Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Start Here To Save The World

What this is about: Specific advice for everyone who wants to end poverty.

Who this is about: Paul Polak and IDE (International Development Enterprises).

Paul Polak and IDE use a market-based approach to attack poverty. This idea is based on Polak's belief that people are willing to better themselves and their families if they have the chance, and more importantly, that they are eager to do this.

IDE is focused mainly on agricultural issues, things like simple and cheap technologies. Like the treadle pump, drip irrigation, water storage, rice fertilizer, and donkey carts. These sound rudimentary and too simple and plain to do any good, but the truth is the opposite of that.

Paul Polak was born and raised in Canada. He earned an M.D. degree in 1958 and had a psychiatric practice in Colorado for 23 years, but for the past 25 years he has worked with farmers in countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe. What he does is to help design and produce low cost income-generating products for the poor.

Polak's way of thinking changed while he worked with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver. Instead of sitting in his office and taking notes, seeing patients on an intermittent basis, he went out to experience their realities with them, in their own environments. Polak discovered that while many of these people had strange life styles, they were pretty smart in dealing with the realities of their lives. A lot smarter than people usually gave them credit for. And a lot of what they did made sense.

As the old joke goes "I may be crazy but I'm not stupid."

After a trip Polak made to Bangladesh he became intrigued by the possibility of working with the roughly one billion people living on a dollar a day, the poorest of the poor. As he had with his patients in Denver, he found that "walking with farmers through their one-acre farms and enjoying a cup of tea with their families, sitting on a stool in front of their thatched-roof mud and wattle homes" gave him an unusual insight, and a new perspective on poverty.

For example, while visiting one of his first contacts, a farmer, Polak asked what the man would need to get out of poverty. The man replied that he needed more money.

Obviously.

But that led to a discussion of some simple things. Not gigantic dams and hydroelectric projects, not massive amounts of road building, not new universities to train agronomists. The man needed a little water and a way to grow cash crops during the dry season -- crops that he could sell for three times what he could normally make.

Polak's innovations include the $25 treadle pump and small drip irrigation systems that may cost no more than three dollars. Things like this have helped IDE increase the income of poor farmers by $288 million every year. And since these are people starting out a dollar or two a day, a few hundred extra dollars every year makes a huge difference.

IDE, International Development Enterprises, is a non-profit organization that Polak founded and currently heads as president. IDE finds ways to make low cost water-resource technologies accessible to the world's poorest farmers. This enables them to get and control water, increase yields and diversify their crops, create wealth for and by themselves, and improve the quality of life for their families.

In 2003: Polak was named a recipient of Scientific American magazine's Top Fifty award for his leadership in agriculture policy.

In 2004: Polak received Ernst and Young's "Entrepreneur of the Year" award in the social responsibility category, and the Tech Museum award for the design of IDE's low-cost drip irrigation system.

In 2006: IDE received a $14 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

IDE's accomplishments:

  • Treadle pump. This is a small and cheap device which allows poor farmers to pump water from shallow wells. It can be foot powered or hooked up to a small engine if available. It can be manufactured locally with minimal skills, and so provide the base for a local manufacturing industry.
  • Drip irrigation. Even if water is available it often has to be carried by bucket to the fields. Even for a small field within a hundred feet of water this is strenuous work and can take all day. Besides this, most of the water can evaporate even before it gets to the crops. "Normal" drip irrigation systems cost tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A cheap and simple system made from a barrel and plastic hose can adequately serve small farmers.
  • Water storage. Many places around the world have a wet season and a dry season. High-value, in-demand cash crops grown during the dry season can pull whole families out of poverty, but they need a way to store monsoon rains. Something as simple as a pit lined with plastic sheeting can do the job. Two hundred thousand liters of water can irrigate a quarter acre for over three months and may generate $500 in net income. This can more than double a family's annual income.
  • Rice fertilizer. "Green revolution" crops depend on proprietary varieties of seed, on insecticides, and on massive amounts of fertilizer. Even traditional crop varieties need fertilizer, but much of its nitrogen can escape into the air with no useful effect. IDE developed sustained release urea granules which only slowly give up their valuable nitrogen. These are hand placed near individual plants. Little nitrogen is lost. Even poorer families can begin collecting their own urine for fertilizing vegetables. Properly diluted with water, urine fed to crops through a drip irrigation system makes a great fertilizer. And it is free.
  • Donkey carts. In an area of Somalia bereft of passable roads, IDE trained local blacksmiths to make a simple and durable cart that rolled efficiently on automobile bearings and was capable of hauling half a ton of supplies. Carts like this could be pulled by an donkey or even a cow. They cost $450 but provided a net return of $200 per month and were nearly immune to mud, obstacles, potholes, washouts, or damage.


