"It’ll never work.” “Look at all of the failed international aid programs, the big anti-poverty programs. Maybe you can feed people, but every effort to change communities fundamentally seems to have failed.”
“When you pull one strand of the problem of poverty, the whole mess begins to unravel – what do you do when people have no education, when healthcare is unaffordable?”
“Even if you did figure out how to help people support themselves, wouldn’t they just deplete the natural resources in their region, causing even bigger problems down the road?”
Good thing for millions of people on three continents that Dr. Paul Polak didn’t see any of these arguments as a reason to stop innovating. Like any great entrepreneur, he merely saw them as hurdles to leap, bulldoze, or sidestep on the way to his ultimate goal: helping poor farmers build secure futures for themselves.
Trained as a psychiatrist, Polak worked for years to help people cope with mental illness through the Southwest Denver Mental Health Association. There he witnessed the inextricable link between poverty and mental health - and even created housing and jobs programs to help his patients. Then, on a trip to Belize, he became interested in poverty on the global level, poverty much deeper than what he witnessed in the United States. Because of his background in business, he saw poverty as a breakdown of the market system. When hardworking people had the right tools and access to the right markets, they could succeed in escaping poverty.
Driven to continue his investigation, Polak traveled to Nepal and Bangladesh and asked hundreds of people who lived on small farms - why are you poor? The obvious answer came: “We need more money.” And what would help you get more money? “Water.”
With regular access to water, farmers would be able to increase their incomes dramatically. And with improved incomes, they would have the resources to gain access to healthcare and education.
Upon consideration, Polak thought that there was something he could do about this. He grew up on a farm in Canada and thought that perhaps some inexpensive agricultural technologies could help. A treadle pump would allow farmers to access water from seven to ten feet below the ground. Simple drip irrigation systems that allowed for more direct delivery of water to plants would increase production, and allow for production of higher value crops.
But hadn’t similar efforts failed before? Rusting infrastructure brought in by big international aid programs molders in developing countries throughout the world.
What could make the difference in terms of adoption and use?
In 1981, Polak founded an organization called IDE (International Development Enterprises) to answer this question. The answer has come through applying market-based principles to the needs of the poor. For more than twenty-five years, IDE has gone directly to small communities and, through appropriate technologies and the seeding of small businesses, has developed sturdy and sustainable economies that are improving the lives of millions.
IDE recognizes a few key things based on simple business principles. It’s important that the farmers themselves have an investment in the new technology, and that the technology be affordable enough to pay off in one year’s harvest. It’s important that seeds, fertilizer, and replacement parts for the pumps and irrigation systems be available locally. And finally - no way out of poverty is sustainable if it depletes the natural resources of the region.
Building Local Markets
The typical IDE program works like this: in-country IDE workers go to a local marketplace and demonstrate a treadle pump or a drip irrigation system. They connect with farmers who might be interested in trying the technology, and arrange with partner organizations for them to receive a very small loan to pay for the technology. Let’s say a farmer buys a treadle pump. He would receive a loan of about $20 to pay for the pump, and IDE would provide connections to local well drillers, information about the best agronomic practices, and links to local markets where he can earn fair prices. The farmer uses the pump to irrigate his crops and increase his yield. He takes his crops to market, sells them, and can earn up to 300% more than he would have in previous years. He is able to pay off his loan, and is on the way to economic self-sufficiency.
Panchagarh, Bangladesh – With the income from the chili, amaranth, radish, and potato grown using her IDE treadle pump, Rashida Begum has been able to support her family of five, and open a successful retail shop as well.
With increased income, the farmer’s life and that of his or her family can be transformed. Nazrul Islam of Bangladesh used his increased profits to keep all of his children in school. “I hope that one of my sons will go on to school in Dhaka and get a good government job,” he says. His additional income has also allowed his daughters to remain in school, which is uncommon in his village.
But IDE doesn’t stop there. As they build relationships with farmers like Islam, they also build relationships with entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and agricultural suppliers. Their goal is to create a sustainable market system in a community, where the pumps and irrigation systems, seeds and organic fertilizers are all produced and sold locally. They also stimulate markets for higher quality, higher profit crops by providing connections to broader distribution systems.
