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Pop!Tech: Paul Polak inspires.

To inspire projects like Kiva, you need mentors. Andrew Zolli introduces Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, as one of the key mentors in the anti-poverty and development space.

Polak’s focus is on “design for the other 90%”, building technologies that help half of the world’s population, the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. He points out that “90% of designers work for the richest 10% of the world’s customers”. This is a “silly ratio”, one that Polak has dedicated his life to changing. He’s been working for more than twenty years on International Development Enterprises, looking to assist the world’s small farmers, people who farm an acre or less, living on two dollars or less a day.

In solving these problems, Polak tells us that we must:
– go to where the action is
– talk to the people who have the problem
– learn everything about the specific context

To that end, Polak has been meeting with at least 100 one-acre farmers each year, having over 3,000 conversations with farmers all over the world. This has led him to the Vince Lombardi-like conclusion that “affordability isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This is part of his “don’t bother” trilogy – rules he gives to design students considering designing for the developing world:

– if you haven’t had conversations with at least 25 poor people before you start
– if it won’t pay for itself in the first year
– if you can’t sell a million of them

don’t bother designing your product. Products for the developing world need to focus on:

– affordability
– divisibility
– infinte expandability

One example of a technology like this is an inexpensive drip irrigation system made from a rice bag, some plastic tubing and wooden stakes. The price is $3 retail, and it can have a huge effect on productivity for market gardens, and you can add more bags if you can afford them, allowing you to expand from whatever size you can afford to covering a large acreage. Drip irrigation isn’t new, but most technologies can’t be broken apart to make them cheap enough for developing nation farmers.

Polak is pessimistic about the world’s poor nations meeting their millenium development goals – he shows us that the number of people living on under a dollar a day in Africa hasn’t moved at all from 1990 to 2002. While there is some movement towards achieving poverty reduction, it’s mostly within China, where de-collectivization of agriculture has lifted millions from rural poverty. He offers three myths about poverty:

– We can give our way out of it. Polak argues that poor people must invest their own time and money to end poverty.

– We can get people out of poverty through GDP growth. Polak tells us that this growth is urban and industrial and tends to bypass the rural poor.

– Multinations will lift us out of power – not until there’s a revolution in how corporations design and market projects, he tells us.

To end rural poverty, you need to address the problems of the 525 million farms, 85% of which are less than 5 acres. That’s what IDE has focused on, with 550 staff primarily in developing nations. They’ve helped 17 million people move out of poverty, and intend to move 150 million out by 2025.

The technologies that help this happen are tools like treadle pumps, which allow farmers in Bangladesh to get a third crop per year. Building these pumps employs 75 local firms to build these tools, 2-3,000 village dealers and thousands of web drillers. The dealers make a 12% margin, and have gotten incredibly creative in marketing the tools – they commission musicians to write and perform songs. A Bengali film studio produced a love story, where a man can’t marry a woman due to his poverty. A friend introduces him to the treadle pump, and he’s able to improve his social status and get the girl – cheezy as it is (Polak’s term), the film has been seen by over 1 million farmers. IDE and partners have produced and sold 2.1 million pumps and believe they’ve had an aacademic impact of $210 million dollars per year on poor farmers.

At age 71, Polak retired from IDE and started a new project, D-Rev. D-Rev, short for “Design Revolution” is designed to revolutionize how design is taught in rich and poor countries. It’s a platform for the world’s designers to share ideas and insights, and is designed to help global businesses to make money by serving poor customers.

One example of the technologies is a small cell that, using a lithium battery and some salts, creates unstable chlorine dioxide in about 90 seconds. That chlorine can be used to purify water very efficiently. This technology could be used by small entrepreneurs, who could invest $300-$500 and start businesses selling 5 kiloliters of water a day, recovering their costs within a year. He offers an intriguing promise of a $15 information device, and the promise that designing for the very poor can have revolutionary impacts.

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2 thoughts on “Pop!Tech: Paul Polak inspires.”

  1. Pingback: Psycho » Blog Archive » Pop!Tech Notes: Paul Polak of IDE and D-Rev on Designing for the Poor

  2. Interested in receiving info on the investment opportuntites for our newly formed for profit organzation. Thanks

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