Earning a living was difficult in rural Myanmar before Proximity Designs showed up. Most of the 53 million people living in the Southeast Asian country depend on the agriculture sector for their livelihoods, but small farmers—those cultivating less than a hectare of land—cannot find easy help to do the most important and labor intensive task: watering their crops.

Smallholder farmers make a significant contribution to Myanmar’s agriculture sector, which is the country's main economic driver. The sector employs 70 percent of the country’s labor force and generates 35 to 45 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to World Bank estimates. But even though small farms feed and provide a living for so much of the country, small-scale farmers are largely ignored by agricultural product suppliers, which do not view these growers as a lucrative customer base. Small farmers therefore have few options when it comes to farming technologies.

“A small local farmer probably makes anywhere from one to three thousand dollars a year. That’s all their income,” says Taiei Harimoto, product design manager at Proximity Designs, a local organization that makes low-cost agricultural equipment. Farmers spend most of their annual income on household food, their children’s education, and crop inputs for the next season. Often a few hundred dollars are allocated for farming equipment as well, Harimoto says.

From Proximity’s point of view, this means there is a market for low-cost products within the small-farmer community. “People here deserve to have products designed for them. You can make an economic argument that there’s a market for it and that you can make money doing it,” Harimoto argues.

Myanmar’s small farmers are largely ignored by agricultural product suppliers because they are not viewed as lucrative customers.

Yangon-based Proximity has been designing “affordable, income-boosting products” for Myanmar’s smallest farmers for the last 12 years. Its first products were two treadle pumps, or foot-powered suction pumps. The organization has since expanded its irrigation product line to include several other treadle pumps, a gravity fed irrigation system, and a PVC-infused nylon water storage tank. Most of its products cost under 50,000 Myanmar kyats, or US$50.

The latest of Proximity’s irrigation products is quite a bit pricier, but one which Harimoto and his team nevertheless call “the world’s most affordable solar irrigation pump.” Known as the Lotus, the pump retails for about $375, complete with solar panels. It is made of NASA-grade materials and has been designed to fit into the narrow tube wells common across Myanmar’s rural areas. Its flow rates are optimal for farm owners with a quarter hectare of land or less.

The few solar pumps available in Myanmar are geared toward large, plantation-style fields and cost thousands of dollars, which eliminates them as an option for smallholder farmers. Instead, small farmers rely on traditional hand watering or purchase man-powered irrigation pumps, both of which limit the amount of land farmers can tend because of how exhausting the work is. Alternatively, they purchase diesel-run pumps, which are environmentally harmful and expensive to maintain because of the ongoing fuel costs. For farmers with only small plots vegetables, the cost of operating diesel pumps can be prohibitive.

“Diesel engines are very energy and cost inefficient. A lot of our customers buy diesel pumps, and those start at around $200 and cost up to $400 or $500,” explains Harimoto. “The cheapest ones are cheaper than our product, but then add to that another $100 a season for fuel.”

A tight fit

The Lotus is a submersible, centrifugal pump fueled by solar power. It is a long, slim device that is 5cm in diameter—the width of most tube wells in the fields and paddies of Myanmar. The pump contains an impeller connected to a brushless direct current motor, which drives well water up when it is switched on. The motor’s stator, controller, and all of the pump’s stationary components are encapsulated in epoxy to make them completely waterproof.

For power, the pump hooks up to two standard 130-watt solar panels. The panels affix to a collapsible stand that allows users to rotate the panels in the direction of the sun throughout the day, ensuring maximum energy capture and productivity. The panels and stand are both included with the pump. The Lotus kit also includes a user guide and an auxiliary switch box to turn the pump on and off and to channel extra energy to a secondary load for charging batteries or powering 12-volt appliances, such as a DVD player.

As a package, the Lotus is a unique product, but the individual components are not. The pump could theoretically be built from components purchased at everyday markets. In Myanmar, however, the critical parts are expensive and hard to find; for a farmer, trying to self-assemble the pump would be extremely difficult if not nearly impossible.

“Systems like ours do exist—not in Myanmar, but in neighboring countries like Bangladesh,” Harimoto says. “The ones that we've seen are much bigger and more expensive. I haven't seen anybody else marketing a complete system that could work for the individual smallholder farmer in Myanmar.”

For one, there do not appear to be any other submersible pumps that can achieve the same level of performance and also fit within the restrictions of Myanmar’s wells. To accomplish this, Proximity itself had to think creatively about the pump’s setup.

“To fit an efficient pump inside the wells, we used an unconventional setup where the impeller is mounted axially, and a bearing carries axial loads, [positioning] most of the weight of the water above the bearing,” Harimoto says. “This means the impeller must run at high speeds, carrying significant load, while under water with impurities—a highly demanding set of requirements for a moving component this small.”

