and inventor Martin Fisher has applied his passion for improving things to the
challenge of eliminating poverty in rural Africa. As Maura Farrelly reports,
his non-profit organization is transforming the lives of thousands of poor
African farmers through a combination of technological innovation and business
When Martin Fisher completed his doctoral degree in mechanical
engineering at the prestigious Stanford University in northern California, he
had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. All he knew was that he didn't
want to teach or work for the government or oil industry – which is what
everyone else who graduated from his program back in 1985 was doing.
Fisher took a soul-searching trip to Peru and for the first time, really saw
what poverty means in a developing country. He recalls, "I started
thinking maybe there's something that can be done with engineering and
came back to the United States and applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to return
to Peru. Because he didn't speak Spanish, he didn't get the fellowship. But the
Fulbright committee decided to send him to Kenya instead. Fisher initially
planned on spending just ten months there. He ended up staying for 17 years.
from the effort to relieve poverty
During his first five years, he worked for a British non-profit
agency and, he says, learned a lot about what doesn't work. "One of the
things I did was establish a very large rural water program, where we went into
villages, and we would build a well and put a pump on it and get nice, clean
water. It looks like a great project; everybody celebrates. The trouble is, you
come back a couple of years later, the pump is broken down." Although it
was a community resource, no one would take the individual responsibility for
fixing it. "Africa is literally littered with tens of thousands of
broken-down community water systems."
conclusion Fisher came to is that charity doesn't work – at least not in
circumstances like this. People need to feel a sense of individual ownership
over the technology that makes their lives better – and just giving a pump to
an entire group of people isn't going to do that.
Fisher says he learned another important lesson during
his first five years in Kenya. "A poor person's number one need – and in
fact their only need – is a way to make more money. If a poor person can make
more money, they're no longer poor, they can afford education, they can afford
healthcare, they can afford clean water."
so with those two lessons learned, Martin Fisher and his colleague, Nick Moon,
set out in 1991 to found KickStart. It's a non-profit organization that
develops agricultural technology that is then bought and sold by entrepreneurs
in Kenya and Tanzania.
ingredients for starting a business
The organization's biggest success story is something
called the Money Maker Pump. It's a human-powered irrigation system that can
pull water up from as deep as 7 meters underground – and then irrigate one
hectare of land. There's also something called the Super Money Maker Pump. It's
a little more expensive, but it can actually pull water uphill, making it ideal
for steeply sloping land where the water source may be at the bottom.
percent of the people in Africa are poor, rural farmers," Fisher observes.
"And the best business that they can start is to move from subsistence
farming – where they basically wait for the rain once a year, or maybe twice a
year, and they grow a staple crop – move away from that to commercial irrigated
farming, where suddenly with irrigation, they can grow high-value crops like
fruits and vegetables throughout the year and, most importantly, bring them out
in the long dry season, when nobody else has any crops, and the prices are
very, very high."
pumps cost around $34 – which is a lot of money for a poor farmer living on
just $500 a year. But the typical farmer's income increases to about $1,500 a
year after purchasing the pump, and there are also 550 local retailers in
Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali who are profiting off the sale of these pumps.
of poverty, into new possibilities
Martin Fisher says these farmers and retailers are no longer living just
day-to-day, which he says is the definition of being out of poverty.
"You're no longer worried about the daily expenses, but you can actually
think about the future. So what do people do? They send their kids on to
secondary school, on to college. They invest in other businesses; they'll buy a
cow and start a small dairy. We've got 10,000 families that have built new
houses. People have bought solar panels. And for the first time, like I say,
they actually have the options to do those things, and they're literally out of
Fisher's KickStart program has also developed technologies for low-cost housing
construction and cooking-oil manufacturing. All together, 64,000 new businesses
have been started in Africa thanks to KickStart, and these businesses generate
about $79 million a year in new profits and wages.
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