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The Power of a Radically Affordable Irrigation Pump

A Bangladeshi farmer operates a treadle pump to irrigate her family's rice field. Photo courtesy of International Development Enterprises.

 

One of the more transformative technologies ever developed for the world’s poor farmers is a water-lifting device called a treadle pump.

It looks and operates much like a Stairmaster exercise machine that you’d find in a gym.  But the dollar-a-day farmers who use these devices are not trying to lose pounds; they’re trying to gain them.

More than 850 million people in the world today are chronically hungry.  It is a sad irony that most of them live on farms, typically cultivating small plots in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

(Related: “Growing Food Demand Strains Energy, Water Supplies“)

These farm families go hungry because they have neither the resources to make their land productive enough to meet their food needs nor sufficient income to buy the food they need.

For many of them, the missing ingredient is water.  And that’s where the treadle pump comes in.

Traveling through Bangladesh some years ago, I saw vast areas of brown, barren land. It was January – the dry season in this monsoonal country – when there is too little rainfall to plant crops with any hope of a harvest.  Without access to irrigation water, small farmers leave their land fallow, which in turn leaves them hungry and poor.

But northeast of Dhaka, the fields were green and bustling with activity.  Men and women, children and parents, were operating treadle pumps, often under colorful canopies for some relief from the sun.  In the pump’s original version, designed by Norwegian engineer Gunnar Barnes, the operator pedals up and down on two poles (called treadles), which activates a cylinder that suctions water up through a shallow well. The water then empties into an irrigation ditch and travels down the field to irrigate small plots of rice and vegetables.

For a total investment of some $35, Bangladeshi farmers could irrigate half an acre (0.2 hectares) during the dry season.  Not only could they then feed their families, and get out of the hunger trap, they could also take some higher-value vegetable crops to market – and escape the poverty trap, as well.

Working with Barnes and other partners, the Denver-based International Development Enterprises (IDE) developed a highly successful marketing and promotion campaign to sell treadle pumps to Bangladeshi farmers through the private sector.  IDE’s approach was to work locally to develop a full supply chain – manufacturing, sales, installation and repair – so that the treadle-pump industry could be self-sustaining.

Today, some 84 manufacturers produce treadle pumps in Bangladesh, and, since 1985, some 1.4 million pumps have been sold to Bangladeshi farmers.

In his book, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, IDE founder Paul Polak estimates that treadle pump investments by farmers totaling $37.5 million combined with donor investments of $12 million are generating net returns to Bangladeshi farmers of $150 million per year.

Following on this success, other organizations (as well as IDE) have helped introduce variations of the treadle pump into countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.  In 1998, the non-profit KickStart began marketing a line of pumps called the MoneyMaker in Kenya, Mali, and Tanzania, and later in Burkina Faso and Malawi.

KickStart’s best-seller is the $300 Super MoneyMaker Pump, with sales to date totaling nearly 158,000.  Sales of its lighter, $100 Hip Pump have exceeded 32,000.

To help poor women buy pumps themselves, KickStart has established a Mobile Layaway program, which allows women farmers to save for a pump by sending micro payments to KickStart through their mobile phones.  Many are able to buy a pump within ten weeks.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Kickstart with the first-ever Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.  In presenting the award, Secretary Clinton noted, “If you just stop and think that 60 to 70 percent of the small-holder farmers in the world are women, this (initiative) has enormous potential.”

Treadle pump adopters won’t have to do the hard labor of treadling forever.  As they move up the income ladder, they’ll turn to a labor-saving irrigation system, perhaps powered by diesel or solar energy. With the extra time, women may start a business.  Girls will attend school.  Unleashed from poverty and hunger, the entrepreneurial spirit will soar.

The power of a water pump – designed, as Paul Polak puts it, for “radical affordability” – is not to be underestimated.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Comments

  1. Clarissa Barnes
    TN, USA
    August 13, 2013, 9:04 am

    Just a comment on “iDE (formerly International Development Enterprises), which successfully introduced the treadle pump to poor farmers in Bangladesh” – this was four years after the treadle pump had been introduced by RDRS (Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service – a project, in northern Bangladesh, of Lutheran World Federation/ World Service).

