SEATTLE — Ending world poverty is no small task. It takes lifetimes of work from dedicated individuals, as well as a few brilliant ideas. One of these ideas came from a nonprofit organization called iDE, and it was so revolutionary that it has stood the test of time, building around it an organization that has been creating sustainable development in the third world for 35 years.
The Borgen Project spoke with Tim Prewitt, the current CEO of iDE. He talked about one of the company’s most cherished bases of operation: “One of iDE’s founding principles is the need to talk to people first before taking any action. We don’t fly in with a preconceived idea about what to do. Instead, we go through a human-centered design process to understand what consumers need… Ninety-six percent of our employees live and work in the communities they are serving, 93 percent of them are actually citizens of those countries.” Before any work is done, iDE establishes a presence on the ground and listens to the local population, as opposed to the conventional approach of anticipating and adjusting.
Recognizing the Importance of Sustainable Development in the Third World
One of iDE’s area of focus is agriculture. It seeks to help small family farms improve how they produce resources, thereby improving the conditions of their communities. Prewitt explains why: “More than 80 percent of the world’s food supply is produced by family farmers, and that percentage is even higher in the developing world. These smallholder farmers, often cultivating less than an acre of land, are the bedrocks of their communities, yet they also are some of the most vulnerable to economic stresses. Helping these small entrepreneurs succeed is key to improving the living standards of rural communities and building a future that provides nutritious food, family stability and sustainable opportunities.”
In order to improve farming in developing nations, iDE has used a market-based approach to make the technologies and practices for better agriculture more readily available to farmers in developing countries. Prewitt explains: “For farmers, we help devise solutions that enable them to buy the products and services they need to grow more, better, higher value crops. Things like drip irrigation kits, manual and solar pumps, improved seeds, advice on planting and crop rotations.” iDE’s Farm Business Advisors are on the ground to help provide farmers with the resources and know-how to integrate these technologies and practices into their agricultural production, creating sustainable development.
Expanding Beyond Agriculture to Address Interconnected Obstacles to Development
Soon after iDE’s agricultural programs became worldwide successes, another issue emerged: lack of water for irrigation. iDE discovered that access to water is one of the major inhibitors of agricultural success in the developing world. Later, the organization made an even more disturbing discovery that many families did not have clean water to drink or access to a toilet. This meant that they were frequently sickened by waterborne diarrheal diseases that spread in unsanitary environments. This discovery led to the development of iDE’s WASH program for water, sanitation and hygiene.
iDE helps discover and develop a multitude of innovative technologies for sustainable development in the third world. Prewitt discussed one in particular designed by Futurepump, a business that iDE helped create. Futurepump was able to produce its Sunflower Pump as a solar-powered irrigation system, which is now being sold in developing markets. Analogous with agricultural innovations, iDE has helped to uncover new technologies as part of its WASH program. One such is the SaTo pan, an inexpensive component that integrates a trap door installed in a latrine, requiring less water to flush while simultaneously shielding the user from the toxic substances below.
Market-Based Approaches Bridge the Gap Between Solutions and the People Who Need Them
The use of market-based solutions as agents against poverty has been confirmed by many major business publications and figures as a beneficial practice. An article in Working Knowledge, a publication by Harvard Business School, states that the problem is not with marketing strategies themselves, but who they are marketing to. Developed nations often overlook the third world as an interested party in new and innovative products or technologies. This is similar to a principal philosophy held by iDE: it is not just about coming up with solutions, it is about providing people with the tools to create lasting change of their own, thereby establishing sustainable development in the third world.
iDE has reached more than 30 million people in the developing world. They reach nearly 2.3 million people annually, and do so without compromising quality, raising the income of each household they reach by an average of $220 annually. The organization’s guarantee is that it will turn every dollar donated into $10 of annual income for people in poverty. Prewitt ends with an explanation of the impact iDE has had: “The untold story about global poverty and sanitation is that the world has made incredible progress over the last century. There are fewer people today living in poverty (in both absolute and relative numbers) than ever before… We believe that iDE’s market-based solution can be a game-changer for these people because it is both sustainable and adaptable.”
– Zach Farrin