The Power of a Radically Affordable Irrigation Pump

A Bangladeshi farmer operates a treadle pump to irrigate her family's rice field. Photo courtesy of International Development Enterprises.


One of the more transformative technologies ever developed for the world’s poor farmers is a water-lifting device called a treadle pump.

It looks and operates much like a Stairmaster exercise machine that you’d find in a gym.  But the dollar-a-day farmers who use these devices are not trying to lose pounds; they’re trying to gain them.

More than 850 million people in the world today are chronically hungry.  It is a sad irony that most of them live on farms, typically cultivating small plots in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

(Related: “Growing Food Demand Strains Energy, Water Supplies“)

These farm families go hungry because they have neither the resources to make their land productive enough to meet their food needs nor sufficient income to buy the food they need.

For many of them, the missing ingredient is water.  And that’s where the treadle pump comes in.

Traveling through Bangladesh some years ago, I saw vast areas of brown, barren land. It was January – the dry season in this monsoonal country – when there is too little rainfall to plant crops with any hope of a harvest.  Without access to irrigation water, small farmers leave their land fallow, which in turn leaves them hungry and poor.

But northeast of Dhaka, the fields were green and bustling with activity.  Men and women, children and parents, were operating treadle pumps, often under colorful canopies for some relief from the sun.  In the pump’s original version, designed by Norwegian engineer Gunnar Barnes, the operator pedals up and down on two poles (called treadles), which activates a cylinder that suctions water up through a shallow well. The water then empties into an irrigation ditch and travels down the field to irrigate small plots of rice and vegetables.

For a total investment of some $35, Bangladeshi farmers could irrigate half an acre (0.2 hectares) during the dry season.  Not only could they then feed their families, and get out of the hunger trap, they could also take some higher-value vegetable crops to market – and escape the poverty trap, as well.

Working with Barnes and other partners, the Denver-based International Development Enterprises (IDE) developed a highly successful marketing and promotion campaign to sell treadle pumps to Bangladeshi farmers through the private sector.  IDE’s approach was to work locally to develop a full supply chain – manufacturing, sales, installation and repair – so that the treadle-pump industry could be self-sustaining.

Today, some 84 manufacturers produce treadle pumps in Bangladesh, and, since 1985, some 1.4 million pumps have been sold to Bangladeshi farmers.

In his book, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, IDE founder Paul Polak estimates that treadle pump investments by farmers totaling $37.5 million combined with donor investments of $12 million are generating net returns to Bangladeshi farmers of $150 million per year.

Following on this success, other organizations (as well as IDE) have helped introduce variations of the treadle pump into countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.  In 1998, the non-profit KickStart began marketing a line of pumps called the MoneyMaker in Kenya, Mali, and Tanzania, and later in Burkina Faso and Malawi.

KickStart’s best-seller is the $300 Super MoneyMaker Pump, with sales to date totaling nearly 158,000.  Sales of its lighter, $100 Hip Pump have exceeded 32,000.

To help poor women buy pumps themselves, KickStart has established a Mobile Layaway program, which allows women farmers to save for a pump by sending micro payments to KickStart through their mobile phones.  Many are able to buy a pump within ten weeks.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Kickstart with the first-ever Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.  In presenting the award, Secretary Clinton noted, “If you just stop and think that 60 to 70 percent of the small-holder farmers in the world are women, this (initiative) has enormous potential.”

Treadle pump adopters won’t have to do the hard labor of treadling forever.  As they move up the income ladder, they’ll turn to a labor-saving irrigation system, perhaps powered by diesel or solar energy. With the extra time, women may start a business.  Girls will attend school.  Unleashed from poverty and hunger, the entrepreneurial spirit will soar.

The power of a water pump – designed, as Paul Polak puts it, for “radical affordability” – is not to be underestimated.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”



Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.