    • Sandra Postel
      October 15, 2013, 12:57 pm

      Clarissa, thank you for this clarification. In some of my longer articles and chapters, including in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011, I have indeed mentioned the role of Gunnar Barnes in designing the treadle pump and of RDRS and Lutheran World Federation in introducing it. But I believe I may have been off on the timeline and who-did-what-when sequence of the treadle pump’s introduction. Thank you for clarifying for me and our readers. – Sandra

  2. Clarissa Barnes
    TN, USA
    August 11, 2013, 9:17 pm

    In (late) reply to Edgar Dapiton , the treadle pump was introduced to the Philippines around the mid-80’s. It was promoted by IRRI and called the Tapak-tapak pump, after the sound it made.

    Also, I believe there was a question about whether the pump had been introduced in West and Central Africa. Some of the places the pump has been introduced are: Benin, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia.

  3. [...] spread, as well. iDE (formerly International Development Enterprises), which successfully introduced the treadle pump to poor farmers in Bangladesh, has also pioneered the development of low-cost drip systems for poor [...]

  4. [...] spread, as well. iDE (formerly International Development Enterprises), which successfullyintroduced the treadle pump to poor farmers in Bangladesh, has also pioneered the development of low-cost drip systems for poor farmers. [...]

  5. [...] begun to spread, as well. iDE (formerly International Development Enterprises), which successfully introduced the treadle pump to poor farmers in Bangladesh, has also pioneered the development of low-cost drip systems for poor [...]

  6. Irrigation pumps
    US
    April 23, 2012, 11:59 am

    thank you Sandra very much for your generosity!

  7. Al Lewis
    US
    April 22, 2012, 1:07 pm

    Will the culture change fast enough for the people to be able to benefit, longterm? If population increases quickly, to fill the food/population gap, will the people not be in the same boat again soon? The culture in third world countries often encourages constant reproduction (or, at least, makes no effort to stem it), because history has ‘taught’ them that so many children will die of starvation or lack of health care that they must ‘over-produce’ children in order to have at least a few children who survive to adulthood. This sounds callous, or like I am talking about them like they are animals. I don’t mean it that way. I am genuinely wondering the best way to help the people get lasting increase in quality-of-life from this great pump, rather than just two or three generations of food prosperity then back to more-people-than-food situation. Probably would be to combine the giving of pumps with providing reproductive health clinics? I don’t know.

  8. David Zetland
    April 22, 2012, 4:57 am

    Don’t forget the demand side: more food per PERSON is useful. Each of these women should get family planning education/contraception with her pump.

  9. [...] water for immediate human consumption is only one part of the puzzle. The other one is access to enough water to irrigate fields. Irrigation itself is one of the modern marvels of agriculture and therefore civilization. Without [...]

  10. [...] The Power of a Radically Affordable Irrigation Pump by admin The Power of a Radically Affordable Irrigation Pump It looks and operates much like a Stairmaster exercise machine that you'd find in a gym. But the dollar-a-day farmers who use these devices are not trying to lose pounds; they're trying to gain them. More than 850 million people in the world today are … Read more on National Geographic [...]

  11. [...] Read more…  [...]

  12. steve siverling
    Wisconsin
    April 19, 2012, 1:25 am

    Greetings,

    I’m glad the government isn’t bailing them out. Also wish micropayment technology would come to the U.S. Although I would want to make sure it is secure enough to avoid people hacking my phone.

  13. Joe
    Boston
    April 18, 2012, 7:45 pm

    Sooooo, male farmers can just be left out of the deal? Wow, how special. Yet another “women get special treatment” article.

  14. Edgar Dapiton
    Philippines
    April 18, 2012, 6:50 pm

    This looks like an incredible device that can also be marketed/promoted here in the Philippines where agriculture has not improved since the 70s (I am guesstimating). Farmers complain they cannot grow well for lack of irrigation, and I can see this when I travel north and in mindanao. I had a thought that they had just become ‘seemingly’ lazy for lack money and hope; but this device can work for them. Looks exciting. How may I help? .e.