Lotus pump design specifications

For this configuration to work, the Proximity team was limited by the type and material of the bearing. It tested dozens, and ultimately opted for a bearing made of zirconia—a technical ceramic. “We could have multiple bearings [working] in tandem”—meaning the bearings are not a limiting factor for the Lotus’ durability—“but since they are relatively expensive, we decided only to use one for this version,” explains Harimoto.

Additionally, a lot of submersible pumps have a closed-motor component, where the impellers are connected to a sealed shaft that prevents water from seeping into the electronics. The designers at Proximity took a different approach: the Lotus' motor performs in water because all of its stationary parts are encapsulated in waterproof epoxy, and its rotor is essentially a large nickel-plated magnet that cannot be damaged by being submerged.

Design priorities

Until the Lotus hit the market in October 2015, the only powerful but affordable irrigation options for Myanmar’s small farmers were diesel-powered pumps. Proximity had begun work on the Lotus in 2013, but solar panels were a major price constraint at the time. Because of the country’s tumultuous political history, Myanmar was isolated for many years from the surge in foreign trade happening in the region. That meant prices for solar panels and many other products manufactured outside of the country were exorbitantly high. But as foreign trade has opened in the recent years, parts like photovoltaic modules have become more widely available and affordable.

In January 2014, as solar power was becoming a more cost-competitive option, Proximity began looking into solar panel performance in two regions of the country: the fertile Ayeyarwady Delta, which lies west of Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, and the Dry Zone, a central region known for its scarce rainfall. Using historical sunlight data, the team approximated the number of hours a pump could run per day during peak sun. They predicted that the solar panels could reach their optimal range of one kilowatt per square meter for almost five hours a day in both regions, meaning that the pump could run at maximum capacity for that amount of time each day.

With this data, Proximity invited a team of students from the Institute of Design at Stanford University to develop a low-cost pumping device. “They were able to leverage their access to quick prototyping materials over at Stanford, and they came up with some pretty cool prototypes that we eventually took on and further developed,” Harimoto says. For example, one of the key features of today’s Lotus—the waterproofing design—was developed by the students at Stanford.

For 16 months thereafter, in a process that involved farmers’ participation and feedback, the Proximity team set out to improve the prototypes, and by June 2015 they were ready to test 10 units in the field and four units in the lab for 24-hour durability tests. By October, the team had a product fit for production.

The first version of the Lotus that launched can pump an average of 13,000 liters of water per day. By comparison, a standard diesel-powered pump can pump the same volume of water in about an hour, but it will consume half a liter of fuel. Harimoto explains that the Lotus’ actual output depends on the depth at which it is being used. “[To determine the Lotus’ average], we took the average depth that our treadle pump customers pump from, which is about eight meters. At that, the pump [can] draw about 45 or 50 liters of water per minute,” he says. On cloudy days, the Lotus pumps at a lower flow rate. This is not typically an issue for Myanmar farmers, however, because they experience few cloudy days during the dry season between November and April, when irrigation pumps are most needed.

The designers at Proximity knew the Lotus did not have to achieve a comparably high flow rate to diesel engines because the quarter hectare plots their target customers’ farm require only 11,000 liters of water daily. They therefore steered the pump design’s towards affordability, rather than long-term durability, to improve the product’s accessibility to small farmers. At its current price point, the Lotus can pay for itself in 10 months of operation.

“We calculated that with our specifications, customers can make back their investment in a little over one season. Our [design] goal was for the product to last a minimum of two seasons so customers will make their money back. Then, if it fails, [farmers] will still have the solar panels,” Harimoto says. The panels, he notes, account for more than 60 percent of the cost of the pump package and should last for 10 years.

Engine-based pump use in Myanmar

Proximity recognizes that with only a few hundred dollars to spend each year on equipment, Myanmar’s small farmers are discerning about their investments. Unfamiliar technology—as solar pumps are among Proximity’s target market—is not always an easy sell. This is especially true for large purchases, which is how most farming families in Myanmar view irrigation technology. About 60 percent of large purchases are decided by the family collectively, according to a market assessment Proximity conducted in early 2014. And when the family decides, the decision is usually to play it safe and stick to what they know.

But Harimoto explains that farmers are willing to spend on products they know will pay off for them, and this is something Proximity’s products have a solid track record of doing. Over the last 12 years, the organization has built a large base of 148,000 small-farmer customers who are spread across 170 townships and 9,500 villages, which collectively represent 80 percent of Myanmar’s rural farming communities. As of July 2016, Proximity had 80 sales staff, 517 independent village agents and 106 town-based dealers who engage regularly with its current and potential customers. It also provides financial support and technical assistance to farmers—services that improve the adoption and use of its technologies.

There is another reason Proximity chose cost over lifespan for the Lotus’ design: farmers’ growing access to government-subsidized electricity. Although only 16 percent of rural Myanmar is connected to the electricity grid, according to a 2013 report from KPMG, Myanmar’s government is investing in the grid’s expansion to rural areas. “We’re starting to see that some of our previous treadle pump customers now have electric pumps because they have the grid available in their area,” Harimoto says. “Once an area has access to the grid, it doesn’t make sense for them to rely on solar panels anymore.”

