Proximity Designs is a sustainable development group that works to improve the lives of the rural poor in Myanmar. Proximity Designs boosts agricultural productivity by designing, producing, and distributing affordable products for people living on less than $2 a day. These include pedal-powered irrigation pumps, gravity-fed drip irrigation systems, and portable water storage tanks custom made for Myanmar’s farmers. Each design is intended to reduce daily hardships like hauling tons of water, and each improves household productivity by replacing time-consuming, antiquated technologies. Proximity Designs takes a holistic approach to farmer assistance, offering education programs, financing, and infrastructure projects that improve the lives of people in the country’s most remote regions.
When cofounders Debbie Aung Din Taylor and Jim Taylor moved to Myanmar in 2004, they brought with them a decade of experience in economic development and relief work in Southeast Asia. Debbie, who is Burmese, had previously worked with the UN and the World Bank, studying the link between Myanmar’s agrarian economy and its endemic poverty.
The millions of small farms that make up the country’s backbone are at the epicenter of extreme poverty; therefore, the Taylors looked for simple, cost-effective ways to boost productivity. Irrigation, time-consuming and backbreaking, was an obvious focus. Motorized pumps are too expensive and too impractical—most of Myanmar’s farmers don’t have electricity or the funds to cover fuel costs—so the Taylors focused on foot-operated treadle pumps. These basic tools, which have been in use in the developing world for decades, can cut irrigation time by 80 percent.
A timely collaboration with students from Stanford University’s Design For Extreme Affordability program helped the Taylors develop one of the cheapest pressure pumps available worldwide. The original treadle pump has a compact metal frame but no pedals; farmers attach bamboo or wood planks of customizable length to form the pedals. The result is a stable pump that is easy to ship and costs only $45.
Extreme affordability continues to be a main tenet of Proximity’s design philosophy. Along with the original Tripod pump, the company produces the Baby Elephant, an all-plastic pump that can extract 850 gallons per hour and costs only $17. According to Proximity Designs, a pump this cheap can increase a farmer’s net income by about $200 in a single growing season. A gravity-fed drip irrigation system that costs $40 can irrigate up to a quarter acre and increase crop yields by up to 33 percent. Other products include a collapsible water storage container that can hold about 250 gallons and solar lanterns that provide up to twelve hours of light on one charge.
In a country where manufacturing and finance systems are underdeveloped, simply designing new equipment isn’t enough. To get its products to the farmers who most need them, Proximity Designs has had to create its own ecosystem. All manufacturing is done in Myanmar, and distribution is hyperlocal: In addition to the 189 retailers who sell the group’s products in cities and market towns throughout the country, Proximity Designs has developed a network of more than 800 independent agents. These agents—often early users of the products—reach farmers who rarely travel to the nearest small town. The agents procure the pumps for the farmers, install them, and provide maintenance. This village-level distribution chain is so effective that Proximity Designs became one of the first responders when Cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008; they delivered recovery kits with equipment and rice seed to 58,000 households, offsetting losses and helping farmers prepare for the next growing season.
To address a different crisis—credit famine in rural areas—Proximity Designs offers low-risk installment loans to farmers, making more than 20,000 loans in 2012 alone. In the Ayeyarwady Delta, Proximity trains teams of agronomists to advise farmers on pest control and simple techniques that can increase crop yields. Across Myanmar, Proximity has funded rural infrastructure projects, such as creating rainwater-harvesting reservoirs and constructing footpaths and bridges to provide better access to schools, hospitals, and markets. Projects are community-managed and undertaken by residents during the dry season, when supplemental income is sorely needed to counteract food shortages and invest in equipment for the next planting.
Proximity Designs has achieved remarkable reach in an isolated country and is one of the largest nonprofits operating in Myanmar. It has sold more than 100,000 products and served more than 98,000 households in 2012. Proximity Designs intends to continue expanding its suite of solutions for small-plot farmers, offering more financing options and farmer education programs to boost productivity and well-being.
Good design starts with empathy.
— Jim and Debbie Aung Din Taylor