Category: Commentary -

6 December 2012 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

Bill Clinton Speaks for iDE

iDE’s Second Annual Leaders in Their Fields Luncheon, held on December 4 in downtown Denver, was a great success. More than 700 attendees gathered to celebrate iDE’s 30 years of sustainable solutions to poverty, honor our customers, and launch a new initiative that will bring 26 organizations together in a unique collaborative center for international development.

The assembled guests got a big surprise when President Bill Clinton, who was in Denver for a speaking engagement, made a special appearance to express his support for iDE’s work. Clinton spoke about his own experiences working in Africa to improve agricultural practices, and emphasized that seemingly insurmountable global problems can be solved with the right efforts. “All of these things are before you. “This is stuff I’ve seen with my own eyes,” he said, “These are the kinds of things you can do, and that’s why I wanted to be here,” he said.


Bill Clinton

Clinton stressed that collaborative market-based approaches hold the key to solving the world’s most pressing challenges. “I think the idea that you should work together, pool your resources, reinforce each other and not fall all over each other is very important,” he said. He concluded his address by noting that the problems faced by the poor in developing countries ultimately affect the entire world. “I just want to encourage you. We are not going to like the world we live in if we continue to allow climate change, instability, and income inequality to dominate the 21st century.”iDE’s new CEO, Timothy Prewitt said, “President Clinton’s commitment to African agriculture is directly in line with iDE’s. His central message—that African nations can most effectively grow food themselves, lifting smallholders out of poverty and increasing production across the continent—gives iDE’s model a ringing endorsement, and inspires us to do even more.”


Tim Prewitt speaking

The centerpiece of the event was the presentation of the Leaders in Their Fields Award to Doña Linda Manueles, a farmer and entrepreneur from Marcala, Honduras. On her farm, Manueles uses an iDE treadle pump and drip irrigation kit to grow 14 different types of vegetables, which she sells for a profit. She has invested her extra income in other micro enterprises including raising geese and rabbits, and starting her own seed bank from her home. After receiving the award, Manueles explained how iDE practices help local Honduran families invest in their own communities, and thanked the organization for its continued efforts in her area.


Linda Manueles

Other featured speakers included Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper who spoke about the importance of entrepreneurship, and Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, who welcomed iDE and its partners in the D90 Network to their future home in a restored 19th century horse barn in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Denver.


Governor Hickenlooper

After the event, Prewitt noted, “Today was a terrific day for us, a chance for some of our supporters to learn more about our contribution to poverty. Denver is increasingly concerned with global poverty and the challenge of meeting food resource needs in the coming decades.”

Read about the event in the Denver Post here. Or, in The San Francisco Chronicle (AP) here.

Or watch a clip of the event on Denver’s CBS 4 News site here.

Photos by Galen Clarke


Leaders in Their Fields Luncheon
17 January 2012 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

My Cow Wears a Necklace

So I’m travelling in India, and thinking that this would be a good time to buy a gold necklace. After all, there is probably no country in which there is as much investment in gold jewelry as in India. But then I remembered that the price of gold is rather high right now, so I decided not to invest.

Indian cow with necklace

I was not expecting, however, to encounter cows wearing necklaces (and blankets) in Bihar. Not just one or two, but rather a lot of cows with brightly colored strands of beads. Not gold but necklaces nevertheless!

The obvious hypothesis to this is that cows, being considered somewhat akin to holy, should thus be adorned as gestures of divine reverence. I don’t think that is the explanation, however.
The real answer begins in the field of the smallholder farmer and owner of this cow. My picture here shows a treadle pump in a field of vegetables being grown in the post-monsoon season. Cauliflower, carrots, beets, potatoes, etc., all fetch a good price in this season. The simple treadle pump combined with some sensible agronomic practice has resulted in a significant increase in productivity, that is, a lot more food grown and a lot more income produced. Not just one or two farmers. Lots.

These Bihari farmers often invest next in a cow or water buffalo. A bunch of reasons to do this: milk production, animal traction, farm saving and dung production. So the small plot farmer with his/her treadle pump can capitalize his/her farm operation through the investment in a cow. Adult cows in Bihar are worth as much as $400 or more if healthy.

