Fighting Poverty Through Better Design

Published: Oct. 31, 2016

By Mouncey Ferguson for Engineering.com

About Powering Agriculture

Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development supports the development and deployment of clean energy innovations that increase agriculture productivity and stimulate low carbon economic growth in the agriculture sector of developing countries to help end extreme poverty and extreme hunger.

Aid organizations in the developing world provide various forms of support. Some deliver goods or services, such as medicine and medical care. Others offer knowledge, such as occupational training and literacy. KickStart International, a nonprofit organization based in Kenya, offers a different kind of aid for those in need: good design that’s accessible to those who need it most.

Among the poor in sub-Saharan Africa, 80 percent are small-scale farmers who raise their crops on a seasonal cycle: they plant as the rainy season begins. That’s despite the fact that 40 million of them have access to natural water resources throughout the year. Commercial irrigation solutions depend on electricity or fossil fuels to run, so only an estimated four percent irrigate their crops. The result of this seasonal cycle is that these farmers all tend to bring their crops to market around the same time, when prices are lowest. The farmers earn the minimum for their labor and have no profits to reinvest.

KickStart’s solution has been to design, market, and sell high-quality, affordable irrigation pumps that run on power sources accessible to these farmers. Its most popular pumps are manually powered and it is in the process of developing a solar-powered pump as well.

“With our pumps, these farmers can grow crops during the dry season,” said Alan Spybey, director of product intelligence and development for KickStart International. “That enables them to bring their crops to market when other farmers can’t—when prices tend to be higher. Not only does that help with food supply during the dry season, it enables them to make a greater profit. The farmers can then invest that profit to expand their life choices, whether that means buying farming equipment, purchasing more land, or sending their children to a better school."

KickStart estimates that, by using one of its pumps, a farmer with access to water can double his or her income.

KickStart currently offers two products. The MoneyMaker Max is a treadle pump operated somewhat like a StairMaster. It retails across Africa for about $170, including hoses, and can irrigate up to two acres of land per day. The smaller MoneyMaker Hip Pump works like a bike pump with good ergonomics, retails for about $70, including hoses, and can irrigate up to just over an acre per day.

In addition to working on the solar pump, Spybey’s current focus is designing a new, starter hip pump that can retail for less—around $40—and deliver three-quarters of the flow rate with a similar energy input. This price point would put it within reach for millions more farmers on the continent.

Engineering Change

Spybey and his team face the same hurdles developing their products as any design team: creating the best products for their market at the lowest cost. “Efficiency is just as important for small-scale farmers as it is for a modern factory,” Spybey said. “Without improvements to efficiency, there’s no income growth, so people can’t get over the barrier of subsistence.”

The design challenges of the new starter pump were significant. “We needed to reduce the amount of materials used by half,” said Spybey. “That involved creating a smaller footplate, a smaller cylinder and a more compact valve box. We also had to go from welded steel plates to injection-molded plastics.”

The lower target price in turn required smaller-diameter hoses, but the water flowing through the smaller hoses encounters more friction, which slows it down. To maintain the flow rate it hoped for, KickStart needed to increase the efficiency of the valve box, so it would transfer manual input into more pumping power. To do this, the organization had to change the basic concept for the valve box and then study the flow efficiencies both with computational flow dynamics (CFD) software and practical tests.

KickStart products need to be extremely robust and continue working for years. For this reason, “we try to avoid small, loose parts on our designs, anything that can come off and get lost in the grass,” Spybey said. So instead of using nuts and bolts, for instance, Spybey and his team designed the valve box on the treadle pumps to be fully welded. Since the new pump wouldn’t be welded, the team integrated small parts into the injection-molded housing.

The team works hard to bring down costs any way it can. “We want to make the products as affordable as possible without sacrificing quality,” Spybey said.

When the team changed the treadle pump design from the Super MoneyMaker Plus to the MoneyMaker Max, it modified the shipping formation, nearly doubling the pumps that would fit in a 40-foot shipping container. That enabled the team to cut freight costs nearly in half. The team is also working on replacing low-tech aspects of its prototyping process. The first step of this process involves designing a component digitally using Autodesk Inventor or Autodesk Fusion 360—and this works extremely well. Then, a skilled machinist makes the mold by hand using a lathe, pillar drill and low-tech tools. It is this portion of the process that can take several weeks.

Workers changing the configuration of the KickStart MoneyMaker in order to fit twice as many pumps into a 40-foot shipping container

Spybey and his team changed the shipping configuration of the KickStart MoneyMaker Max treadle pump to fit twice as many pumps into a 40-foot shipping container, significantly reducing freight costs. Photo: Alan Spybey

The quality of the injection-molded components can vary significantly, making testing difficult. Plus, every time the team iterates the design to improve it, it has to wait several weeks to test a prototype.

To remedy this, the team is looking to install an SLA 3D printer within the next year with the support of the Autodesk Foundation. Since these printers use a waterproof polymer and produce a smooth surface, printed pieces can be used in prototypes immediately after curing. If the team needs to modify the design, it can change the digital model and print a new version in a day or two. “It will really accelerate the pace of innovation for us,” Spybey said.

Testing the Market

Kickstart International workers test a pump

Winfred Maingi prepares to test a starter pump while Dalmas Otieno stands by with a larger MoneyMaker Hip Pump. Both Maingi and Otieno are from KickStart International. Photo: KickStart International

The new starter pump is currently undergoing market testing. That means KickStart has built 75 pumps and is selling them through existing channels—plus using roadside promotion from a pickup truck—to get feedback directly from customers about both performance and perception. The organization will use this feedback to make another round of changes to the design. Spybey hopes the product will be in wide release by mid-2017.

Designing. Testing. Analyzing. Redesigning. Refining. Increasing efficiency of internal processes. Finding ways to save money through the supply chain. These are all the same tasks that any for-profit business must accomplish to create a successful product. The fact that KickStart is a non-profit doesn’t change that.

With its existing products, KickStart estimates that it has enabled more than a million people to work their way out of poverty.

With the new starter pump, it hopes to reach tens of millions more. Its solar-powered pump is still in the early stages of development. But one common theme connects all of KickStart’s efforts: helping those in need through better design—design that’s within reach for all.

Related News & Events: 
Mar. 15, 2017

KickStart and VisionFund have created an exciting new partnership that will offer farmers in sub-Saharan Africa access to credit needed to purchase and implement irrigation systems. Over the next five years, they hope to provide 100,000 farmers—and 400,000 children—greater access to water for crops.

KickStart International's Stanford Engineering Hero
Feb. 24, 2017

KickStart International's Dr. Martin Fisher was chosen as one of Stanford University's 2016 Engineering Heroes. He accepted his award on February 7th, and delivered a talk at Stanford University entitled "Engineering a Path Out of Poverty."