GUJARAT, India- SunWater, founded and spearheaded by Paul Polak, aims to build a cost effective solar water pump and system for poor farmers around the world. At 80 years old, Polak is known throughout the world for combining business and technology to help combat poverty. His organization, International Development Enterprises (iDE), has helped lift an estimated 17 million people out of poverty. iDE also focuses on blending technological advancement with entrepreneurial pursuits and has helped create many devices to help rural farmers–for example, it has sold one million foot-powered treadle pumps to farmers in the developing world.
With SunWater, Polak and his team are working to alleviate the strain felt by poor farmers who are trying to irrigate their fields, and in turn earn enough money to lift themselves out of poverty. However, water is not always easily accessible, meaning that many farmers are stuck pumping it by hand or carrying it in buckets to their fields. Despite being a grueling task, reliance on these methods can also mean that farmers are left unable to grow their crops during particularly dry spells.
The need for a reliable water pumping system is obvious; however, the current market offers few options for poor farmers. Diesel pumps are the standard, but they add carbon to the atmosphere and are relatively expensive ($500 to purchase and $700 a year for fuel and maintenance.) One alternative is electric pumps. Though they are generally cheaper, they require access to grid power, which is not always an option for rural farmers. While some solar-powered alternatives already exist, they can cost upwards of $5,000.
When completed, SunWater will be a complete pressurized irrigation system that can water a one-hectare plot. Its design is innovative compared to other such pumps because it uses flat-plate mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a single photovoltaic solar panel (whereas most pumps use multiple large panels). Furthermore, the engineers have designed a more efficient drip system than the conventional model, meaning the pump uses a smaller motor that requires less energy.
The cost of the system, set to be around $2,900, will include not only the solar pump, but also well drilling, water storage, tubing and installation, in addition to operation and maintenance training. Polak says that they will not be giving away the system free of charge, but rather plan to work with farmers to create fair and reasonable systems of payment. Initially, the company will focus on selling them to farmers who earn $3 to $5 per day, because they will be more likely to secure loans. Polak hopes to get multiple systems within a close proximity so as to create a micro-market of excess water, thus improving local opportunities for farmers. They believe that personal investment in the pumps will be more profitable for the farmers in the long run because it inspires a sense of motivation that does not necessarily come with charity.
Though SunWater is still in the development stage, Polak expects to be testing two prototypes in Gujarat, India by the end of the year.
– Rebecca Beyer