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.

• Components are modular, replaceable and enhanced for extended wear and harsh conditions. The pump requires no tools for serviceability.

• It uses superior self-priming diaphragm technology that reduces friction, avoids leaks and is minimally affected by mud and debris.

The pump itself has numerous advantages over standard piston irrigation pumps typically found in rural areas:

• Self-priming — There is no need to pour water into a diaphragm pump for initial use, and no foot valve is required to prime the product.
• Perfect sealing — Diaphragm pumps use a sealed chamber to pull and move water; consequently, losses due to moving sealing elements near pistons, are eliminated. The diaphragm design is also mud- and debris-resistant.
• Higher efficiency — Diaphragm pumps experience no friction caused from the piston seal moving against the pump wall.

As a result of reduced labor and increased crops, farmers using Saajhi pumps in the area are producing enough food to feed their families and selling their corn, beans and mustard in the village, supporting their economic mobility. They now have the means to provide additional shelter, clothing and health care for their families. “This program sets up the infrastructure to help farmers become self-sustaining by providing them with the equipment and training they need to rise out of poverty,” Markel said.

“At the most basic level, smallholder farmers are striving toward the same goal—to better their livelihoods and the opportunities available for their families,” Verma said. “The Saajhi is a vital tool that these entrepreneurial and aspirational communities may rely on to build their irrigation systems, and ultimately create a prosperous way of life.

“Farmers feel proud about owning such a technologically advanced pump. They feel more recognized by their fellow farmers, relatives and neighbors,” Verma said. “They feel they are considered ‘smart farmers.’”

Markel praises Dyson Magombo for his contributions to the success of the initiative. Once an orphan at MCV with little hope for his own future, Magombo recently earned a degree in water resources management and development from Mzuzu University. He has been a vital link in expanding irrigation projects in Malawi from three initial sites to 19 sites covering 50 acres.

“Dyson is a brilliant young man who works very hard for his people,” Markel said. “Because he knows the culture and relates well with the community, he has established a trust that someone coming in from the Western part of the world would not be able to do as easily.” During the summer and fall of 2014, Dyson interned with Xylem, supplying valuable voice of customer and impact analysis data for smallholder farmers within the noted irrigation areas.

The initial Saajhi donation and training made a nearly immediate impact on more than 240 farmers who were supporting 2,975 households and 11,657 people in six Malawian villages. Today, that number has nearly doubled, according to Seneca Falls Rotarian Bill Parker, also a retired Xylem employee. “We are now serving 20,000 people with food—that was once not possible,” Parker said. “Xylem has been a tremendous partner in this project.”

Markel shares the credit among Xylem employees, doctors and educators—including his wife, Melissa, a retired school librarian who has made a number of trips to Malawi. He is overcome with emotion as he talks about the positive effects he has witnessed in Malawi, which motivate him to do more there. “I plan to continue as long as I’m physically able,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Seneca Falls Rotary honored Xylem for its Essence of Life program and ongoing support of the Rotary’s International Water Project in Malawi. A Rotary member who was instrumental in forging this unique partnership was not able to attend the dinner, however. That is because Markel was in Malawi, helping farmers improve their livelihoods and communities.

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