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Activist Paul Polak Offers Low Tech Solutions for Hunger, Poverty


Social activist Paul Polak says simple technology can make small farms more efficient and relieve hunger and poverty in the developing world. Mike O'Sullivan reports that Polak, in his recent book called Out of Poverty, says affordable low-tech products can turn small-plot farms into profitable businesses.

Polak says the world food crisis has many causes, from drought and climate change to the diversion of food for bio-fuels. He adds that hunger has many solutions, including the use of high-yield grains and modern technology, which in recent decades have led to a surge in food production known as the Green Revolution.

But he says development agencies focus too much on high technology and big farms.

"What is not well appreciated is the huge role that small farms play in all of these issues," said Paul Polak. "There are 525 million farms in the world. Of those, 85 percent, some 450 million, are less than five acres in size, or two hectares. But all of the modern agricultural techniques, the technology, the tools, the tractors, farming methods like crop diversification and crop rotation, are based on large farms. That has to be changed to fit small farms."

Polak is a psychiatrist who practiced in Colorado for 23 years. He was drawn to the problem of poverty by working with poor patients, and began his development work in the early 1980s by interviewing small farmers in Bangladesh. He learned they needed tools to make their farming more efficient, and he created a nonprofit organization called International Development Enterprises to design and market simple, cheap technologies. They include a drip irrigation system that uses plastic bags, tubes and the power of gravity.

The organization also produces a foot-operated irrigation tool called a treadle pump.

"It costs $8," said Polak. "Installed on a tube, it costs $25. And when a farmer makes an investment, maybe part of that is borrowed, the average net return is $100 after expenses in the first year. So virtually everything we do is designed to give a 300 percent net return on the poor person's investment, and that way, they can leverage up."

Polak says 800 million subsistence farmers who earn less than $1 a day have a competitive advantage in the global market. They have the lowest labor rates in the world, so for them, human-powered tools are cost-efficient. He encourages these small farmers to grow grains as staples for their family, and then set aside a portion of their land to grow off-season fruits and vegetables, using simple irrigation. They can then sell this produce at a profit.

He says the approach is spreading in Africa and Asia, where jobs are created up and down the supply chain.

"We sold 1.5 million treadle pumps in Bangladesh," said Paul Polak. "Those were sold by a network of 75 local small workshops working to make a living, 2,000 or 3,000 village dealers, each of whom made a 12 percent margin on each treadle pump, and 2,000 and more well drillers who drill the wells and install the pumps on those wells, and they also earned a living by drilling these wells and installing treadle pumps."

Polak says poor farmers in the developing world have entrepreneurial skills, which they need in order to survive. But too often, he says, development agencies see the poor as objects of pity and not as potential customers.

He says businesses in the industrial world are also losing opportunities to be found in creating products that small-plot farmers need to feed their families and escape poverty.

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