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A water pump for the people

Inventor Martin Fisher designs easy irrigation tools for African farmers.

By Peter SmithCorrespondent for The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

As an aid worker in Africa, Martin Fisher says he saw a twofold problem: A lack of irrigation made it difficult for impoverished rural farmers to make money, and the irrigation pumps provided by many foreign aid programs lay broken and unused.

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“All too often we do more harm than good,” says Mr. Fisher. “I realized that when it comes down to it, a poor person has only one need: A way to make more money.”

Fisher, an aluminum expert by training, has developed a series of low-cost, manual water pumps that can be used to irrigate farms up to two acres in size. In turn, farmers can increase their yields and grow produce for market.

“It’s providing a tool. If that’s all it was that would be good,” says Erik Hersman, a South African expat who blogs about ingenuity on the continent at “But what Martin Fisher’s doing is he’s encouraging people to start a business – to be entrepreneurs.”

Sometimes, Mr. Hersman says, these tools and the money they create spur additional innovation and spin-off businesses, like pumping services.

Aid, not handouts
One of the more popular pumps Fisher has designed, the Super-MoneyMaker Pump, looks a little like a baby blue Stairmaster workout machine. When a farmer steps on the foot pedal, its pistons convert the stomp into a strong suction that can draw water uphill.

The pump’s durable, lightweight design is built with replaceable parts, and swapping in new pieces doesn’t require any tools.

“But, there’s no point in designing it if it can’t get to people,” Fisher says.

To distribute the pumps, he and his business partner, Nick Moon, established KickStart in 1991 (they later incorporated as a San Francisco-based nonprofit in 2001). The group now has offices in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali. It has 225 employees, all but six of whom grew up near the KickStart office where they work. There’s even a YouTube video promoting the tool. The pumps cost as little as $100, which Fisher says is the true market price, not subsidized by his group.

“We don’t give anybody anything,” he says. “It’s technology and the power of marketplace that can take people out of poverty. It’s really about the power of design and technology.”