Cows in Bihar, India

It is winter in Bihar at present (January) and the nights get a bit chilly. I don’t know if this is truly necessary but I saw a lot of cows wearing “coats” for warmth, in addition to their necklaces. From the farmers’ perspectives, these animals are so important that one should make the effort in treating them with respect and consideration.

Now, I don’t actually own a cow, and if I did, I doubt that it would actually wear a necklace. Nevertheless, if I walk a little in the footsteps of the smallholder farmers using treadle pumps to increase their incomes and household asset base, I can begin to appreciate just how valuable the opportunity get ahead a little is. And if putting a necklace on a valuable farm animal which it was thus possible to acquire with the earnings, then I am fully on their side!

28 December 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

The Day That Changed My Life

If you are here, you probably care about the world. I need your help to spread the word about this unique and sustainable approach to poverty.

I’ve been working at iDE for nearly 2 years, but the moment that changed my life—the moment when I truly experienced the impact of our work first-hand—was the day I met Anita Mwembe in Zambia.

Back in 2007, Anita and her family were living in a thatched roof hut on a small plot of land. She was making only $1-2 per day by selling packets of sugar and chickens outside the front of her hut. After becoming an iDE entrepreneur, she learned farming practices and invested in a drip irrigation system, which now allowed her to grow year round and sell crops for a better return.

Today, Anita is a full-scale entrepreneur. Not only has she quadrupled her income in only 5 years, but she’s also started a seed collective, purchased a car to get products to market more quickly, and even setup a women’s micro-lending network to support others in her community grow their businesses. But most important of all, is what this has provided.

Anita can now afford to send all of her children to school, she has built her family a new brick home, and she is even giving back to her community.

In short, through working with iDE, Anita’s entrepreneurial spirit has been unleashed. Her dreams are flourishing.

Since my trip to Zambia, I have traveled to Bangladesh and Cambodia also and I continue to be incredibly inspired and touched by the sparkle in the eyes of the people we work with – those who have invested in their future and with iDE’s partnership, brought themselves and their families out of poverty.

Please join me in spreading the word this holiday season. Our board is matching up to $50K dollar for dollar, so your investment is doubled.

It would be the greatest gift I’ve ever received if I reach my goal – which means we can help 500 individuals out of poverty.

So please give what you can, or help me spread the word. You will make more people happy than just me.

Thanks, and with great hope and love,

Heidi Cuppari

21 November 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

Give Me A Place to Squat

World Toilet Day 2011

From iDE CEO Al Doerksen, on World Toilet Day 2011

In one of my former lives, I (and my family) spent three years in India. Our work took us all over the country, both urban and rural areas. I still remember driving the country roads in the dusk of early evenings, and seeing sari-clad women walking along the road with brass containers in their hands. They were headed out to the fields to the privacy afforded by the darkness so they could finally, at the end of the day, perform their daily ablutions, as they were called. Somehow they had waited the entire day before they could finally seek relief.

Talk about defecation, taking a crap, or taking a shit is not polite dinner-time conversation. It may not even be polite for a blog seeking readers who appreciate a measure of respectability. But that is part of the problem. Even though most of us hope for the regularity which allows for a daily movement of our bowels, it is not usual to discuss it. And the fact that we don’t talk about or even acknowledge that we did or didn’t crap today has contributed to not addressing the problem of one billion people who still defecate in the open every day! We are going to have to start talking about this so we can get on to addressing the issue.

iDE has been involved in sanitation marketing in Vietnam and Cambodia for several years, and successfully so, but I wasn’t always been convinced that iDE with its income creation mission should be involved in water & sanitation programs. I have changed my mind. I’ll tell you why.

It’s a health issue. Open defecation and unsanitary latrines are a huge source of fecal matter in food which then leads to diarrheal disease. Never mind the inconvenience this causes adults, diarrheal disease kills more than 1.5 million children a year! It’s incredibly sad to lose a little person in this way! The grandfather in me can easily identify with this pain.

It’s a women’s issue. Women should not have to suffer the indignity, the inconvenience and the personal safety risks associated with open (field) defecation. They should also not have to wait until nightfall to deal with their daily physical routines.