Launch obstacles

Proximity has enough experience with new product development to understand that the road from idea to market is a long one, particularly given the many design constraints that come with serving Myanmar’s rural farmers, such as cost, availability of materials, and ease of transport. Fortunately for Proximity, the design iteration process for the Lotus was relatively painless, thanks to the team’s intimate understanding of its customer base. In fact, the biggest complaint Proximity received from farmers during field testing was related to the solar panel stand and not the pump itself. “We got a ton of feedback on the early [packages] that we sent out about how crappy the stands were. People were not willing to use them,” Harimoto says.

That was because the users found the stand to be too complicated to assemble. The design team made several revisions to improve the simplicity of the stand’s design. It now comes in two unique pieces and requires no tools for assembly. The team says that in its current form, it is almost impossible to connect parts in the wrong configuration because the two pieces can fit together on any part of the stand.

Another feature that Proximity improved because of customer feedback was the solar panel’s battery and appliance charging features, which users found unintuitive. Charging and powering devices with the original set up required opening up the panel’s switch box and attaching multiple keys to the unit. Customers said it was unclear where the keys needed to go. Since the design team expects this to be a popular feature, they made the process simpler by color coding the keys and also designing a custom cable clamp to connect the batteries to the box.

Proximity began manufacturing the Lotus a few months after the field trials, and by December 2015, the organization had sold 30 units. But Proximity soon realized the challenges that come with relinquishing control along the path of product development: the vendor selected to manufacture the device incorrectly assembled the Lotus’ motors, and the early products Proximity shipped out were faulty and had to be recalled.

New technology is not always an easy sell. In Myanmar, large purchases, like irrigation equipment, are decided by the family. And family decision-making tends to be risk-adverse.

“The challenge of working in Myanmar is that we have to design products for extreme affordability, convenience, aesthetics, and also for manufacturability,” says Debbie Aung-Din Taylor, co-founder of Proximity. “The state of Myanmar’s industrial sector is woefully primitive and several decades behind.”

The consequence is that products carrying the “made in Myanmar” label are equated with cheap materials and poor craftsmanship, Harimoto notes. One of Proximity’s ambitions is to change public perception of locally made products by providing high-quality, affordable and well designed goods. To ensure the Lotus met its standard, Proximity suspended production for five months while it resolved the manufacturing issue.

Busses, bikes and boats

The end-to-end design and delivery of products for small, rural farmers is wrought with cost and logistical challenges almost anywhere in the world. Proximity’s ability to build a customer base across the majority of Myanmar’s rural villages and townships over the past 12 years is therefore no small feat, and its commitment to reaching the last mile in such challenging conditions gives the organization an edge over competitors who are only now waking up to the economic opportunity within the small-farming community.

Proximity’s distribution approach is to handle all product assembly in its factory in Yangon, and then ship its finished products from two separate warehouses: one in Yangon and one farther north in Mandalay. The units are transported from these locations to Proximity’s sales staff and dealers via the public bus system. The staff and dealers, who are paid on commission, are responsible for last mile distribution; they rely on busses, motorcycles and even boats to get Proximity’s products into customers’ hands.

As for competing products, Harimoto says the team has recently seen a couple of showrooms spring up in the city of Yangon, which are offering submersible, solar-powered pumps that are similar but more expensive than the Lotus system. But Proximity has not seen anything comparable to its rural distribution network.

“A critical reason we’re able to sell our products is because we have our own sales network throughout the rural areas of this country,” Harimoto explains. “Unless they [the competition] partner with a big company that already has that kind of a distribution channel, I don’t think these showrooms are going to be able to meet the needs in rural areas.”

As competition slowly creeps into the market, Proximity is already working to make the Lotus more widely accessible. The organization is developing a second version at a lower price point, and it is also helping customers secure small loans to purchase its products through its micro-financing arm, Proximity Finance. Proximity is redesigning one of its existing drip irrigation systems to work with the Lotus as well. The drip system was originally designed to be gravity-fed, since most farmers did not have access to high-pressure irrigation mechanisms when it was developed. “But,” Harimoto says, “there’s a lot more you can do with drip if you have access to higher pressure water.”

Proximity’s goal with the Lotus and new versions of its other products is to reach new customers by keeping in step with Myanmar’s current transformation. Taking advantage of the increasing availability and affordability of solar power is one way. Leveraging mobile technology is a priority as well, Taylor says, noting that in just a few years, Myanmar’s mobile phone adoption has gone from 5 percent to almost 80 percent, with most people using smartphones.

“In the past few years, Myanmar has undergone dramatic shifts as the country opens up its political economy,” says Taylor. “We are committed to staying close to our rural customers and finding ways to help them leverage these changes to improve their incomes and well-being.”