Paul Polak speaks at GSVC Finals Dinner


About a week ago, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Polak speak at the Global Social Venture Competition finals dinner. Paul has done some amazing stuff in bringing mass-market solutions to the rural poor, particular farmers in developing countries.  His company, IDE (International Development Enterprise), is famous for the treadle pump which allows farmers to access ground water sources to irrigate their crops.  He also has another project, D-Rev, which focuses on designing solutions for the other 90%, as 90% of designers primarily create solutions for affluent 10% of the world’s population.

Paul has done a phenomenal job of creating awareness about design for developing countries and has created some incredible products that have really added a lot of value to many rural farmers all over the world.  But in some aspects he oversimplifies the story and it seems like an all-or-nothing type of game.  Paul’s three “don’t bother” points when looking at a BoP solution are:

  1. If you haven’t had conversation with at least 25 people…
  2. If it won’t pay for itself within a year…
  3. If you can’t sell at least a million of them

Don’t bother!

While this “don’t bother” trilogy is trying to ensure that products fit user needs, are cost-effective, and can be scalable, I do believe it is worth trying even if you can’t sell a million or have a one year payback.  The technology adoption curve generally means that some early adopters will try a new technology, spread the word if it works, and then the technology will begin to disseminate in the mass market.  Without this sort of process, new technologies would probably die immediately, because it’s so hard to mass manufacture things at a low price point right from the beginning.

For my Design for Sustainable Community project, which is focused on re-designing the solar box cooker, Paul Polak’s philosophy puts a bit of a damper on our project.  We know what the most cost-effective solar cooker is out there in the market — cardboard and tinfoil.  And we know the other mass manufactured solar cookers, made out of sheet metal and wood, are magnitudes more expensive (30-45 USD) but also many more times more durable.  So at what point is there a balance between cost and longevity? Because an inexpensive drip irrigation system made out of a rice bag, some plastic tubing, and wooding stakes may be great, but it’s not a long-term solution.  And like the cardboard DIY solar cookers, how do we reconcile this disconnect with Polak’s “don’t bother” philosophy?

It’s definitely a challenge, especially as we’re also targeting more low-income rural villages in India. But one distinction that we made early on during the goal-setting process was moving up the income ladder to the higher-lower income, or emerging middle class.  So a group of people who have some income saved up and may be willing to invest in a more permanent solution.  Maybe that’s where the difference lies — maybe Polak is really focused on the less than a $1, bottom of the pyramid and there’s also a huge market opportunity in the $2 or $3 per day population.  Because in the end, these inexpensive solutions may end up with a higher environmental footprint (shorter lifecycles, more frequent replenishment, more materials used in the end) and they still serve a market need, albeit not the extreme poor.


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