Sometimes it seems there are almost as many theories about helping the developing world's poor as there are poor people to help in the developing world. Yet Martin Fisher, Design News' 2008 Engineer of the Year, has come up with a strategy that actually works. He's spent nearly two decades creating human-powered technologies people can use to pull themselves out of poverty.
As the founder of KickStart International, a non-profit technology development, Fisher and the engineers he oversees have created a variety of micro-irrigation, oil-processing and building technologies that have resulted in the creation of more than 60,000 small-scale businesses that have lifted more than 300,000 people out of poverty, mostly in Africa.
His most famous designs are various human-powered pumps that can irrigate an acre or more of land and sell for $35 to $100, depending on the model. KickStart, which also manufacturers and distributes its products, has sold more than 105,000 pumps since its founding in 1991. More than 20,000 were sold last year alone, each producing a few thousand dollar incomes in a typical small-scale African farming operation.
Fisher's work on these micro-irrigation systems has taken on a new urgency over the past couple of years. Rising food and energy prices have put the world's poor in even more of a bind than usual, making it harder for them to buy food and cook what they can buy. “Global inflation has brought the importance of irrigation to the forefront again,” Fisher says. He argues that providing small-scale farmers with the means to irrigate their formerly rain-watered fields increases the local, low-cost food supply far more effectively than handing out seeds or fertilizer. Plus, farmers end up with a source of income, transforming their farming operations from for-subsistence to for-profit.
That view has garnered lots of attention and awards for Fisher and KickStart over the years. Earlier this year, he won the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, which recognized that KickStart has helped more than 300,000 people pull themselves out of poverty since 1991. “The MoneyMaker pumps Martin designed are inspirational on many levels,” says award nominator David M. Kelley, chairman of IDEO and founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. “The inventions are remarkable in the huge impacts they have had on poverty and the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor farmers in Africa. They are an exceedingly simple solution to a very complex problem.”
In 2005, Fisher's patented design for a deep lift pump won him an Index Award, which focuses on product design that improves people's lives. Fisher's micro-irrigation pumps and an oil extraction device also appeared last year in the Cooper Hewitt Museum's Design for the Other 90 Percent, an exhibition of products designed for use in the developing world. And KickStart's work has garnered support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has granted more than $5.7 million for micro-irrigation projects.
Fisher, who earned a Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Stanford University, isn't resting on his laurels. Over the past year, he and team of engineers, two of them from IDEO on a full-time assignment, have been working on a redesign of KickStart's Super MoneyMaker Pump, a piston-driven pump operated by a treadle. It's capable of irrigating about two acres of land, allowing farmers to draw water from nearby water sources or even wells.
The Super MoneyMaker also reveals a lot about Fisher's approach to engineering and provides some insight into why he won this year's Engineer of the Year award. As with all of KickStart's projects, the new pump highlights Fisher's skills at applying engineering fundamentals to personally observed real-world conditions, picking the right manufacturing methods for the job and an understanding of how market conditions can make or break a product.
Remaking the MoneyMaker
Fisher was forced into rethinking the Super MoneyMaker by the rising costs of steel and shipping. Steel costs started to eat into the already small profit margins KickStart makes on each pump. Shipping costs likewise became an issue now that KickStart increasingly has shifted the bulk of its pump manufacturing to China in order to keep production costs low and take advantage of manufacturing technologies not widely available in Africa.
According to Fisher, shipping costs rose in one year from about $65 to land each Chinese-made pump in Africa to about $70. “We set out about a year ago to bring that landing cost down to $45 to $50,” he says. So KickStart engineers came up with four prototype designs of a folding pump. “They occupy about half the volume as the original, so we can fit two times as many in a shipping container,” Fisher says. The new pump designs also use more pre-fabricated steel and injection-molded thermoplastic components, reducing weight and material costs.
If it sounds like a simple set of design changes, it wasn't. KickStart's engineers had to create the new designs without reducing the efficiency, ease-of-use or longevity of the original. “We've come to appreciate the original design more than ever,” Fisher says.
The original pump, for example, has an efficiency ranging from 75 to 80 percent, depending on the individual farmer's power input and the pump head. Fisher, who bases his designs on a careful study of actual conditions in the fields, made his original pump design most efficient at 7 to 8m of pump head rather than low pump heads. “Most farmers pull the water up from three to four meters and then pressurize it,” he says. That added backpressure brings the total head to 7 to 8m.
