Water scarcity affects 1 in 3 people on every continent of the globe — even in areas with plenty of rainfall or fresh water. Now consider this: Almost 60% of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture. In some places, including China and India, it’s as much as 90%.
Half of the world’s nearly 600 million small-plot farmers — farmers who subsist on less than 5 acres of land — live in China and India. Without access to affordable, water-efficient irrigation, they simply can’t grow crops during much of the year, and that creates a vicious cycle of poverty. No produce means no ability to go to market to sell or barter their goods; it also means they often can’t properly feed their families, and their already meager incomes spiral in decline.
That’s where Peter Frykman and his social enterprise Driptech come in. Frykman founded Driptech three years ago to alleviate poverty by creating affordable, water efficient irrigation solutions for small-plot farmers in the developing world. Frykman’s system is decidedly low-tech, comprised of 200 meter lengths of inexpensive, precision-punched tubing that delivers water directly to the plants’ roots. The system runs on gravity, and uses mesh filters to ensure clean water.
“The Driptech system works because it is able to scale down to the minimum amount of functionality needed to reap the benefits of traditional commercial drip irrigation without adding unnecessary costs to the design,” Jean Shia, Driptech’s Director of Business Operations told me in an email interview. “It is the first system we’ve seen that delivers the appropriate balance between quality and price for small plot farmers.”
Frykman came up with the idea for Driptech in the spring of 2008 when he was in Ethiopia taking a course called “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability” as part of his mechanical engineering PhD program at Stanford University. During his time there, Frykman witnessed firsthand Ethiopia’s worst drought in 20 years. He met subsistence farmers who could neither grow their crops with the scant water available, nor afford the irrigation systems that were locally available.
That summer Frykman raised $50,000 in seed funding and he was on his way. He started a pilot program in rural India with 15 small-plot farmers that fall.
“A Driptech system saves 30% to 70% of the water used by traditional methods,” Shia told me. “Drip irrigation also increases crop yields by 20% to 90%. Farmers are able to produce enough vegetables to meet their own families’ nutritional needs, grow additional crops to sell in local markets, and grow high value crops during the dry season,” she added.
I asked Shia why Driptech, a 2011 Social Venture Network Innovation Award winner, chose to become a for profit enterprise. “We believe that a for-profit model will best enable us to commercialize our technology and allow us to distribute our product to as many small farm households as possible. This is our critical path to improving rural incomes and livelihoods,” she told me. “Crops grown using Driptech’s product have brought some farmers 50%-150% higher market prices. The cost of a system is usually repaid within 6 months through yield increases and input savings.”
Today there are 1,200 Driptech systems in place in China and India. Shia says Driptech plans to address emerging markets in Latin America and Africa to reach tens of thousands of small-plot farmers in the coming years.
Take a look at this video to see how Driptech has made a difference in the lives of these farmers:
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Photo credit: Driptech