Paul Polak – developing products for 'the other 90 percent' of humanity

He listened first, then designed products for the world's poorest people long before the term 'social entrepreneur' came into use.

By , Dowser.org

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    Paul Polak has been the Johnny Appleseed of many ideas now used by the poorest of the poor around the world. They include the treadle pump, a simple irrigation device that's enabled millions of $1-a-day rural farmers in places such as Bangladesh and Zambia to produce bigger crops.
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  • Go spend time with your new market. Understand their needs. Do not presuppose that you know the answer.
  • Multinationals can play a role in this. It's about collaborating. They can contribute to the development of millions of people's lives by offering them goods and services they need at a price they can afford. But they have to design for the BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid) to do so.
  • Don't give it away. Giving away doesn't help. There's not enough money in the world to just keep on giving endlessly.
  • Market approaches work better. So, build a product for your market that they'll want to purchase.

Paul Polak designs rarely go beyond $40. They're a bargain, but not for you and me – they're a bargain designed for the millions of people who are now categorized as the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP).

His latest project will help change the distribution of clean water in eastern India.

Polak is anything but a rookie or new-found social entrepreneur. He's been at this challenge for decades. Polak set up IDE, International Development Enterprises, in 1981, seeking solutions through business and innovation for the BoP. His work led him to interview over thousands of families and entrepreneurs in the developing world (over 3,000 if you're counting). In fact, in chatting with Paul, he highlights that it was those discussions that led him to build some of his best innovations.

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In 2008, he founded D-Rev, short for Design Revolution. D-Rev takes the talent of some of the best designers and focuses it on developing products for the "other 90 percent." Polak also sits at the helm of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture that does similar work and aspires to revolutionize the way companies look at the BoP.

He's eager to get multinationals to look at the BoP as a potential customer base and a fair market for products and services; this requires that multinational corporations design products specifically for the BoP, not just slightly tweaking current designs.

Polak's been doing this work long before the term "social entrepreneur" became mainstream. He's a 30-year veteran who’s traveled endlessly from his Colorado home to interact with his customers.

And that's where he does most of his learning and product development, he says.

These days, water has been the focus of Polak's attention. Water, though, is one of the most difficult markets. There are privatized water companies, public water utility boards, and a hybrid of the two, all trying to solve water-access issues. Yet, many – a full 2.5 billion people around the globe – still lack access to clean water, which is often the underlying cause of diseases in the developing world.

Polak has devised a new design to reach those who have no affordable supply of clean water. His testing ground is the eastern state of Orissa in India, which he recently visited, to work with his Indian colleagues and partners. The model here relies on local kiosks, or store fronts, that are centralized locations for locals to pick up a liter of water, cleaned through a chlorination process. And with the help of a branding campaign, they'll be able to create a uniform approach to the kiosks and the home delivery system.

Polak's created another bargain here. For 2 Rs (four US cents) you can purchase 10 liters of purified, safe, clean drinking water. And that's certainly in the price range for many. For those who can spend a bit more and would like it delivered to their homes, Polak has provided that option as well.

The necessity of delivering water originated out of Polak's experience in the field and wasn’t just about a matter of convenience. He learned that some members of this community may not want water from the source because it has been used by an untouchable.

Untouchables sit at the bottom of the Hindi caste system and are considered unclean; according to such beliefs, physical contact with an untouchable and his belongings should be avoided. Polak was surprised and quickly realized that if the source was going to be a central purifying plant, this could be a cultural challenge difficult to overcome.

So, for those individuals, Polak and his colleagues devised a delivery system, which would be a better option than not having access to any water. Such social details, Polak explains, can only be determined if you're deeply involved and understanding of the community that you're working in.

That’s why he urges young entrepreneurs to step beyond the classroom. For him, early travels in Bangladesh and Nepal disclosed the struggles of the millions of one-acre farmers in the world and led him to build pumps and irrigation devices custom-designed for their needs. Those first-hand accounts have been the driving force of Polak’s work and what, he says, will be the focus of his life in years to come.

To learn more about Polak’s most recent venture in water and his thoughts on market-based solutions, check out his speech at TED.

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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