Photo courtesy of KickStart
Martin Fisher: Putting families on a different trajectory out of poverty
Throughout Africa, KickStart is lifting thousands of families out of poverty by helping them address their greatest need: finding a way to make more money, says the nonprofit's CEO.
May 22, 2012 | In the 1980s, Martin Fisher spent years doing traditional anti-poverty work in Africa, only to see a string of community-development projects flounder and fail. Finally, he had a flash of insight that would prompt him to create a very different kind of nonprofit, KickStart.
“I learned a lot of ways not to do development and came to this realization that the poor person’s No. 1 need is a way to make more money,” he said.
Launched in 1991, KickStart identifies profitable businesses that people can start with a small investment and then creates and sells the tools and equipment that people need to enter those businesses. As a result, more than 130,000 profitable new businesses have been started throughout Africa, more than 65,000 acres of farmland are being irrigated by KickStart pumps, and about 650,000 people have been lifted out of poverty.
“We’ve seen this again and again,” Fisher said. “This puts families on a different trajectory out of poverty. What we’re really trying to do is build an entrepreneurial middle class in Africa.”
In April 2012, KickStart received the 2012 Enterprising Social Innovation Award given by The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. While at Duke to receive the award, Fisher spoke with Faith & Leadership about KickStart, engineering and a more entrepreneurial approach to community development. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is KickStart?
KickStart is a nonprofit social enterprise with a mission to take millions of people out of poverty, especially in Africa. And by “out of poverty,” we mean enabling them to earn a lot more money.
When you’re poor, anywhere in the world, your No. 1 need is to increase your income and find a way to make more money.
The poor everywhere live in a cash economy. They need money to buy food, clothes, housing and everything else. If they can make a lot more money, they won’t be poor, and they can afford all these things. If they don’t, they will continue to be poor.
Q: That sounds obvious, but it’s not -- people are poor because they don’t have enough money. Tell us more about that and the significance of living in a cash economy.
The interesting thing is that, in Africa, they didn’t used to live in a cash economy. Not many generations ago, you could get by with virtually no cash. You could hunt or take the cattle out to pasture or gather honey. You could grow enough food to stay alive. You didn’t need much cash.
But all that has changed. Now they’re completely thrown into a cash economy. They need money for everything. If they have enough money, they can get out of poverty. If they don’t, they can’t.
Everybody makes at least a small amount of money. If they didn’t, they couldn’t live. They make some money, but not enough to get out of poverty. They make enough to survive. Why is that?
If you look at what they do for a living, most poor people in the world are farmers. In Africa, 80 percent of the poor are farmers. They all wait for the rain. They all plant pretty much the same crop. They all harvest at the same time, and they all try to sell into the same market.
Who do you sell to? You can’t sell to your neighbor, because he’s also a farmer. So you wait for the middleman to buy your crop.
But when he or she comes, everybody has the same crop. The market is flooded, and you get very little money. And anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the harvest goes bad before you can sell it or eat it. Then, three or four months later, everybody’s hungry, because there are no crops. They call it “the long hungry season.”
So you need other ways to make money, but there are no jobs. In Kenya, the private sector employs only about 6.5 percent of the labor force, and the government, a similar number. In Tanzania, it’s only about 3.5 percent.
Everybody else is in the informal sector, which means they’re self-employed. Most do petty trade, where they sit on the roadside and buy and sell the same few products. Or they do metal work, carpentry, tailoring, food preparation and three or four other types of small business where they’re all competing with each other and not making enough money to get out of poverty.
Q: What does KickStart bring to this?
We do two things: identify profitable businesses that people can start with a small investment; and develop, design and produce the tools and equipment they need for those businesses and then sell them to these very poor but very entrepreneurial people.
And they are entrepreneurial. They’ve proven they’re entrepreneurial. They’ve already started businesses, just the wrong businesses.
We started with human-powered machines for manufacturing. We have a machine for making low-cost building blocks out of soil and cement. A small farmer in western Kenya, for example, bought one and ended up with four machines and has 45 employees today. He’s a wealthy businessman and owns a shopping mall in Nairobi. We’ve sold thousands of these machines, and hundreds of thousands of buildings across Africa have been built using these blocks.
We have a machine for making cooking oil out of sunflower seed. We have a machine for baling hay, which is in great demand during the dry season.
We started with human-powered machines like these and others, but these are all fairly complex businesses that require working capital. So we asked, “What kind of business could the average poor African start?”
Because most are farmers, the best thing they can do is to move from rain-fed agriculture to irrigated agriculture. With irrigation, you can grow higher-value crops and get higher yields. More importantly, you can get three or four crops per year, even during the dry season, when prices go up by a factor of 10 or 20, and you can make a huge amount of money.
There’s almost no irrigation in Africa. Less than 4 percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to about 43 percent in Asia. So there’s huge potential, but very few technologies are available.
A petrol-powered pump is expensive, hard to maintain and hard to get fuel for. There’s no electricity in rural areas, and solar pumps are too expensive.
So we created a line of human-powered irrigation pumps. Our best-selling pump, the Super MoneyMaker Pump, is like a StairMaster. You step back and forth and it pulls water up out of a well and pushes it through a hose into a field. You can irrigate two acres of land with a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the evening.