It’s a children’s issue. Chronic diarrhea can hinder child development by impeding the uptake of essential nutrients that are critical to the development of children’s minds, bodies, and immune systems. Reduced incidence of diarrhea has the effect of increasing school attendance, especially for girls.

It’s an economic issue. In a recent policy statement, the Gates Foundation estimated that the economic benefits of improved sanitation can reach $9 for every dollar invested by increasing people’s productivity, reducing healthcare costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death. For an organization like iDE with a focus on creating income opportunities, this is huge.

It’s a market opportunity. Several years ago, iDE Vietnam engaged in a project to help local suppliers construct and supply low cost latrines through the local market place. A post-project evaluation conducted 3 years after the close of the project showed that high latrine sales rates continued even though the project was long over. More recently, iDE Cambodia working with an IDEO product designer developed a simple, award winning “easy latrine.” In the first year after this was introduced to local producers and marketers, more than 10,000 units were sold and installed (and are now in daily use). These units sell because they align with the value structure of our customers.

iDE is gratified to report that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Stone Family Foundation, and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program have recognized iDE’s leadership and proficiency in sanitation marketing with $6 million in grant funding to expand our work in Southeast Asia. We are poised to also move into Nepal, Bangladesh, and several African markets.

7 November 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

The Poor Pay More, Work Harder

oil for sale in Burkina

From iDE CEO Al Doerksen:

Hunger in Africa has been on my mind recently. FAO has been reporting that food prices have spiked to record levels. Worse, reports of famine in Somalia have been circulating – real true famine with people not just hungry, but starving. Starving means that the body starts to feed on itself just to survive.

I am a big believer in Amartya Sen’s analysis (in his essay “Poverty and Famines”) that by far the largest cause of hunger and starvation in a famine event is not because of inadequate food supply – people become hungry and starve when they cannot access the food which is available. Sen analyzed food supplies in some of most famous famines including the Irish potato famine in 1845/51, or the Bengal famine in India in 1942, or Bangladesh in 1973. Each of these famines had different underlying causes, but most importantly, in all cases, there was enough food to supply everyone. No one had to starve.

What then are the factors which deny access to food to hungry people? Well, in the first case, there are nasty civil conflicts as is the case in Somalia – starvation of people is being used as a weapon. Hoarding by merchants or by wealthier households is a factor too.

By far and away, however, the biggest reason people cannot access the food they need is because they are too poor. In plain English, they do not have enough money to buy the food they need.

This last week I was in Burkina Faso. I had the chance to “get lost” in a village community with my camera, and when this happens, I look for examples of market activity, i.e., local buying and selling. Simple stands where someone is selling few vegetables, or salt, or litre bottles of cooking oil are common. Oil is daily necessity – I was quoted 1000 Cfa (just over $2 USD) for a one litre bottle.

This is probably a fair price for palm oil, but if you are a $1-2/day household, you simply may not have the free cash (working capital) to buy an entire litre at a time. Local traders’ response to this situation to repackage oil (and many other commodities) into smaller, affordable quantities. You can buy a small packet for just today. This is useful.

But here’s the rub. If you buy oil in smaller packets (out of necessity), you end up paying 20% more for your cooking oil as compared to the 1 litre bottle. So not only are you poor, but now your food bill for oil is 20% more expensive. Ouch. This is the pain of food insecurity.

[On the other hand, middle class North American consumers without real cash constraints, can secure 10% case discounts at Costco or Whole Foods.]

Drawing water from a well

What I also saw in Burkina Faso last week, was a woman with an infant strapped to her back drawing water with a rope and bucket from an open well to fill sprinkler cans with water, then walk two cans at a time to irrigate her vegetables. This is hard work.

Tilling soil with a pick ax

I saw another woman tilling her garden with a pick axe – try cultivating even a quarter acre in this way. I also saw a lot of women bent over weeding their gardens. These are women working incredibly hard to grow a little food and earn a little income. What they really need are opportunities to be more productive – to farm larger areas with less effort and with better yields.

