The world’s poor don’t always need our charity. Proximity Designs, a design lab based in Burma, believes that the best way to address poverty is to design, build, and market affordable products that can transform lives. The concept has proven so powerful that Proximity this month received a Skoll Award For Social Entrepreneurship—a distinction that could help bring the design lab’s ideas even further out into the world.
Proximity founders Debbie Aung Din and Jim Taylor moved to Myanmar in 2004 armed with the idea to bring a market-based approach to helping the poor. In Myanmar, a country with an impoverished population of farmers, that meant finding an alternative to the sprinkler can, a cumbersome method of lifting and distributing water on crops.
When Din and Taylor arrived in Myanmar, they began work under the auspices of International Development Enterprises, a company that had been promoting foot-operated water pumps—an alternative to sprinkler cans—in Bangladesh since the 1980s. The only problem: These metal pumps can cost over $100, which is far too expensive for a farmer in a developing country to afford.
The Proximity staff—Din, Taylor, two product designers who came out of Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design For Extreme Affordability course, and five Burmese engineers and prototype makers—got to work developing five foot pump models (all under $40) to accommodate the needs of different users. Most recently, Proximity developed the Baby Elephant Pump (pictured), a $13 plastic pump that’s simple to manufacture and easy to repair.
"Poor people want well-designed products," explains Taylor. "This idea of extreme affordability keeps us accountable. If people don’t find our products of value, they won’t spend their hard-earned money on them."
Apparently, Myanmar’s poor find Proximity’s products to be extremely valuable. The Elephant Pump, which was introduced last September, reached 8,000 customers its first year. In the past month and half, Proximity has sold 4,000 of the pumps. The product is an investment, but pumps have a lot of advantages compared to sprinklers—they allow farmers to spend less time irrigating and to command better prices for their crops on the market (because of increased yield and quality).
At least part of the reason why Proximity is succeeding is because it listens to potential customers. "We spend a lot of time in rural areas, talking to farmers and observing habits of what they do," says Taylor. Unlike many organizations that design for the poor, Proximity’s "big idea is to become proximate to the user and not just come in on a two-week field trip."
Proximity’s Skoll Award will grant the design lab money to expand its core operations. "It’s a good fit for Skoll," says Kristin Gilliss, the Proximity program officer at Skoll. "The foundation exists because Silicon Valley visionaries like Jeff Skoll, eBay’s first president, see and create markets where they don’t exist. That’s what [Proximity] is doing."
Taylor has no plans to create Proximity satellite labs throughout the developing world, but he does think that the design lab’s products could be useful elsewhere. With cash from Skoll, Proximity can grow its market and tackle new design areas, including one of the biggest challenges for developing countries: rural energy.