2016 Sobrato Organization Economic Development Award: IDE-India. Photo courtesy of IDE-India.

Walking for Water

How a revolution in human-powered farm equipment is changing the lives of India’s family farmers.

The Tech
The Tech
Sep 14, 2016 · 5 min read

The Tech Awards, presented by Applied Materials, will be held Nov. 17, 2016. This year, The Tech Awards will celebrate a retrospective of the program’s history by honoring seven past laureates who have made an enormous difference in the world. For more information visit: www.thetech.org/tech-awards-presented-applied-materials.

A curious sight sometimes appears in the brutally hot, parched regions of rural India. Farmers will be perched atop what appears to be a Stairmaster-like contraption made out of bamboo, methodically working the pedals up and down.

They are walking for water.

For small family farms in rural India, equipment invented by IDE-India has created more than $1 billion in net revenue. Photo courtesy of Advocate Creative.

And these people are always surrounded by green, bountiful fields. They’re using their legs to work an ingeniously simple water-lifting device created by International Development Enterprises — India (IDEI) that has completely transformed life for some of the world’s poorest farmers.

“It’s just amazing to see,” said David Rothschild, the director of social entrepreneurship at the Fossil Foundation, who in 2012 visited with farmers in the state of Odisha in northeast India. “It was row after row of produce. The farmers using the pumps all had lush fields and gardens.”

IDEI’s low-cost treadle pumps and drip-irrigation technology has helped millions of smallholder farmers in the world’s second most-populous country escape a cycle of poverty by helping them grow crops throughout the year. The irrigation technology also does something else: provides marginalized people with a sense of dignity and self-reliance.

“We can’t address all of the issues for these farmers, so we take what we call the logjam approach,” said Shveta Bakshi, vice president of IDEI. “While they may have many things obstructing their flow, so to speak, we identify that one, critical obstruction to remove so that good things start happening.”

In this case, that’s the flow of water.

The problem in much of India is that water typically is several meters beneath the ground’s surface. This means the only natural growing season is during the brief monsoon season. The rest of the year, the only way farmers can work their land is if they carry water from sources like rivers or rent expensive diesel pumps that often leave them in debt.

IDEI changed that. It developed a simple, low-tech pumping technology that is both inexpensive (anywhere from $20 to $60) and durable. In 2004, IDEI was honored with a Tech Award for its drip irrigation system; it won an award again, in 2010, for the treadle pump. Using PVC, a suction device and bamboo poles, a farmer can irrigate a one-acre farm.

The impact has been staggering. The products are now used by 1.3 million households, impacting more than 7 million people.

“The first time we were honored (as a laureate), it was extremely prestigious. We were extremely delighted. It was a great platform because we were being recognized for technology. People began to take notice of us. Suddenly we became known.”

— Shveta Bakshi, vice president of IDEI

IDEI, a Tech Awards laureate in 2004 and 2010, is being honored again this year as part of a retrospective gala on Nov. 17, 2016, celebrating the program’s first 15 years. IDEI will be recognized with the Sobrato Organization Economic Development Award for the impact it has had since first being named a laureate. It will receive a $50,000 prize. Learn more about all of this year’s laureates.

In one interview, Amitabha Sadangi, the chief executive officer of IDEI, said: “We call it the golden egg-laying goose.” He’s not kidding. The ripple effect from increasing farm yields is far-reaching. Families now can feed themselves. Men no longer have to leave their homes to find low-paying jobs in the cities. Children can attend school instead of working to earn extra income. The standard of living rises by an average of $400 a year.

By the second year of using a treadle pump, farmer Asha Devi said she had doubled her annual income. That meant her husband no longer had to look for work away from their farm. Her son could take a professional machine-repair course, and they were able to add a small shop to their home for his work.

“It’s an availability of cash everyday now,” Devi has said. “My field is a picturesque defining tale of prosperity.”

IDEI has changed the paradigm for base-of-the-pyramid farmers by treating them not as desperate people who need help, but rather as customers. In fact, IDEI has created an entire industry by licensing its technology to manufacturers. There now are 150 companies making irrigation systems.

In addition to the end users of the irrigation and pumps pioneered by IDE-India, the company has also created a market for manufacturers and sellers. Photo Courtesy of Advocate Creative.

“We have always followed the market-based approach,” Bakshi said. “We’ve never given people things for free. The small farmers are so poor, but they don’t want or need charity. They are people who have humongous potential.”

Heiner Baumann invested in IDEI when he was the director of global programs at the philanthropic Barr Foundation. He said what makes IDEI unique is the way it connects with farmers by offering product support and clinics to teach new growing techniques. IDEI also has an innovative marketing strategy that includes Bollywood-style films that are elaborate commercials for the pumps.

“Smallholder farmers usually lack a stepping stone,” Baumann added. “This is a low-cost technology that actually works.”

But Bakshi said there is so much more to be done because there are about 98 million smallholder farmers in India. And yet everyday they see their impact.

“One farmer told me: ‘Now I am not thinking about how I will feed my family or what I will do for work tomorrow,’ ” Bakshi said. “He was no longer worried about the everyday challenges of just living. He had started thinking about what he wanted to do with his life and how he wanted his children to grow up.”

For that farmer, and so many others using the IDEI pump, it was a journey taken one step at a time.

Years of Previous Awards: 2004, 2010

Regions of Impact: India

Funding Sources: A mix of private and public foundations.

Problem: Throughout much of arid India, smallholder farmers are able to grow crops only during the short monsoon without carrying water by hand or using expensive diesel irrigation pumps.

Solution: Developed low-cost drip irrigation and water-lifting pump technology for farmers so they can grow crops throughout the year, reducing poverty among some of the world’s poorest smallholder farmers.

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