by Pankaj Bhamre, Xylem Inc.
November 23, 2015

The life-giving properties of water are taking on new meaning in the rural villages of Malawi, Africa, where a self-sufficient culture is emerging in one of the most impoverished areas of the world.

Global water technology company Xylem, Rotary International and the Malawi Children’s Village (MCV), an orphanage and community center, have formed a unique partnership to provide local farmers with the tools, skills and support for reliable harvests that are not dependent on the rains that come only once a year.

The partnership centers on Xylem’s Saajhi Stepping Pump, a human-powered device designed for rural agriculture as a solution for smallholder farmers to irrigate their land more efficiently.

“In designing the Saajhi Stepping Pump, Xylem engineers focused on creating a product that is innovative and simple to operate. The pump uses human weight and foot-pedaling motion to move water, resulting in crop yields three times or more than only rain-fed fields,” said Sanjay Verma, Director of Xylem’s India Tech Center. “It also improves labor efficiency by more than 25 percent over traditional furrow irrigation.”

Farmers try out the Saajhi during the MCV Farmers FestivalImage 1. Farmers try out the Saajhi during the MCV Farmers Festival (Courtesy of Xylem)

Launched in 2013, the Saajhi pump is part of Xylem’s Essence of Life (EOL) business model. EOL works with citizens and both public and private partners to understand the needs of and develop solutions for rural farmers in developing nations, while establishing sustainable rural enterprise. Farmers compose one-third of the global population, of which there are 1.5 billion smallholder, or subsistence farmers, many of them in India and Africa. In many developing countries, the average smallholder farmer owns five acres of land or less and produces only marginal amounts of food, living on as little as $2.50 per day. Cultivating enough crops to feed their families is an ongoing struggle.

By having a keen understanding of the challenges facing farmers, the EOL business model and the Saajhi Stepping Pump support their progression to a better way of life. The Saajhi provides more water output based on human input, while also helping conserve water. Since the pump is human powered, it requires no fossil fuels, electrical connections or standing power supply, making it a net-zero product. This further saves a farmer both the logistical complexity and high cost of acquiring fuels.

“It also supports the younger generation of farmers who are seeking technology solutions and convenience to irrigate their crops,” Verma said.

Farmers in Mangochi, a rural village in Malawi, were introduced to the Saajhi through Rotarian David Markel. He retired from Xylem in 2008 after 30 years with the company and began participating in annual humanitarian trips to Malawi through Rotary International. In Mangochi, he assisted at the Malawi Children’s Village, where more than 2,500 orphans in 37 villages devastated by the thousands of HIV/AIDS-related deaths during the last two decades are cared for.

Witnessing firsthand the hardships in Malawi, Markel worked with Xylem to bring the Saajhi to Mangochi. He then coordinated the donation of 25 Saajhi pumps from his Rotary chapter in Seneca Falls, New York, and the nearby Clifton Springs Rotary. During the first Malawi Farmer Festival in February 2014, attended by 200 farmers, the pumps were distributed and farmers learned new irrigation techniques. Irrigation is the core of any successful farming operation. Smallholder farmers need proper irrigation equipment, including water pumps, to maximize their yield-to-land ratios.

Farmers test the Saajhi Stepping Pump.Image 2. Farmers test the Saajhi Stepping Pump (Courtesy of Xylem)

Now, instead of planting crops in minimal plots of land and carrying small cans of water to them for irrigation, farmers can plant in large fields, using hoses that connect to the Saajhi for irrigation. A farmer who had received a Saajhi pump the previous year experienced a 40 percent reduction in irrigation time and labor. This same farmer noted that, in many cases, he preferred his Saajhi to his diesel-powered pump, as complex rural logistics resulted in excessive fuel costs, decreasing his overall profitability. Another said his yield grew threefold, crediting the growth to the pump’s ease of operation and increased water flow compared to pumps he used in the past.

In designing the Saajhi Stepping Pump, Xylem engineers conducted extensive field-testing among subsistence farmers in Africa, India, Pan-Asia and South America to create a product that involves as much innovation as it does simplicity. Ultimately, the proof of the product’s capability is in its measurable impact at sustainable rural enterprise.

Key features of the Saajhi include the following:

• Ergonomic design leverages the weight of the entire body and gravity to move water, a design element that was found to put the least amount of strain and stress on the operator, including a soft stop at the lowest point in a user’s step. Features such as handle height, carry weight and paddle length were developed based on demographic data in Africa and Asia

• It is lightweight, easily portable and able to withstand drops, kicks, weather, high-salinity water and other extreme factors. A wheel is attached to the front of the pump so it can be easily transported between the area of storage or service and point of use.