Late 2014 saw manufacturing stabilize for one of Xylem’s newest products, the Saajhi Stepping Pump. Measuring just over a meter high and weighing less than 20 kilos, it’s certainly not the grandest of the company’s products to ever hit the market. But its introduction could be a true game changer for the world’s 1.5 billion smallholder farmers as well as for Xylem itself, as a white paper on the subject outlines.
It has been about 3.5 years since Keith Teichmann, Xylem’s Director of Innovative Networks and Marketing, and his team were first tasked with identifying and creating the right pumping product to market to farmers in the developing world while also building a sustainable business model at the base of the economic pyramid.
Hundreds of interviews in rural farming communities in India, Africa, Pan-Asia and South America, along with intensive field testing and lab work resulted in the Saajhi Stepping Pump, a human-powered treadle pump that is far better than any available equivalent.
“It’s no contest,” says Teichmann. “We win every single back-to-back demonstration we do against any competitor.” The long list of advantages detailed in the Xylem white paper “Serving the smallholder farmer through rural product innovation” includes an optimum step range for not tiring out the user, easy portability and white pedals that won’t burn bare feet. It is completely field serviceable with no tools required.
A more efficient way of pumping water
The biggest technological shift that sets it apart from previous treadle pumps, according to Teichmann, is that it uses neoprene-based diaphragms for its pumping chambers rather than the traditional leaky pistons.
“It’s a closed chamber, like the human heart. Just as the human heart is the most efficient way of pumping blood in the human body, the diaphragm is the most efficient way of pumping water in a treadle product,” he says.
Others have taken notice. Earlier this year Saajhi won recognition from the US State Department for “exemplary technology” in water management and in the summer it won the social impact professional category in the Core77 Design Awards.
The pump is manufactured at Xylem’s India Technological Center in Baroda. So far, 500 seed samples have been distributed in dozens of countries from Bangladesh to Uganda in anticipation of sales ramping up next year.
But beyond the creation of the pump itself, there is another, perhaps more profound aspect of the Saajhi story: namely, why Xylem is targeting this market in the first place.
Targeting the base of the economic pyramid
Saajhi is the first product developed under Xylem’s Essence of Life initiative, which focuses on the base of the global economic pyramid – the approximately 2.5 billion people who earn an average of less than $2.50 a day.
The reasons for delving into these tricky waters are simple, according to Teichmann: there is no competition and the potential is enormous.
No straightforward business strategy for the market yet exists, however. Xylem’s approach is a combination of commercial channels using carefully vetted local distribution and service partners, and cooperation with international organizations, governments and NGOs that provide subsidy programs or other ways to make the product available in particularly impoverished areas.
“To be taken seriously by those organizations, we have to establish credibility not only with the business model development, but in the product execution,” Teichmann says.
Selling high-quality products at a very reasonable price
The Saajhi is proof of concept for the Essence of Life business approach. Among farmers, it is also the critical point in establishing trust in Xylem. There is no room for failure in terms of quality.
“The first thing a farmer looks at is quality, because spending money on a cheap product that breaks puts a tremendous economic burden on their ability to support their family,” says Teichmann. “That philosophy of selling cheap things cheap is not a Xylem philosophy. What we do is sell high-quality products at a very reasonable price.”
Part of keeping the price low is manufacturing in India, which is itself one of the Saajhi’s biggest target countries and has convenient shipping channels to the east African markets.
The thought is that by breaking into this market, establishing positive name recognition and setting up the right business channels will pave the way for expanded sales down the line.
“Saajhi is a very nice stepping stone. We are building a unique and sizeable base of customers who will grow in our products, either through moving via urbanization or expansion of their farms in rural communities,” says Teichmann.
The next product under the Essence of Life initiative is already in the pipeline. It is a solar pumping cart, the only one in the world made specifically for farmers in developing, rural communities. The first rapid field samples have been tested, and if all goes according to plan, Xylem could start shipping in small quantities before the end of 2015.
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