Thanks to new solar-powered irrigation pump, Illinois professor empowers HIV+ Kenyan women
In 2013, Brian Lilly and his son, Dan, traveled to East Africa to volunteer with an organization called Living Positive Kenya (LPK). Inspired by viewing the needs of underprivileged women in the region, Lilly, an adjunct associate professor with the University of Illinois Technology Entrepreneur Center, has returned to Kenya many times over the past three years and is empowering women with HIV and helping other smallholder farmers, mostly women, make a living.
Living Positive Kenya was formed in 2006 by Mary Wanderi, a social worker in the slums of Ngong Hills, to support HIV+ women through AIDS counseling, health education, economic empowerment, and community assimilation and integration. Many companies test their employees for HIV every few months, and if a test comes back positive, the employees are often let go.
Therefore one of LPK’s biggest initiatives is the Women Economic Empowerment Program (WEEP), which, in addition to making sure women with HIV are getting medicine, it is providing a means for them to support themselves. Wanderi and her staff teach skills like sewing and beadwork and train them in basic finance.
Maji \m(a)-ji\ (noun): Swahili word for "water"
Moreover, LPK works with HIV+ women to form co-ops to grow vegetables in greenhouses. For these women, the process of irrigation is extremely tedious. Typically, the women fetch water from a 40-foot deep well through a pulley-and-bucket system, transfer the water to another container, and carry it on their heads several hundred meters to a tank, which then uses gravity to irrigate the plants. About three women per greenhouse spend 6-8 hours per day in this process.
Prior to his initial trip to volunteer with LPK, Lilly had received a $100,000 Gates grant through his company, Ergo-Tech, Inc., to help explore making a water pump for smallholder farmers from auto parts. The thought being that in a region where spare parts are scarce, using auto parts would provide an easier means to find replacement pieces.
“I had a product in mind, but not necessarily an application,” Lilly said.
That is until meeting Wanderi and experiencing first-hand the challenges of irrigation, which not only exist in Ngong Hills, but throughout East Africa. He also discovered the need to make a product that was portable as pumps left by a well had a great risk of being stolen.
While his initial vision was to build a device that could move water from a stream, rather than a well, he discovered that the idea of utilizing water pumps from a car provided much flow, but little lift, which was not conducive to pulling water from a well. So he literally shifted gears and used other parts to build the pumps. He also realized he needed to create a pump that connected directly to a power source to avoid the complications that often exists with battery power.
Lilly set out to create a portable solar-powered water pump. The result is a product called Majipump, a low wattage device that connects directly to solar panels and allows the smallholder farmers to pump water directly from the well to the greenhouses, making this process much faster and less strenuous. That will mean higher yield and more robust crops and more time for the women to attend to their families or find other means of income.
“The product is new to the world,” Lilly said. “The fact that it runs on such low wattage is game changing.”
But Lilly had a grander vision in mind -- employ the women supported by WEEP, and sell and distribute the pumps widely to East Africa. For a smallholder farmer, spending around the $200 anticipated price tag for the pumps would more than pay for itself in extra income and with a distribution center in Kenya, spare parts would be more readily available.
“WEEP does give women life skills, but it’s low paying and their products are competing with those made with sweatshop labor,” Lilly said. “What we are doing is providing sustainable economic development by creating good paying jobs while also addressing a major need.”
After creating his prototype, Lilly needed to develop a business plan and verify the marketability of the product before beginning mass production. He met with Chloride Exide, a Kenyan company with over 1,000 distribution points including 14 “depot” retail outlets, about supplying the solar panels.
“The sales and marketing guy told me, ‘You don’t have to sell me on the demand,” Lilly recalled. “‘My mother draws water from a shallow well.’ They understood the need and loved it because every time we sell a pump they sell two solar panels. It is the kind of arrangement that is going to lead to more jobs and more innovation.”
Lilly adds that many initiatives, particularly from the United States, fail only because a finite amount of funding is allocated to a project and when the money runs dry, they come to halt. In Lilly’s case, once his grant came to an end, he made a commitment to self-fund the project until it became sustainable; ultimately providing an income source whose supply is naturally renewed.
“What they need is application engineering,” Lilly said. “They need economic development. They need so many things that we take for granted here, like infrastructure.”
The first 400 pumps have already been shipped with Chloride Exide putting in an order in for 400 more. Those pumps were manufactured in the U.S., but future plans are to manufacture them closer to the region, using the women from WEEP to assemble them and Chloride Exide as a distribution hub. While a few hundred pumps are already in use in Kenya, it has taken nearly two years of testing for Lilly to feel confident in the product to begin mass producing them.
“You need to do reliability testing in real conditions before you’re confident in selling it,” said Lilly. “I realized I had to make it simple and eliminate any electrical connections, therefore the pumps are connected directly to the solar panels without using a battery or charge controller circuit.”
Since Chloride Exide has a built-in distribution system, they are able to widely market the pumps to homeowners as well as rural farmers, and provide much needed customer support.
“A key piece that most companies miss on is product support. In order to do that, you need a big organization with feet on the ground,” said Lilly, who as a result now has a customer base for whom to work on the next product.
In addition to the pumps, Lilly and his daughter, Grace, set up a fish farm last summer, where the women are raising Tilapia. They designed and built a bio filter, which runs on just a 30-watt solar panel, to clean, recycle and reuse the water. Some of the ammonia rech water is used elsewhere on their farms for fertilizing crops. They sell the fish to local hotels and restaurants, harvesting about 300 fish at a time, but Lilly believes the tank has the capability to raise as many as 1,000 at once. He is now working with several UI students to refine the design.
“That will mean extra cash, which is really important to LPK because they don’t want to be donor dependent,” Lilly said. “My goal no matter what is to create employment and opportunity. From any profits that are generated, I’ll put into building the next product. The farm that was producing onions and other greens when I showed up a couple of years ago is now into much higher margin products with much higher nutritional value. I am excited about the many possibilities.”