Monday, November 27, 2006

how to build an African middle-class

Sometimes it can be hard to appreciate knowledge one has already gained. If we look back at ourselves and our experiences, over time we find that whom we've become is inextricably linked to those experiences, those thoughts in our minds, those activities we've been engaged with, those people we have met, and those landscapes we have been part of.

If you have a college degree, like myself, let's try a little experiment. Try imagining what you'd be like if you hadn't gone to college. Would you be where you are today? I'm not simply asking if you would have had the same amount of opportunities presented (although that is also very relevant), but rather asking if you think that, as a thinking human being, you would be thinking and contemplating things the same way... would you?

I do not think I would be the same. It is comforting to say, "yeah, I could think (think as a verb) myself to where I am now", but consider all those classes you took, those projects and papers, and of course we can't forget those experiences where we become ever more aware of ourselves and of the world. Education has given me access to new ideas, to new views, to an appreciation of the diversity and complexity of views... and to the ability to question, revise, and rethink my own views and the views of others.

Education is power. Education is power to change, mature, evolve, take action, make new connections, and advance the mind into new realms of thought. Education comes in many different forms and is all around us in the world. One educates themselves, or allows others to educate. One can be educated consciously, subconsciously, spiritually, and physically. School, as a paradigm, does not necessarily equate education; but as an institution, it renders an environment where the formation of knowledge advancement through formalized education is paramount. But in all cases of education, it takes an investment from the student and the teacher, whomever they may be. And in most cases, formalized education costs money.

It is with all this said, that I am really impressed and awed by Martin Fisher, social entrepreneur, who produces the "Super-MoneyMaker" (a "one-person, leg-powered irrigation pump") and founded the non-profit ApproTEC. I read about Fisher today via a link on Chris Coldewey's blog to an SF Chronicle article written in 2002.
"The pump and other mechanical devices designed by Fisher have made 26,000
desperately poor Africans rich entrepreneurs, by the standards of their
homeland. Farmers whose annual income was less than $120 have increased it to an
average of $1,400. It has opened up their lives the way it would alter that of
an American who started making $110,000 a year instead of $10,000."
It is not simply the advent of the pump that is so amazing -- as one will find by reading the San Francisco Chronicle article about Fisher and ApproTEC -- but its application and where it has been applied.

Fisher has been interested in creating an African middle-class, and his work is a key. First employed in Kenya, the pump is a virtual money-generator and is bringing people out of poverty, and giving them the ability to shape their futures and afford education for their children. This is amazing -- a true investment and gift in the future of people.
"With Kenyan Solomon Mwangi, who is now their operations director, Fisher
and Moon worked on their new low-tech devices: a building-block machine that
uses soil and a bit of cement; a sunflower oilseed press badly needed in a
country that imports 80 percent of its cooking oil. But 90 percent of their
business comes from the micro-irrigation pumps based on a design by IDE, a
Denver nonprofit. IDE has used an approach similar to ApproTEC's to sell 1.3
million pumps in Bangladesh. Fisher redesigned the pumps to be portable for
storing inside at night (Kenyan farmers worry about thieves), to spray water
(Kenyan farmers -don't use ditch irrigation) and to have a shorter treadle
stroke (most Kenyan farmers are women who wear long garments and -don't want to
appear to dance provocatively on the machines).

"But anyone who focuses only on ApproTEC's gee-whiz low-tech machines
will miss the main reason for the nonprofit's startling success: Fisher and Moon
ask poor Africans what they want and need. They analyze the limitations under
which 90 percent of Kenyans live, in extreme poverty in areas with poor roads,
little transportation, no electricity and no telecommunication. They fashion
devices that are inexpensive to produce, buy and move around. They work with
factories to mass-produce high-quality devices. They use mass marketing and
distribution methods more characteristic of business than traditional foreign
aid. Then they closely monitor the results.

"And the system works. Today, ApproTEC has 65 permanent and 60
part-time staff, five offices in Kenya and Tanzania and a $2 million annual
budget. Janet Ondiak, Jane Mathendu and 20,000 others can hardly believe they're
living their dreams.

"When Ondiak's husband died, she barely kept her family alive on the
food she managed to grow on 1/8th acre of land. She owned 2 acres, but even with
all six children lugging buckets of water, they were able to irrigate no more
than a small area.

"One afternoon, she saw a demonstration of the Super-MoneyMaker
irrigation pump in her local village. She worked for six months to scrape
together $75 and bought the pump. Today, she has three full-time workers who
irrigate her entire 2 acres. Last year, she made $2,500 in profit from selling
vegetables grown on her land. She recently opened a small shop from which to
sell her food. She can now pay for all six children to attend school."
Read the full article: "Martin Makes a Middle Class: Stanford grad Martin Fisher has gone low-tech in search of solutions for Kenyan farmers". San Francisco Chonicle, 2002.