Drip systems, suction pumps, diesel pumps, two wheeled tractors, animal traction, better seeds, affordable fertilizers, better agronomic practice – all of these can help subsistence farmers become more productive. iDE is committed to making all of these available. iDE believes that the way the subsistence households can escape this penalty of higher food prices is to put more income into the pockets of these consumers through opportunities for improved productivity – so they don’t need to pay 20% more for their cooking oil than you and I.

27 September 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

Photos: Polak Social Innovation Award

On September 22, the inaugural iDE Paul Polak Award for Social Innovation was given to its namesake at a gala event marking the close of the Design for the Other 90% exhibit at RedLine Gallery in Denver, Colorado. The well-attended event celebrated Polak’s contributions to the bottom of the pyramid design movement. Speakers included artist and RedLine founder Laura Merage, Ball Aerospace President and CEO David Taylor, iDE CEO Al Doerksen, and Metropolitan Homes President and CEO Peter Kudla.

The iDE Paul Polak Award for Social Innovation honors the important legacy of Paul Polak, whose work has inspired millions of the world’s poorest people to become entrepreneurs; increasing their income and livelihoods, and enabling them to live a life beyond subsistence poverty. This award will be presented annually to a deserving individual social innovator or organization that has significantly advanced design focusing on the “other 90%,” or otherwise demonstrated significant impact using principles articulated by Paul Polak throughout his career. In subsequent years, iDE will select a jury of industry leaders and development practitioners to review nominations, and select the award recipient from that pool of nominees.


Attendees gather at RedLine under a canopy of Nokero solar-powered light bulbs


Paul with donkey

Paul Polak answers questions with a donkey, which represents his first income enhancing design project, an affordable donkey cart sold in Somalian refugee camps.


Al Doerksen and Aggie Polak

iDE CEO Al Doerksen with Paul Polak's wife, Aggie

Dave Taylor

Ball Aerospace President and CEO Dave Taylor presents the award

Al Doerksen

Al Doerksen comments on Paul's legacy


Paul Polak and Peter Kudla

Paul Polak and Metropolitan Homes President and CEO Peter Kudla

27 July 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

Designing for the Rest of the World

From Paul Polak’s Blog, guest blogger Kali Friedmann gives an overview of the Design for the Other 90%, with some ideas about how to (and how not to) design for the developing world:

“Design for the Other 90%” Comes to Denver
By Kali Friedmann

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt “Design for the Other 90%” exhibit has arrived at RedLine Gallery in downtown Denver, showcasing products designed explicitly to fit the needs and circumstances of the world’s poorest customers – the “other 90%” who are bypassed by current design processes.

The exhibit, organized in part by International Development Enterprises (iDE), showcases products from an array of designers, engineers, and organizations focused on development, including the Design Revolution (D-REV), the non-profit technology incubator co-founded by Paul Polak. D-REV is an outgrowth of Dr. Polak’s vision of fomenting a revolution in how companies design, price, market, and distribute their products, to produce radically affordable income generating technologies for customers living on less than $4 a day.

Products like D-REV’s Jaipur Knee (a simple prosthetic knee that costs $25 to make and retails for $80) and low-cost ceramic water filters from iDE and other organizations, help illustrate the types of technologies that – at the right price and combined with appropriate mechanisms for marketing and distribution – have the potential to leverage the power of the market to reach large-scale impact.

Kamal using the Jaipur Knee (YouTube)

True to RedLine’s mission of merging art, education, and community, these low cost technologies are displayed throughout the gallery along with the creative responses of seven local artists to poverty, waste, and the challenges of design for development. One such work, created by RedLine resident artist Viviane Le Courtois, emphasizes the disparity between the bottom 90% of the world’s citizens in dire need of practical design solutions, and the top 10% who are served by the majority of designers and live surrounded by excess. The product of several weeks of work, many gallons of Elmer’s glue, and the waste from a covey of Le Courtois’ friends, it is a round thatched-roof hut made entirely of shredded junk mail.

On the exhibit’s opening day, reporter Ryan Warner from the Colorado Public Radio program Colorado Matters met Dr. Polak at the gallery for a walk-through interview. True to form, Dr. Polak provided both a clear description of the design process required to create meaningful and effective tools for development, and an honest critique of the difficulties inherent in doing so.

