The social enterprise Proximity Designs was the first to bring energy to agriculture in Myanmar, making irrigation easier and more effective. Today, they have helped 450,000 people with its treadle pump.
Across Myanmar, farmers relies on the annual monsoon to water their crops, but for the six months without rain, they try to lift water for irrigation from wells using buckets and inefficient traditional pumps. This is time consuming and arduous work. Less than 5% of farmers has access to electricity to power pumps, and diesel pumps are affordable only to the wealthiest few.
Debbie Aung Din, born in Myanmar but lived abroad for many years, and husband Jim Tailor aimed to improve the livelihood of low-income farmers when they in 2004 went to head the Myanmar programme of international NGO iDE. Four year later, the programme became an independent Myanmar NGO called Proximity Designs.
Water pumping and irrigation is the main focus for Proximity Designs, however, its work has broadened to include farm advisory services, low-cost farm loans, and – most recently – the sale of solar lanterns. Proximity also works on policy, providing a valuable practitioner perspective for policymakers and donors.
As a grant-funded NGO, Proximity Designs can respond to the rapidly changing needs of rural Myanmar. But it also works on a social enterprise model, with appropriate charging for the goods and services that it provides. So about one-third of it USD 4.6 million income in 2012-13 came from sales, and the remainder from grants and donations. In March 2014 Proximity had 431 staff.
The irrigation programme
The irrigation programme of Proximity Designs was developed for the 80% of rural families who farm in areas where only one rain-fed crop can be grown each year. They farm small plots, and typically try to irrigate 0.2 to 0.4 hectares (half to one acre) in area, to grow a dry-season crop.
Proximity develops affordable irrigation products (treadle pumps, drip irrigation sets and water tanks) to meet both the needs and the aspirations of rural consumers.
Products are sold through village-level marketing campaigns and agro-dealers. Low-interest loans are available, so that payment can be deferred until an extra harvest has been achieved.
Proximity irrigation products are sold under the brand name ‘Yetagon’. Although they can be bought separately, the products are designed to connect and work as an integrated package. So, the treadle pumps lift water to an appropriate height for a tank to run a gravity-fed drip irrigation system.
A treadle pump operator stands on two metal or wooden treadles and steps using an action similar to a step exercise-machine. The treadles drive a pump connected to a tube well, which is a length of robust plastic pipe sunk into the ground until it reaches the water table. Current pump models, all of which can extract water from a maximum depth of about 7.5 meters and deliver up to 5 m3 per hour, are:
- The Red Rhino (which retails for about USD 38). This is a suction pump, which lifts water to ground level, where the pump mechanism is located.
- The Baby Elephant (USD 20). This is a suction pump with treadles on the ground, and a pump mechanism that can be raised up to 3 meters, so water can be delivered at a high level. This is important for integration with drip irrigation.
- The Baby Buffalo (USD 38). This is a pressure pump, which can both lift water and drive it to a higher level or deliver it horizontally.
Drip irrigation system
The kits are designed to work with water under gravity pressure, and a head (tank height) as low as one metre. The tube or ‘drip tape’ through which water flows is made from LLDPE, a flexible, puncture-resistant polymer. One kit (price US$35 for 46 m of drip tape, filters and 1,800 microtubes) can irrigate an area of typically 40 m2.
The 1,000 litre tanks (price US$25) that are used with drip irrigation kits are made from light-weight nylon fabric impregnated with PVC. A tank is placed on a raised platform and filled with water by a pump. The slightly ‘pear’ shape means that the tank supports itself as it fills, so it does not need a rigid frame.
How are products marketed and sold, and how do users pay?
Proximity field staff demonstrate the irrigation products at village meetings. This used to be the main marketing route and still generates about 30% of sales. However, an increasing volume (currently about 50%) is generated by a network of village agents who work on commission. Family-run agro-dealers in towns account for the remaining 20%.
Farmers can pay cash or take out a short-term loan from Proximity, which adds about 10% to the total cost. The loan can be just for the cost of the irrigation products, or can include cash to buy agricultural inputs like seeds and fertiliser. Full repayment of the loan is due by the second harvest after it is taken out, and Proximity has a repayment rate of approximately 95%.
How are products manufactured and maintained?
Components for the irrigation products are sourced from suppliers in Myanmar, or made in the Proximity factory in Yangon, which is also responsible for assembly and quality control. The initial price of the pump includes spare rubber washers and valves, which need regular replacement.
Products carry a one year warranty: in practice pumps last for at least four years and irrigation sets for three crop seasons.
Promoters, agents and distributers get annual training on installation and maintenance and are expected to train users at the time of purchase. Products are designed so that users can install and maintain them without specialised tools, although an agent can help them for a small charge.
Proximity has achieved extensive reach into rural Myanmar. About 140,000 treadle pumps and 10,000 drip irrigation systems have been sold since 2004. There are currently (March 2014) about 90,000 active pump users in 5,000 villages.
With five people in an average household, the treadle pumps are bringing benefits to about 450,00 people.
Benefits to rural households
In the past, a farming household had to allocate about six hours per day to irrigate just 0.1 to 0.2 hectares of a dry-season crop like maize or cabbage. That entailed hand-pumping and carrying around 3,000 litres of water each day from January through to April: heavy work that also led to injuries.
Proximity treadle pumps – in particular the plastic ones – are light and easy to operate, and can both lift water and deliver it to the crop. By pumping for about two hours each morning and evening, a family can increase their water supply and crop production. Higher value crops, which need regular watering, like aubergines and onion seedlings, can be grown. Some farmers continue to irrigate into May, when prices increase.
Using drip irrigation brings further benefits. Water demand is reduced, even compared to hand watering with sprinkler cans. Using microtubes to get the water directly to the roots means that the soil surface is drier, reducing weeds, pests and diseases. And crops survive extreme heat better, because the constant drip of water prevents their roots from drying out.
Some of the increased production is for home consumption. Other crops are sold, increasing net household income by around US$250 per year. This is significant for families who previously brought in around US$300 to 600 per year.
Diesel pumps are becoming cheaper, and increasingly compete with treadle pumps. However, the fuel remains expensive. Irrigating 0.2 hectares of crops over the four-month dry season requires about 40 litres of diesel costing US$180, or around twice the cost of a Yetagon irrigation set (treadle pump, drip irrigation set and water tank). And because the water flow from diesel pumps is higher, they are more likely to wash away seeds and topsoil.
In some countries, increasing the use of water for irrigation puts great pressure on underground reserves. This is not a problem in Myanmar, because in most areas there is plenty of sub-surface water. Even in areas where the water table goes down during the dry season, it refills during the monsoon.
The use of treadle pumps avoids greenhouse gas emissions from diesel. Saving 40 litres of diesel per year avoids the emission of about 120 kg per year of CO2.
The Proximity irrigation programme employs about 140 people, most as field workers and some in the office. In addition, the Proximity factory employs about 20 people year round, and 50 at peak times, and around 30 local businesses supply components. For distribution, about 800 village agents (each covering 10 villages) work on commission, and 180 agro-dealers sell Yetagon products in small towns.
Proximity actively recruits women: about 25% of Proximity staff, 20% of factory workers and 15% of village agents are female. More would be welcomed, but field work can be difficult for women because of the distances they have to travel between villages. In the factory, female workers have no problems assembling the lighter-weight pumps.
Rural Myanmar is changing rapidly. One recent trend is increasing migration to neighbouring countries for employment, leaving fewer people available to work in agriculture.
So, Proximity is developing an innovative low-cost solar water pumping system to add to its product range. It is smaller than other available solar pumps and with a target price that could open up significant markets.
Article adapted from 2degrees Network.