Most irrigation pumps are sold in terms of capacity, their liters per hour rating. But that's somewhat besides the point. “Liters per hour means nothing if the pump wasn't designed well for human power and real-world conditions,” he says.
The original MoneyMaker tackles real-world problems in other ways. It can be assembled and maintained without tools. Unlike many commercial pumps, for instance, the MoneyMaker's valve box components can be serviced entirely from the inlet side, so the box never needs to be opened.
And the original design is portable yet able to withstand relatively high forces day in and day out. Fisher says the loads on the pumps treadle drive mechanism can reach about 420 kg — the pump was designed for a 120-kg person and a mechanical advantage of 3.5. The pump's duty cycle also involves long periods of use — its users generate about 80W of power continuously for five or six hours.
If the original pump's efficiency, maintenance and robustness were sacrosanct, “everything else was up for grabs,” Fisher says. The prototypes KickStart was testing in Kenya this summer all have the ability to fold for shipping or transport. And they weigh less. To meet these two design goals, while preserving the robust nature of the original, KickStart engineers spend a lot of time using FEA to optimize the strength of all the new pump components, particularly hinges and other components related to folding.
The prototypes also incorporate more modern materials and manufacturing techniques, something made possible by shifting the production to China. Among the changes are an increased reliance on injection molding, such as changing valve discs from stamped rubber to molded PVC and changing a metal rocker for the pump treadle to filled thermoplastics. Whenever possible, the new pumps also eschew custom weldments in favor of pre-fabricated metal parts such as drawn cylinders. And where there is welding, KickStart is moving to welding technologies such as laser and resistance welding, neither of which is common in Africa currently, Fisher says.
In August, Fisher was in Kenya helping with extensive field testing of the new pump prototypes. “Hundreds of hours pumping sandy water through the pumps,” is how he describes the testing process. And with the increased use of thermoplastics on the new pumps, “creep is something we have to be concerned about and have to account for in our testing,” he says.
KickStart's pump design effort highlights an engineering approach that informs all of Fisher's projects. It's an approach he describes as “applying engineering fundamentals to real-world conditions.” He and his engineers get their appreciation of those conditions firsthand, through personal observations of the working environment of KickStart's farming customers.
And he's not kidding about the engineering fundamentals. Fisher, whose doctorate involved the acoustic elasticity of aluminum alloys, knows a thing or two about the material properties. And he still likes to do his stress-strain calculations by hand when he's initially trying to gain some “physical intuition” about a design project. “There's a place for CAD and FEA, but you tend to lose a physical understanding of what you're designing if you work in CAD from day one,” he says.
As an engineer who has spent so much time working on human-powered devices, Fisher frequently talks about mechanical advantage when discussing his designs. It's a basic concept but one Fisher believes is not always well understood when human factors come into play. Earlier in his career, for instance, he revamped an oil press whose handle offered little leverage for human users. Fisher, among other design changes, came up with a cam-driven design in which the cam geometry maximized the forces exerted by human users at different points in the handle stroke. That same cam also had to be tailored to the compaction properties of the material being pressed — in this case, oil seeds.
Like many corporate engineers, Fisher probably spends as much of his time on understanding market forces as he does understanding physical forces. KickStart's recipe for success is intentionally market-driven, leavened with donor funds to address what Fisher sees as the market's failure to make low-cost technologies more widely available in Africa.
For example, KickStart does build a profit margin for itself and its suppliers into the price of its pumps, though not to line its own pockets. “The goal is to create a truly self-sustaining supply chain,” Fisher says. The donor funds, meanwhile, allow KickStart to skip the early, low-volume phase of a product introduction, when prices are their highest, and jump directly into a high-volume phase, when prices are at their lowest. “Think of the donor funds as a subsidy that allow us to overcome a market failure,” he says.
Even as KickStart engineers put the finishing touches on the new MoneyMaker pump, Fisher has more human-powered products on the drawing board. He has, for example, become “extremely interested” in the idea of small-scale electricity generation and he has a concept for a human-powered lighting business in the works.
More pumps will likely come, too. In recent years, KickStart started patenting its pump designs and Fisher has considered licensing his designs in the developed world. Fisher believes his low-cost, efficient pumps — especially the Hip Pump — could make an attractive replacement for inefficient hand pumps in marine, sporting good and residential pumping applications.
And noting that only 3 percent of the arable land in Africa is under irrigation, there's still a need for KickStart to keep working on its micro-irrigation mission. “Clearly, we still have lots of work to do,” Fisher says.