In process at IDE:

  • Microdiesel water pump. At a $100 cost, and putting out a quarter horsepower, a diesel powered pump is affordable to millions of farmers and would last nearly forever. It is the ideal size for a one acre farm. Current pumps, starting at two horsepower, are too large and expensive.
  • $15 scythe. Light, strong modern materials like fiberglass, combined with modern metallurgy could provide a cheap and effective tool to replace stoop harvesting with sickles, still used by many small-acreage farmers around the world.
  • Steam distillation units. At $1500 to $5000, these are more expensive, but steam distillation is a simple and effective way to extract essential oils from plants and flowers. One of these units could serve a whole village, and help shift farmers from growing opium poppies for the drug trade to growing roses for perfumeries.
  • Gassifier furnace. Much crop processing depends on heat. Gassifiers drive combustible substances from anything burnable and make them available for clean and efficient burning in the form of smoke. A $50 gassifier could provide heat for drying crops or for any of the other heat-based processes handy for a farmer or even a whole village.

So what can the rest of us do? According to Polak, start the way he did.

First, he recommends his book. This is normal. I got a copy from my local library, free.

He also recommends that no one pity the poor, but instead to learn about anyone who might be in need and find out what they actually need to better themselves, and to invest in local businesses serving the poor. He has a couple of good examples, one from the San Luis Valley in Colorado, and another from Navajo land, not far away.

In the San Luis area, "I learned that potatoes, one of the most economically important crops grown there, were trucked out of the San Luis Valley to Texas, where they were repackaged in five pound bags, trucked back to San Luis Valley grocery stores, and sold." Why not process them locally and cut out the shipping costs?

"In one region of the Navajo Nation where the borders of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, I met a remarkable Navajo entrepreneur who processes and packages steamed corn and other corn products" that he sells "to Navajo customers all over the United States." Why couldn't there be "hundreds of Navajos using low-cost drip irrigation and intensive horticulture to create and market a variety of branded culturally important high-value agricultural products?"

Good question.


References:

Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail

Paul Polak's Out of Poverty website

IDE - Enabling Prosperity: To help the world's poorest citizens through formal and informal relationships with governments, private enterprises, NGOs, inventors and others. IDE recognizes that the best way to have sustainable, truly effective projects is by collaborating with like-minded organizations to leverage strengths.

D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%: To create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90% of the people on Earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty.

Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center: Alleviates poverty and malnutrition in the developing world through the increased production and consumption of safe vegetables.

Consultive Group on International Agricultural Research: A strategic alliance of members, partners and international agricultural centers that uses science to benefit the poor.

Engineers Without Borders: A non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide to improve their quality of life. This partnership involves implementing sustainable engineering projects while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students.

EnterpriseWorks/VITA (EWV): An international not-profit organization working to combat poverty through economic development programs based on sustainable, enterprise-oriented solutions. EWV has worked with local businesses and organizations for more than 40 years in 100 countries.

Helvetas: Oriented expressly not only towards material needs, such as procuring food, improving living conditions, increasing production and income and strengtheninginfrastructures. Equally important are immaterial needs -- that is, social, cultural, and spiritual ones. These include overcoming paralyzing dependence, reducing inequality, building self-confidence and strengthening responsibility towards other human beings and the environment.

International Food Policy Research Institute: Works to provide policy solutions that cut hunger and malnutrition. This mission flows from the CGIAR mission (see below): "To achieve sustainable food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through scientific research and research-related activities in the fields of agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries, policy and natural resources management."

International Water Management Institution: Works to improve the management of land and water resources for food, livelihoods and nature.

KickStart: A non-profit organization that develops and markets new technologies in Africa. These low-cost technologies are bought by local entrepreneurs and used to establish highly profitable new small businesses. They create new jobs and wealth, enabling the poor to climb out of poverty forever.

Lutheran World Service: Has a Department for Mission and Development (DMD) that works with member churches to create, maintain and develop ministries that integrate proclamation, service and advocacy for justice. Church leaders and workers, clergy and lay, are trained for witness and ministry through LWF sponsorship.

Mercy Corps: Exists to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities.

RDRS Bangladesh: A national humanitarian and development NGO that has operated since 1972 in association with LWF/DWS Geneva and its Related Agencies.

Winrock International: A non-profit organization that works with people in the United States and around the world to increase economic opportunity, sustain natural resources, and protect the environment.

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