In May 2001, we attended the preparatory workshop for establishing the SIMI Network (SDC, 2001) in Rüttihubelbad, near Bern, Switzerland. According to SIMI (Smallholder Irrigation Market Initiative): (1) smallholder irrigation technologies can make a difference for the poor; but this requires (2) making low-cost micro-irrigation technologies widely accessible through market creation. One of the many organizations represented was ApproTec, now KickStart. Nick Moon, co-founder of ApproTec and managing director of KickStart, made a strong case for taking marketing to the poor in rural Africa seriously in order to get the biggest possible “bang for the buck”.
KickStart is a social enterprise that sells low-cost, human- or animal-powered equipment for smallholders in Africa. It has offices in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali, and employs 235 people, most of them nationals. The range of equipment includes an oil press, animal-drawn farm equipment, a brick-making tool, but most of all human-powered irrigation pumps, especially treadle pumps. The original name of KickStart, ApproTec, indicates that it has its roots in the appropriate technology (AT) movement, which in turn was inspired by the alternative development vision of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. Contrary to many earlier AT initiatives, KickStart is very successful and has sold (!) over 200,000 pumps across Africa. Following favourable impact evaluations with regard to smallholder children’s school attendance, the IKEA Foundation has provided €6.88 million for KickStart to expand big time into southern Africa. Good luck!
La condition rurale
Most Africans (still) live in rural areas and are very poor. The rural dwellers are “organized” in extended families. These families generate just enough food and money to enable the survival of their members. Crop production is seasonal, like the rains, and so are other factors, such as labour demand and food prices. Most of these factors work against African farm families. It is relatively easy for development organizations to provide opportunities and improve the plight of the African smallholder or villager. Typically, this involves temporarily increasing the human, financial, or technical capital and creating some sort of demand. However, these boosts of the local economy are artificial and may even hurt local businesses by creating a “disabling environment” powered by subsidies.
The road to hell
… is paved with good intentions, which means that development initiatives [can] do bad things [i.e. fail] even though they intend the results to be good. With its “tough love” approach of selling the pumps instead of giving them away or subsidizing them, KickStart somehow reverses the saying. In a way, KickStart befriends both Fritz Schumacher and Adam Smith. The latter wrote that “by pursuing his own interest he [the enterprising individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” (The wealth of nations, book 4, chapter 2). As a warning Smith even adds: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” The foundational lesson, therefore, is for development organizations to take the narrow path by providing real opportunities instead of artificial ones. But that is not the end of aid!
Technology, value chain, & marketing
The success of KickStart has many causes, but three stand out. Succinctly formulated, successful technology marketing should make the best possible value proposition to purchasing smallholders by optimizing: (1) the technology; (2) the value chain; and (3) the marketing. Kickstart does so by developing and testing the prototypes in Africa, using design criteria for price, weight, and reliability to suit the “condition rurale”. The final products, though, are manufactured wherever prices are lower, industrial standards are upheld better, and quality is higher. In the case of KickStart this means that container loads of treadle pumps are manufactured in China and not in Africa or India. A good product must be promoted by good marketing and service. KickStart applies professional marketing using the media (especially radio) and demonstrations on agricultural fairs. In addition, its products have a 3-4 month payback period, come with a 1-year guarantee, and are supplied through a fine-meshed private-sector dealer network. KickStart also supplies to NGO’s in countries where it does not have a presence itself.
Last week we came across a recent interview with Nick. The interview was really well done, so we decided to analyse it for lessons that could be useful for smallholder irrigation technology marketing initiatives such as HIPPO’s. Hence this blog post. The original interview was published in Boiling Point, which is a journal for household energy in developing countries that mostly deals with stoves and solar energy. Issue 60 is dedicated to the theme of energy markets and enterprise development, which KickStart has been very successful at. Everybody should heed the lessons of KickStart that technology marketing to the poor is possible! However, without trying to downplay the success of KickStart, we know for sure that 70 W human-powered treadle pumps cannot replace properly designed 10 kW low-lift diesel pumps for irrigating 20 or 30-ha smallholder rice schemes in the Sahel, as recommended by the HIPPO Foundation. And finally, we have once written about treadle pumps in the paper Efficiency, cost, optimization and spread of spray irrigation in West Africa. And we have also written about the ten guiding principles for the marketing of affordable irrigation devices.