Dr. Polak highlighted the importance of talking to customers and building not only radical affordability into design – a primary and thoroughly non-negotiable requirement – but also taking into account the much less obvious cultural and lifestyle factors of the communities being served. Failure to take into account details about social structure, cultural preferences, and the subtleties of life at the local level often results in the failure of the project as a whole. As an outsider, this requires a deep cultural understanding that can only be attained by spending time on the ground listening to the needs of users early on in the design process. A full explanation of Dr. Polak’s 12 Steps for Practical Problem Solving can be found in his book, Out of Poverty, but the first three are crucial, and, while they seem obvious, are often overlooked:

  • Go to where the action is.
  • Talk to the people who have the problem and listen to what they say.
  • Learn everything you can about the problem’s specific context.

For example, there’s the Q Drum — a doughnut-shaped water transportation vessel that can be rolled to and from a water source with a rope tied through the center. Sounds great, looks cool, but, 1) at more than $70 per unit it’s too expensive for poor customers, and there’s no way for it to pay for itself, 2) the ropes tend to wear out quickly, and it’s unusable without a way to pull it, and, 3) the opening in the container is too large, making the water vulnerable to contamination from hands reaching inside or dirt finding its way in (80% of the contamination of bad water occurs during transportation between source and end-user). These sorts of problems can only be understood and solved by designing for affordability, spending time on the ground with users, doing a lot of listening, and continually iterating in response to feedback.

Developing countries are littered with well-intentioned but eventually useless products ostensibly designed with poor people in mind, but without their consultation or true knowledge of their needs. A classic example in this category is the PlayPump, a product that is not part of the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit. Designed like a manual merry-go-round, as children run and spin on it the device pumps water into a storage tank for later use. Harnessing the power of children at play to pump water for the village conjures up a lovely image of a type that often appeals to Western donors. As a result the project (run by PlayPumps International) received tremendous press coverage and raised over $60 million dollars to build 4,000 pumps in villages in Southern Africa.

Yet in just a few months it became clear that the project was an abject failure. In the absence of expertise or funding for maintenance of the devices, technical malfunctions were never resolved, and water ceased to flow. After a period of initial excitement, children for the most part lost interest and stopped using the toy, leaving women to spin the PlayPump themselves. Imagine a seventy-year-old woman, after a full day’s work, having to single-handedly spin this large toy that replaced her simple hand-pump just to get the water she and her family need. It’s this type of problem, rooted in the failure to connect with the customer, which designers working for the bottom 90% must avoid by beginning the design process on the ground, listening to the people for whom the product is being created.

By contrast, the treadle pump created by iDE has proven to have a higher output of water than the work put into it. As a result of that efficiency, of its low cost (around $25), and an effective marketing and distribution system involving troubadours singing its praises and local artisans manufacturing and selling the pumps, over 3 million units have been sold throughout the developing world, helping many millions of people increase their incomes by cultivating higher-value, off-season fruits and vegetables. It’s affordable, reliable, leads directly to increased income (and pays for itself several times in the first year), and it’s so efficient it allows men, women, and children alike to pump water without breaking a sweat.

Which brings me to my one and only point of contention with Mr. Warner: I was witness to the fact that at age seventy-seven, Dr. Polak was able to consistently and almost effortlessly operate the treadle pump, and simultaneously talk about it without skipping a beat – much less “appearing out of breath.”

The Cooper-Hewitt Design for the Other 90% exhibit will be at RedLine through Sunday, September 25th, 2011. RedLine is located at 2350 Arapahoe Street in downtown Denver.

Click here for the full interview with Paul Polak that aired on Colorado Matters Wednesday, July 13.

24 June 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

The Future of Corporations

Paul Polak


What is the future of the corporation? How can capitalism be a force for positive transformation?

iDE Founder Paul Polak’s recent talk at TEDx Mile High may challenge your assumptions about the answers to these questions. His talk details the tremendous shared value that lies within product and system designs for the bottom 90% of the income pyramid.

You can watch the video of Paul’s talk here.

