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.
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 small-
holder farmer in Myanmar.”
For one, there do not appear to be any
other submersible pumps that can achieve
Earning a living was difficult in rural Myanmar before Proximity Designs howed 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.
Myanmar’s small farmers are largely ignored by
agricultural product suppliers, because they are not
viewed as a lucrative customer base.