May 22, 2013

Five questions with Alan Spybey

Until the 1990s, small-holder farmers in developing countries had few, if any, options for low-cost water pumps to irrigate their fields. That absence was a market failure that needed a correction, says Alan Spybey, the director of product intelligence and development at KickStart International.

When he started promoting irrigation in Kenya, human-powered treadle pumps were not widely available. Spybey and his team produced a low-cost, portable, ergonomic machine. They have sold more than 200,000 in Africa so far.

Now, more than 15 years after developing those first pump designs, Spybey describes a market for small-holder farmers that is evolving, becoming more varied with new designs, including small gas-powered pumps from China. He attributes some of this new focus on small farms to Kickstart’s early work promoting irrigation.

In spite of the introduction of fossil fuels, human power has a place on the smallest farms, Spybey says. Kickstart has a human-powered pump that can irrigate up to three-quarters of an acre and retails for about a third of the price of the cheapest gas-powered pump. And Spybey and his team are working to bring that cost down even lower.

“This is an important entry option for people with almost no access to finance on day-to-day survival budgets. In the longer term, however, we wish to drive down the entry cost for renewable energy pumps,” Spybey told E4C.

Before joining Kickstart, Spybey founded a Jacaranda Workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, that employed graduates of a school for intellectually challenged kids. The facility grew to employ 40 people in work that called for a “curious combination” of process analysis, craft work, custom jigs and computer programming that Spybey remembers as one of his favorite projects.

We were excited for the chance to tap into some of Spybey’s long experience in farm technology design and his work in developing technology for sustainable economic growth, so we asked him five questions.

E4C: What is one of the technological aspects of irrigation devices for small-holder farmers that interests you?  

AS: It’s difficult to identify one thing.  I think my team tends to be interested in technical developments and challenges as a normal diet. However in the broad sweep of things renewable energy is a fascination. Of course, like many people, I have an interest because of the ecological survival of the world, and concern about what the future will be like for our children. But professionally I am also excited about its business potential in improving the business cycle for small-holders. If the technology can be developed to levels of suitable efficiency, entry cost, and partnered with appropriate financing models, it could greatly improve the profitability of small farms. I think there is a good chance of technology leap-frogging taking place. In the same way that cabled telephone systems were slow to evolve across Africa, and now never will, because of the spread of mobile phones, I think it possible that renewable energy pumping could propagate across the continent and displace wide-spread use of carbon-fuel pumps.

E4C: When did you first realize that you’re in the right line of work?

AS: Whilst I have to admit that perhaps the early part of my working life entailed a high degree of randomness and occasional serendipity, I realised this was the right line of work before I started it. I had the good luck to be accepted to run a project within KickStart which was around small-business upgrading, but I was so taken with the impact and scale of the irrigation-orientated core of the organisation, I studied for an engineering degree and made approaches to join up. I think I was regarded with some reservation at first, and was taken on in a temporary caretaker role, but since twelve years have passed, I suspect the number of people who complain that I’m not sweeping the steps properly are currently slightly fewer than those who appreciate the polish on the doorknobs.

E4C: Ten years from now, what changes would you like to see as a result of your work?  

AS: I would like to see a distinct change in the wealth differential in Africa and anywhere else that we manage to grow to. I would like to see small African farms reach a level of profitability and productivity so that they become collectively  strong enough to defend the continent’s land from opportunistic buyouts from more capital-rich raiders, whether they be indigenous individuals or wealthier governments.  I personally believe markets work better when the slider is more towards small-business competition than oligopoly. Since presently agriculture employs about three-quarters of the population in SSA, there is potential for key system improvements to have widespread effects.

E4C: What is one thing that a lot of people don’t know about irrigation on small farms in rural Africa, but that we should know?

AS: Well one thing I don’t know is what a lot of people don’t know! If they don’t know it, and I don’t know them, what are the chances of me knowing that?

[E4C: …good point… ]

So, for this question I consulted my fellow designers, Fred Obudho and Simon Mugo, which triggered a lively conversation which ranged over history, politics and technology.  I still don’t know what a lot of people don’t know, but I’ll say this: there is no such thing as “one thing.” The issues surrounding irrigation are complex. The reason why people are not doing it can be any combination of access to water; agricultural skills in knowing how to grow a different kind of crop, and the confidence and risk management in changing over; finance, since the returns will come at least six months after asset and recurrent investments in irrigation; cultural inheritance, for example, the reliance on natural rainfall; economic and societal synergy within a particular locality – there are certain ‘hot-spots’ where many people are irrigating and yet surrounding areas where very few have this practice. That’s just a sample.

What is certain however is the potential. Estimates differ, but roughly only one farm in 20 in Sub-Saharan Africa which could irrigate is currently irrigating.

E4C: What is one of the most instructive mistakes that you’ve made in your work and what have you learned from it?  

AS: The mistake I used to make was that I thought that people wouldn’t respect me if I made a mistake, so I used to try to cover that up. I found out that wasn’t necessarily so when I used to be a novice truck-driver. I had a particularly difficult load to rope down on a low-loader trailer and there were only steel loops to rope onto rather than the customary hooks. I was really embarrassed to be in that situation, but I plucked up enough courage to tell a more experienced driver that I was baffled. That guy then paid me a compliment by saying that was what he liked about me – that I was open about my ignorance. I didn’t deserve the generality, but I’ll always be grateful to that guy for making that comment. It was an ego booster and it also taught me a great new knot. It’s a good lesson for design. I make mistakes all the time of course, every day.  But I try not to let them grow into big mistakes by admitting my lack of certainty about direction, and sharing the problem with others.

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