With certain pump models at just $20 apiece and drip systems as low as $5, the question arises: why not just give this technology to the farmers? IDE USA Executive Director Zenia Tata explains, “Our studies show that rates of adoption are much higher when farmers invest their own money. They are also more likely to properly maintain the equipment when they have ownership. Treating smallholder farmers as customers is a respect issue. Rather than deciding for them what they should have, we allow our customers to make the decision about whether our products have significant value for them.”
The Key is Sustainability
From central offices in Lakewood, Colorado, IDE runs in-country programs in eight developing countries in Asia and Africa, and operates affiliates in Canada, the United Kingdom, and India. Since its founding in 1981, IDE has helped an estimated 17 million people pull themselves permanently out of poverty and to do so in an environmentally sustainable way.
With millions of farmers using more water and planting more crops, it might seem that the natural resources of the regions where IDE works could be depleted. In fact, the opposite is true. “IDE’s anti-poverty programs are deeply rooted in sustainable design and environmental practices,” explains Andy Vermouth, IDE Communications Director. “Because our systems are so widely spread on smallholder farms throughout a region, they haven’t affected the water table or the surrounding environment the way a large scale irrigation scheme would.” Studies conducted in association with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have found that, because IDE promotes the use of organic fertilizer and drip irrigation, along with other water-saving technologies, agricultural run-off is significantly decreased in areas where IDE technologies are at work.
“If we are serious about ending extreme hunger and poverty around the world, we must be serious about transforming agriculture for small farmers - most of whom are women,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “These investments - from improving the quality of seeds, to developing healthier soil, to creating new markets - will pay off not only in children fed and lives saved. They can have a dramatic impact on poverty reduction as families generate additional income and improve their lives.” The Gates Foundation recently awarded $40 million in grants to IDE for projects throughout Asia and Africa.
Obstacles and Opportunities
IDE has achieved its success through focusing on a few key technologies, genuinely listening to the people in the countries it serves, and developing market systems that sustain themselves and preserve the environment. Major foundations like Gates and the Mennonite Economic Development Agency, along with international development agencies in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia provide a steady stream of investment capital to seed projects around the world. Individual donors also play a part, since it costs only about $250 to raise a family out of poverty through IDE’s programs.
IDE is also seeking corporate partners who can help bring the global marketplace to small farmers. “In Nicaragua, IDE partnered with Nestlé and ECOM to create a market link for premium coffee produced by small farmers there using our drip irrigation technology,” says Tata, “and we’re getting great results. We’re looking for other corporate partners who are interested in working with us to create innovative, sustainable solutions to the problem of poverty.”
What prevents IDE from moving even faster to implement its successful model throughout the developing world? Vermouth cites political strife as one key obstacle. “We have people in both Myanmar and Zimbabwe, where the political situations are tenuous,” he explains. “This can make our work difficult, but our presence there can also be a blessing.” IDE’s in-country workers were among the very few people able to distribute aid to victims of the Myanmar cyclone last year.
IDE is proud of its success internationally, Vermouth notes, but they also hope to connect the power of their methods to local projects in Colorado. Last summer, he created a demonstration plot in a Denver Urban Gardens site, and despite planting the garden later than others, it still produced more than neighboring plots due to the benefits of micro-irrigation. “We hope to share what we’ve learned in developing countries here in Denver. This year we’re working with several local groups to promote a showcase village that demonstrates some of our technologies and by extension how they might be applied by others here in the U.S.”
While the economic downturn certainly challenges some of their funding streams, IDE continues to forge ahead with its programs, hoping to reach millions more people in need in the years ahead. “Because the systems we create are environmentally and fiscally sound,” Vermouth explains, “our work fits perfectly with the emphasis on a move to an economy based on sustainable development.”
For more information please check IDE’s website at www.ideorg.org
Rebecca Arno is Vice President of Communications for The Denver Foundation, a community foundation serving the seven-county Metro Denver area.