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Engineer of the Year Finalist: Martin Fisher
[September 26, 2007]

Engineer of the Year Finalist: Martin Fisher

(Design News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) With a Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Stanford University and expertise in the acoustic elasticity of aluminum alloys, Martin Fisher seemed destined for a career in the aerospace industry. Instead, he decided to use his engineering skills to help Africa's poor. Or more precisely, help the poor help themselves.

Fisher is a co-founder of KickStart International (
), a non-profit organization that develops and markets new technologies for use in Africa. Local entrepreneurs buy these low-cost technologies and use them to establish small businesses that can lift them out of poverty.

As KickStart's principle design engineer, Fisher has personally created a variety of micro-irrigation systems based on portable, manual water pumps that can give farmers a reliable way to increase their crop yields. The most recent of these is his patented Hip Pump, an ergonomic manual pump that uses the motion of the user's hips against a lever as the drive mechanism. Capable of lifting water from 6m below the ground to 13m above it, this $34 pump allows a farmer to irrigate about three-quarters of an acre in eight hours.

Fisher has also helped develop technologies for pressing oil seeds, making building blocks from compacted soil, bales of hay and even producing a latrine cover that's become the hygienic gold standard in many refugee camps.

All of these technologies, particularly those related to micro-irrigation, have given their use a huge economic boost. According to Fisher, some farmerpreneurs using KickStart's micro-irrigation systems (

) have increased their incomes by a factor of 10 and are clearing as much as $5,400 in yearly profits. KickStart reports all of its products have enabled the creation of 50,000 new businesses. Fisher estimates these businesses have generated about $52 million a year in new profits and wages.

Martin is a genius at creating low-cost products that can deliver a lot of value to their users, says Cynthia Smith, curator of the Cooper Hewitt Museum's Design for the Other 90 Percent (

), an exhibition of products for the developing world.

KickStart's technologies reflect Fisher's unique approach to development, an approach that combines his on-the-ground experience in Africa and his engineering chops.

Fisher first went to Africa in 1985, when he lived in Kenya for 10 months as a Fulbright Scholar inspired by E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful philosophy and the appropriate technology movement.

Yet, his early experiences there challenged many of the assumptions he had about the technology's role in fighting poverty. I went to Africa with an engineer's belief that the right technologies could make a difference in people's lives, he says. When I arrived I found that the appropriate technology movement was dead in the water. He blames very bad engineering for the failure of many small-scale technologies that were seemingly designed to meet local needs. Some of this stuff was held together by bubble gum, he says.

With KickStart, Fisher set about to remedy the engineering issues he saw in the field. One of our primary design criteria is that things shouldn't break, which is easier said than done in Africa, he says.

Although Fisher's designs for KickStart may seem simple at first glance, he has had to contend with challenging design constraints related to the products' usage in rural Africa. Many of the products have to be manufactured in Africa, limiting materials choice and assembly methods. KickStart's products have to go together and come apart without tools. We don't get to use screws like everyone else, he says. And since KickStart's products are manually operated, ergonomics and ease-of-use are a big concern. Much of Fisher's earlier work involved the optimization of existing devices to improve their ergonomics and efficiency.

As much as KickStart's success rests on engineering, Fisher has done just as much work understanding the cultural factors that govern what products should be developed in the first place. He points to incorrect assumptions about the needs of the poor as one reason why appropriate technology didn't take off back in the '80s. For example, he's seen technologies that wrongly focused on improving the user's productivity. People in Africa generally tend to have an abundance of time and labor. What they don't have is capital, says Fisher. Their number one need is a way to make money. Everything else follows from that.

Fisher describes this view as sacrilege to most large development agencies, which still tend to give away technologies and provide expertise that has little to do with the aid recipient's ability to make a living. Think of it as the give-a-man-a-fish approach with a few fishing lessons thrown in. KickStart takes a different approach. What we do is sell people a really good fishing pole that they can use to improve their lives, Fisher says.

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. All Rights Reserved.

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