Proximity Designs Improves Farmers’ Lifestyles and Incomes—Even If It’s “Just” a Water Pump

by Rich Thomas
- Apr 20 2015 - 5 min read
proximity designs baby buffalo
Baby Buffalo pump in a Myanmar field.

If you take it at face value, the term “user-centered design” seems like an overinflated buzzword that could be used by techies to describe every product ever created for a human being.

A read-through of the term’s extensive Wikipedia entry, however, reveals a key distinction between UCD and other schools of thought. User-centered design is successful when the user can enjoy the product without having to do anything different. Forget a low barrier to entry; we’re talking no barrier to entry.

In developed countries, where people can shave 10 minutes off their commute by popping a pod in their coffeemaker rather than brewing a full pot, UCD helps people optimize their schedule and better enjoy their creature comforts. In a place like Myanmar (also known as Burma), which ranks 150 out of 187 in the Human Development Index, UCD takes on a whole other meaning. It’s oftentimes less about comfort and more about survival. Jim Taylor, co-founder of Proximity Designs, opts for a newer buzzword, “human-centered design.”

“This is a process of understanding human needs and having empathy for the people you’re trying to serve, especially when it comes to social businesses,” he explains of Proximity’s approach. “It’s very important to think about who you’re trying to reach and then designing around those people’s needs and aspirations, rather than finding ways of making certain technologies attractive.”

proximity designs baby buffalo pump
The Baby Buffalo pump. Courtesy Proximity Designs.

Founded in 2004, Proximity Designs is a Myanmar-based nonprofit offering sustainable products and services that improve the lifestyles (and boost the incomes) of the rural poor, many of whom are farmers. Its Yetagon brand of products include things like a mobile, foot-powered suction pump (the Red Rhino); a pump that uses a rope-and-pulley system (the Baby Elephant); and collapsible PVC tanks that hold as many as 250 gallons of water. In keeping with a mantra of “designing for extreme affordability,” no Proximity product sells for more than $50. In a country where 70 percent of the population depends on agriculture, Proximity’s impact on the local economy is impressive, as evidenced by an average $250-equivalent increase in the annual income of its customers.

While they may appear rudimentary to some, these tools are godsends to farmers who have to walk back and forth to local ponds to retrieve water. And they are not your ordinary one-size-fits-all treadle pumps. Proximity has its own product-design lab to tailor its products specifically to Myanmar farmers’ needs.

Proximity Designs Baby Elephant pump
Baby Elephant pump. Courtesy Proximity Designs.

Innovative to you and I? Perhaps not. Innovative to 68-year-old Ma Kyi Aung, who once considered taking her own life when caring for both her 90-year-old husband and her mentally handicapped daughter proved too taxing? Most definitely.

“Obviously people in developed countries are enchanted by things like Nest and drones. Those kinds of things are relevant to their lifestyle,” Taylor says. “A person in an emerging market is thinking about products that might be more basic but no less exciting to them. An irrigation pump might not seem very innovative to someone in a developed country, but if you’re hauling water all day and facing that drudgery, pain, and inconvenience, then a foot-powered pump can be very attractive and exciting.”

proximity designs product lab
Product lab. Courtesy Proximity Designs.

Just like Apple, Beats By Dre, or any other product manufacturer that has dovetailed into a lifestyle brand, Proximity also focuses on things like interface, aesthetics, and ease of use, so its customers can feel pride in ownership.

“In fact,” Taylor explains, “some customers are very attached to their pumps, so brand loyalty and engagement do exist in these markets.”

Still, focusing on product needs for developed countries presents a fair share of challenges. Mainstream media doesn’t salivate over advancements in foot-operated pumps or tarpaulin storage tanks like they do over product upgrades highlighted in the Apple Keynote, but there are plenty of groups dedicated to providing solutions to developing economies.

“Investors want to fund ‘the new thing,’ yet there may be tremendous demand for a product that’s very simple and basic. Drip irrigation is not that ‘sexy’ of a product, and yet you talk to people who’ve used it and improved their incomes by using it, and it’s a tremendous product for them.”

But Proximity doesn’t just offer physical product to its customers. It also offers guidance and assistance in the form of small-asset financing plans and farm-advisory services.

“Our irrigation products have a fast payback rate,” Taylor says. “This means that farmers can buy our products with an installment loan, and then, four months later when payment is due, farmers can repay the loan with the income the product has generated.”

proximity designs water pump testing area
Testing area. Couresy Proximity Designs.

The company also provides micro-financing plans that are uniquely tailored to the cash-flow cycles of rural farmers. Instead of a small loan paid out via biweekly installments, these loans can be repaid after the harvest, when farmers have a large influx of income. What’s interesting is that this two-tiered business model—half product-based, half service-related—might not have existed if it weren’t for a catastrophic natural disaster.

Cyclone Nargis hit the region on May 2, 2008, and was responsible for at least 138,000 deaths and an estimated $10 billion in damage. Proximity effectively put its core irrigation business on hold for nearly a year and a half while everyone from technicians to sales agents mobilized to help farmers devastated by the cyclone. In the long run, the disaster motivated the company to do even more for the region, and inspired the creation of its farm-finance and farm-advisory services.

“We had to respond in ways that were not consistent with our business model,” Taylor remembers, “but because we were able to have such a big impact, our response efforts had a very positive effect on the organization. The organization gained confidence and a sense of pride that we were able to help so many people when other experts in relief weren’t as effective. People were very proud to be with Proximity and to be a part of what we were doing.”

Proximity Designs is a member of the Autodesk Foundation, the first foundation to focus investment exclusively on the people and organizations using design for impact. Find out more about the field of impact design at

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