Pumping Up the Kenyan Economy

Courtesy Martin Fisher

Martin Fisher will not stop moving. As he describes his work and the passion that sustains him, he crosses his legs, uncrosses them, fiddles with his pen. He gestures excitedly, his British accent on the edge of laughter. He has been telling his story over and over with unflagging enthusiasm for nine years now, trying to convince anybody who will listen that his adopted homeland of Kenya can prosper if its people have the right tools and incentive.

Fisher went to Kenya in 1985 on a Fulbright fellowship, planning to stay 10 months. Six years later, frustrated with the lack of progress by other nonprofits and convinced that foreign aid wasn't solving Kenya's economic problems, Fisher founded his own nonprofit company with a former co-worker. The idea behind Approtec was simple: design inexpensive, easy-to-use agricultural equipment, sell the blueprints and provide training to local manufacturers, and then market the devices to farmers. With simple technology, Fisher thought, farmers could produce greater yields more efficiently without incurring massive debt or high overheads. Farmers could reinvest their profits, and Kenyan families would achieve some degree of economic stability, Fisher believed. And it has worked.

ApproTEC's most popular product is a water pump, which allows farmers to irrigate their small plots instead of depending on rain. Previously, they were lucky to produce even a subsistence harvest. Irrigation lets them grow several crops at once, count on a better harvest, and sell what their family doesn't need. Profit.

The biggest impediment to economic growth in Kenya is lack of funds, says Fisher, MS '80, PhD '86. The government used to provide free education and health services with international aid, but funds dwindled in the past two decades. Now, he says, "Education you have to pay for, health care you have to pay for. Your farm is now half an acre. You still have a family of 10 living on it. All of a sudden you have to buy food instead of growing enough to eat, and you don't have any money."

Fisher says ApproTEC has made a difference since it developed its first water pump. He describes driving his battered Toyota out to the fields to give product demonstrations, offering farmers the possibility of making their tiny bit of land, their one real asset, pay off. "How many of you would buy this?" he asked, working the foot pedals of the blue water pump he affectionately calls the MoneyMaker.

"This crowd of 30 people or so gathers around and everybody's fascinated," he recalls, mimicking the eager, raised hands. "Then, when it actually comes to buying it, people are much more risk-averse and they want their neighbor to buy it first. We're talking about very poor people, so you really have to find the market leaders, the adventurers who will go out and take a risk and buy something."

The first MoneyMaker sold for $75. By continuing to streamline production and improve efficiency, Approtec offers the newest version for $30. "Almost anyone in Kenya can come up with $30," Fisher says, pointing to a picture of the new water pump Approtec has tentatively named the Rainmaker. "People will come up with money if they know they can make money back."

Fisher had expected to be a professor like his father and brothers, but "I realized my research [in mechanical engineering] didn't excite me that much." Instead, he took his engineering skills to where they were scarce.

What first struck Fisher about Kenya was the enormous gap between rich and poor, he says. "Kenya is a country where 10 percent of the people have 90 percent of the wealth. Those 10 percent live in incredible luxury--huge mansions, compounds, servants. Then you have two million people in Nairobi living in absolute squalor, in slums, no electricity, no water."

He tried living in a YMCA room in Kenya for the first five years to "prove you didn't need the trappings of wealth to be happy." It was "idealistic and foolish," he admits, but it put him in touch with a deprived lifestyle. With too few rich and too many poor, Kenya lacks a middle class. Fisher says appropriate technology is one way to help build one.

Fisher hopes to attract more funding to expand Approtec's reach. As he pulls annual reports and product photos from his briefcase, it's obvious he has given this speech to many potential funders. It's "like turning on a tape recorder," he says of the nine years of lunch meetings and lectures. "To believe in something and push it, even when you get a lot of resistance, is difficult."

Still, Fisher's initial staff of three has grown to 100, and he plans to open ApproTEC [Approtec.org] offices in the United States and Britain. He's come some distance from the company's struggling first few years, when only butcher shops and hair salons would display ApproTEC products, and Fisher and his business partner donated their salaries to secure a matching grant from the British government. "There are times," he says, "when you go home thinking, 'We should just give up; why are we doing this?'"

What keeps him going are the stories from the fields. Farmers who earned under a dollar each day are now making four dollars. Women who once stayed at home unemployed now operate their own businesses by using an ApproTEC seed press. Families can afford to send their children back to school. "When you go visit a farm, and you see what they've done, it's just very moving," Fisher says.


Irene Noguchi, '02, is an English and economics major from Santa Ana, Calif.