy it?

This is more or less the situation KickStart faced when it began to sell its MoneyMaker line of pumps.

The very first hurdle in making the MoneyMaker stick was generating some initial sales. KickStart discovered that traveling demonstrations were vital to introducing the product. Seeing water sprayed from a pump may look like magic, but it is magic that sells: farmers can start to comprehend the advantages of this technology when they see it being used. When they try it themselves (would you buy an expensive new car without giving it a test drive?), they inch closer to a purchase. Making these demonstrations into festive events, even contests, enhances the pumps’ allure.

The Masai musician Mr. Ebbo even wrote and performed a rap video for KickStart titled “Don’t Wait for the Rain” that extols the virtues of MoneyMakers. Because KickStart already uses pickup trucks to import entertainment (demos, “pump-off” competitions, and actors who playfully promote products), the same rolling technology—a truck, outfitted with video projection capability—can allow Mr. Ebbo’s work to reach villagers who already enjoy rap music (really). You can see the video, with English subtitles, on YouTube. Lyrics include:

Stop complaining about rain shortages every day.
Nowadays the rains are no longer reliable.
Why wait for the rain when your crops are drying up?

Don’t wait for the rain.
There’s a pump called MoneyMaker.
It’s the best tool to end poverty.

It’s such a good pump that others try to copy it.
So take care when you buy one.
Make sure it has a serial number and
It comes with a one-year guarantee.

(I imagine it’s catchier in Swahili.)

KickStart also used other mechanisms to help smooth the risk of making such a major purchase. First, unlike an I-gotta-have-it iPhone or iPod, for instance, which cost a small fortune when they were introduced, the first MoneyMakers sold were no more expensive than the ones sold later. Second, pumps come with a one-year, money-back guarantee.

KickStart makes its products stick in another way, too, by embedding its business model firmly in the community. Not only do customers feel more comfortable buying from those they know, but KickStart wants to be sure that it can leave behind the right business infrastructure to sell its technology when it leaves a community.

KickStart is a nonprofit organization at the center of a web of for-profit activity, which it orchestrates. It designs the MoneyMakers and the tooling to produce them for mass production. Ordinarily, it provides this tooling to the best local factories, whose employees it then trains and supervises to make the pumps. KickStart initiates the distribution of pumps to consumers by buying the pumps from the factory, acting as a wholesaler, and then placing them in small retail shops. In other instances, it uses existing wholesalers. KickStart carefully chooses and develops the shops that are part of this supply chain.

A built-in aspect of this supply chain model is that everyone must make money on every sale, including KickStart. Small retail shops make a 20 percent profit on every pump they sell to farmers. KickStart (and wholesalers) have a similar profit margin on their sales to retailers. Factories have a 20 percent profit margin on every item they produce and sell for wholesale. For its part, KickStart uses part of its profit to help retailers finance the pumps they need to buy for their inventory.

The system rests on the principle that poor people need money, including the retailers and even wholesalers operating out of tiny “stores.” And, in this system, everyone makes money. Everyone values the opportunity. In these ways, the web of activity in distributing pumps was designed and successfully implemented to “Make It Stick.”

Making It Bigger

KickStart’s goal is to leave behind a profit-creating manufacturing and distribution infrastructure that provides technology to help lift vast numbers of rural farmers out of poverty. Its criteria for deciding what technologies to design and manufacture are that its goods appeal to thousands of rural farmers, that they be used locally, and that they cost at most a few hundred dollars with a three- to six-month payback. As a result, KickStart expects rapid market acceptance leading to wide-scale adoption.

To compensate for otherwise irregular inputs to production, KickStart developed manufacturing processes to ensure products were high quality, easy to assemble, durable, and easily maintained (pumps use no bolts, nuts, or other items that could rust and compromise the product’s integrity). It uses mass production in the best medium to large local factories to produce the quantities needed to hold down costs so that as many people can purchase and benefit from the pumps as possible. It is also exploring the benefits of manufacturing products more cheaply in China, and already does some manufacturing for export within Africa.

As we have already seen, KickStart added a more powerful pressurized pump and a less powerful, but less expensive, hip pump to its product line. Both of these variations were made in an effort to spread technology to a wider customer base with different needs and desires.

But probably the most important aspect of KickStart Making It Bigger is creating momentum for purchases, even at the outset. KickStart uses its nonprofit status to attract donor funds, which it uses to subsidize its own expenses in developing products. It then sells these products for affordable prices, even when they are not selling at volume when they are first introduced. (KickStart determines the selling price of items.) KickStart knows that after the market overcomes its initial hesitation, it will ultimately “tip” in favor of wide-scale acceptance and consumption, at which point subsidies will no longer be needed, KickStart having done the job it intended to do.

What KickStart most wants to “make bigger” is the impact it is having on people’s lives, something that it monitors continually. Its efforts at making, selling, and developing a supply chain for its micro-irrigation pumps have produced impressive results:

  • more than 150,000 pumps sold, most supporting profitable new businesses
  • more than 95,000 new enterprises created, including more than 400 retailers who sell pumps and related supplies
  • nearly half a million people moved out of poverty
  • almost $100 million in annual new profits and wages

In all, KickStart proves that being a social hybrid can produce robust results. This nonprofit organization cultivates and deeply depends on relationships with for-profit firms for its success. Its fundamental philosophy rests on creating healthy local markets, but it also acknowledges market failures and uses subsidies to overcome them. It works in undeveloped, low-tech environments where it combines local labor and resources with advanced design and manufacturing capabilities. It stresses the importance of generating income for locals in rural Africa, but it is willing to do manufacturing in China, where costs may be lower.

How can all these apparent contradictions result in anything coherent, let alone produce success? That is the strength of hybrids. And KickStart’s results speak for themselves.


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