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Proximity Designs

Debbie Aung Din Taylor and Jim Taylor met as twenty-something activists in Mississippi, where they learned an important lesson that stays with them today: you need to live among those you aim to serve in order to gain necessary knowledge and understanding. This philosophy, plus a decade of experience in economic development and relief work was what they brought to Myanmar in 2004.

Debbie, who is Burmese, had previously worked with the UN and the World Bank, studying the link between Myanmar’s agrarian economy and its endemic poverty. A full 70% of the population of Myanmar depends on agriculture, yet the millions of small farms that make up the country’s backbone are an epicenter of extreme poverty. The Taylor’s wanted to address this and knew the solution would need to be simple, practical and very low cost.

Irrigation, time-consuming and backbreaking, was an their main focus. Motorized pumps are expensive and most of Myanmar’s farmers don’t have electricity or the funds for fuel, so the Taylors focused on foot-operated treadle pumps. Other products they developed included gravity-fed drip irrigation systems and portable water storage tanks custom made for Myanmar’s farmers.  All reduce daily hardships like hauling water and replace time-consuming, antiquated technologies and increase productivity.

A timely collaboration with students from Stanford University’s Design for Extreme Affordability program helped the Taylors develop one of the cheapest pressure pumps available anywhere. The original treadle pump has a compact metal frame but no pedals; farmers attach bamboo or wood planks of customizable length to form the pedals. The result is a stable pump that is easy to ship and costs only $45.

Extreme affordability continues to be a main tenet of Proximity’s design philosophy. Along with the original Tripod pump, the company produces the Baby Elephant, an all-plastic pump that can extract 850 gallons per hour and costs only $17. This pump can increase a farmer’s net income by about $200 in a single growing season. A gravity-fed drip irrigation system that costs $40 can irrigate up to a quarter acre and increase crop yields by up to 33 percent. Other products include a collapsible water storage container that can hold about 250 gallons and solar lanterns that provide up to twelve hours of light in one charge.

Simply designing new equipment wasn’t enough. In a country where manufacturing and finance systems are underdeveloped, Proximity Designs had to create its own ecosystem to ensure its products could get to the farmers who need them most. All manufacturing is done in Myanmar and distribution is hyperlocal. In addition to the 189 retailers who sell the group’s products in cities and market towns throughout the country, Proximity Designs developed a network of more than 800 independent agents. These agents, often early users of the products, reach farmers who rarely travel to the nearest small town. The agents procure the pumps for the farmers, install them, and provide maintenance.

This village-level distribution chain is so effective that Proximity Designs became one of the first responders when Cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008; they delivered recovery kits with equipment and rice seed to 58,000 households, offsetting losses and helping farmers prepare for the next growing season.

To address a different crisis— credit famine in rural areas, Proximity Designs offers low-risk installment loans to farmers, making more than 20,000 loans in 2012 alone. In the Ayeyarwady Delta, Proximity trains teams of agronomists to advise farmers on pest control and simple techniques that can increase crop yields. Across Myanmar, Proximity has funded rural infrastructure projects, such as creating rainwater-harvesting reservoirs and constructing footpaths and bridges to provide better access to schools, hospitals, and markets. Projects are community-managed and undertaken by residents during the dry season, when supplemental income is sorely needed to counteract food shortages and invest in equipment for the next planting.

Proximity Designs has achieved remarkable reach in an isolated country and is one of the largest nonprofits operating in Myanmar. Since it began operations, Proximity customers have seen an average annual income increase of 30%. They expect to reach their millionth customer shortly (at the time of receiving the Curry Stone Prize in 2013, they served less than 100,000 households).

Proximity is also involved at a macro level, engaging in policy discussions with the Myanmar government, Harvard, and other stakeholders to share their research and findings, facilitating dialogue around the critical issues facing Myanmar today.  Although they are often asked if they plan to scale their operations outside of Myanmar, they remain true to their name: Proximity. Rather than scaling outside the place they know, they will look deeper for further opportunities to impact the lives of rural farmers in Myanmar.