African Farmers try KickStarting Their Farms

KickStart is a company hoping to help lift African farmers out of poverty by selling them simple water pumps for their crops. Scott Simon talks with Martin Fisher, co-founder of the non-profit company.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Martin Fisher and Nick Moon decided that if African farmers could tap into ground water more easily instead of waiting for the water to come to them, they could grow enough crops to live better lives. So Mr. Fisher and Mr. Moon decided to build a pump, a very simple kind of pump, the latest version of which is called the Super Money Maker Hip Pump. It has mass-market distribution this summer throughout Africa.

Co-founder and CEO of KickStart, Martin Fisher, joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Mr. Fisher, thanks for being with us.

Mr. MARTIN FISHER (Co-Founder and CEO, KickStart): It's good to be here. Thanks.

SIMON: Now you approached this as a businessman not an aid worker, right?

Mr. FISHER: We used a business model. In fact, I originally was an aid worker. And still the mission of our organization is get millions of people out of poverty. But we approach it with a very businesslike approach and businesslike model.

SIMON: How do these new pumps work?

Mr. FISHER: The new pump that we call actually Hip Pump is operated very much like a bicycle hand pump in that there is a cylinder and a piston that you pull up and down. But that cylinder and piston is attached to the end of this skateboard-type base and it's pivoted from there.

So what that allows you to do - and instead of using your arms to pull the handle and the piston up and down - you can actually hold the handle and simple rock back and forth using a hip motion. And so this is a motion you can do all day. Because if you use your arms, they get very, very tired very quickly.

Now with this little pump, you can actually pull water from as deep as 25 feet deep. So from a shallow well or from a pond or from a lake. And you can spray it through a hosepipe and irrigate as much as an acre of land.

SIMON: Help us understand what it means to bring up groundwater as opposed to having to be dependent upon rainfall. And I know that groundwater in part is dependent on rainfall too. But...

Mr. FISHER: Well, the big advantage of irrigation is instead of waiting for the rain once or twice a year - and sometimes it doesn't come and sometimes it comes late, sometimes it comes early - and gambling with the rain to try to get one or two crops a year, you can now, with irrigation, you can grow crops all year long. And what's more, with additional water, you can grow high value crops like fruits and vegetables instead of your traditional maize and beans type crops.

And of course, best of all, you can bring them out in the dry season when the price is high and the supply is low, because nobody else has crops at that time. So you can actually increase your farm income by a factor of 10. And this is huge because these poor African farmers, the thing they need most, actually, is a way to make money. Because they live in a cash economy, they need money to buy food, shelter, clothing, to send their kids to school, for healthcare. All these things.

SIMON: You see these, right?

Mr. FISHER: Absolutely. We sell these through a supply chain. We have over 450 retail shops in East Africa that sell these. And these are little shops in every village, every town, every city, which are generally farm supply shops where normally people would go to buy a small bag of seeds or a small bag of fertilizer cause that's all they can usually afford and they go in the shop once or twice a year.

But now these shops are also selling these pumps.

SIMON: And can you give us some idea how much they cost?

Mr. FISHER: Best selling pump is actually one called the Super Moneymaker Pump, which works like a small Stairmaster machine. And that one retails at $95 and can irrigate as much two acres. The new Hip Pump that I've just described retails at $34. And on average, in that first year of using that small pump, they're going to be making close to $1,000 profit.

SIMON: What if they break or have some kind of mechanical problem?

Mr. FISHER: We design all these pumps so they can be repaired using no tools, only your hands. And there's only a few things that could wear out - mainly the piston pumps and one or two other things. And you can just go down to the local shop and buy those and replace them yourself without any tools.

SIMON: With respect, an obvious question would be, Mr. Fisher, if the price is now down to $34, why not get Bill and Melinda Gates to give a whole lot of them away?

Mr. FISHER: Well, the disadvantage of giving things away is that it's really not very fair. How do you decide who is going to get one of these things and who isn't going to get one of these things? So that's one problem. The other problem is when you are given something you really don't appreciate it in the same way you appreciate something that you buy.

And I think just as importantly as that is that if you get given something, when it breaks down or a part wears out, there's no supply chain to go down and buy the spare parts cause there's no shop where you bought it.

And so what we're really trying to do here is create dignity. When you give things away, you're really just creating dependency and people hanging out waiting for more handouts.

SIMON: Martin Fisher, co-founder of KickStart, speaking with us from San Francisco. Thank you very much.

Mr. FISHER: Thank you. It's good to be here.

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