Accessibility links

Breaking News

Engineer, Inventor, Capitalist Martin Fisher, Soldier in Fight against Global Poverty

Engineer 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 development.

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.

Instead, 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 poverty."

He 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.

Lessons 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."

The 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."

And 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.

Providing 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.

"Eighty 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."

The 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.

Out 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 poverty."

Martin 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.

Previous American Profiles