5 May 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

A Lever to Move the Earth

Hoover tattoo

The following is a transcript of iDE CEO Al Doerksen’s remarks at the kickoff breakfast for the upcoming Design for the Other 90% exhibit.

In one of my other lives, I am an amateur photographer. Among other things, I photograph people’s tattoos. Lots of interesting designs. Crosses. Skulls. Hawks. Grim reapers. Cats. Icons. I was a bit surprised to see that someone had tattoo’ed a Hoover vacuum clear on her arm? What is that about?

Now, if IDE employees were forced, by policy, to wear an iconic tattoo on their arms, it would be that of IDE’s most successful technology, the treadle pump. Based on principles articulated by Archimedes himself, this simple water pump has been acquired by some 2 million small plot farmers in Asia and Africa. The irrigation achieved with this low cost design allows farmer users to double or even triple their food production, hence their income. This little pump dramatically rewrites the circumstances of people’s livelihoods allowing now for food security, access to better health care, rain proof housing, and education for both boys and girls.

This little device is not just a water pump. It is a money pump. At 2 million units sold generating a minimum of $300 per pump, it represents a staggering 600 million dollars annually in additional rural household income. 3 billion dollars over a five year period.

Archimedes also said, give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the earth. Well, we are here to announce that the place to stand is Colorado, and we are going to demonstrate why that is correct.

The Design for the Other 90% exhibit coming to RedLine under the join sponsorship of iDE and RedLine will be a powerful demonstration that simple machines and simple ideas translate into powerful global impact.

iDE was founded in Colorado by Paul Polak, in his words, still very much full of “p and v”, and still very much alive and well. I think it was he who coined the phrase “Design for the other 90%.” Paul observed that much of today’s product and business innovation was targeted at the more affluent 10% of society, and that as a consequence we are missing 90% of the opportunities.

iDE is proud to be based in Colorado because we have come to recognize that this state is full of people who have the energy, the passion, the commitment and the insight required for this exciting mission.

4 April 2011 | Posted By: Ilana Martin

A Community of Investors

i, we, us graphic

From iDE CEO Al Doerksen’s blog:

iDE has been going through a rebranding process. This is not just about visual identity, but also in terms of how we think about ourselves, our work and the people we interact with. Along the way, we have decided to go with the word mark as illustrated below.

The distinctly colored lower case “i” represents a lot of ideas we want to be known for: innovation, integrity, international, intentional, income, irrigation, impact, imagination, and the list could go on to include investment.

We have developed a little graphic with multiple “i’s”. An “i” alone represents me; it starts with what I believe is necessary and possible and what I am prepared to accept responsibility for. This is not an individualistic organization, however, the multiple “i’s” become “we”. We share a common belief system, a common philosophy of development, a common commitment to action … and we understand that when we believe and act together, things happen.

To take it further, we understand that we are a community of investors. You can see us in the graphic – some diversity to be sure, but there we are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in common cause.

Each of us are investors.

Our donors invest in our mission because they believe and desire that we will create a social return on that investment which results in income and livelihood opportunities for the rural poor.

Our staff invests their careers and time in pursuit of a mission which is driven by the same desire for a social return. We believe that the efforts we invest in innovative product development and rural marketing programs will pay off.

Our interns and volunteers invest their time and passion to join us; the leverage they bring is not inconsiderable.

Our supply chain partners invest working capital to source and/or manufacture treadle pumps, drip systems and sanitary latrines because they believe in the underlying value of those products; that value to include the margins to keep the supply chain profitable and sustainable.

And most importantly, our small plot farmer clients invest their meager resources to acquire and put to work technologies which will increase their productivity and production, and their disposable income. We have learned a long time ago that small plot $1/day farmers require a payback which, in most cases, is less than a year. Generating this return is primary for us.

So we are a community of investors. We partner to achieve common purpose. Each of us has something at risk; each of us has a particular desired return on that investment. When we recognize that we are a community of investors, thoughts of paternalism disappear. So do characterizations of our small plot farmers as beneficiaries.

All of us in iDE are investors. We stand together, and together we achieve a considerable return on those investments. Some call it ROI. And that is good for all of us.

Al Doerksen

April 2011

Welcome to iDE

© iDE. All Rights Reserved.