Rob Katz

The Best Foot Forward

4 Feet PhotoFeet are important to discussions of the BOP hypothesis. I?m not talking about feet as in the unit of length, but rather as those awkward appendages connected to your legs. From a base of the pyramid vantage point, which is the best foot forward?

I did some thinking about this, and decided that there are two ways to view feet through the BOP lens. The first is negative, and has to do with the penalty poor people are subject to by virtue of their poverty. We all know, for instance, that those lacking access to basic services (water, energy, healthcare) must walk long distances–a scene from the HBO movie “Yesterday,” where the title character must make a day-long walk (twice) to visit a once-monthly health clinic, comes to mind for healthcare in particular.Weza ChargerKickStart MoneyMaker Irrigation PumpsBut your feet aren?t only for walking, nor are they simply an illustration of poverty–there is another foot forward. Feet can also be powerful instruments of change at the base of the pyramid, when enabled by the right technologies. Step-action generators charge cell phones in rural Rwanda and treadle pumps irrigate Kenyan farms–there’s a whole list of so-called “leapfrogging technologies” (not necessarily foot-powered) that are covered well by Alex Steffen over at Worldchanging. Here are some reviews and updates of a few good foot-related projects that have been in the news lately: Freeplay and Kickstart.

Freeplay Energy makes the Weza, a step-action power supply that is robust enough to jumpstart a dead car or boat battery. More importantly, the Weza can charge a dead cell phone in just five minutes? of moderate foot-pumping. With all the recent talk about cell phones and development, there hasn?t been much attention to one of the limiting factors of cell phones–power, or lack thereof. A recent story in the Seattle Times, Small Generator Gives Power to Africans, goes into detail, and even posits that the Weza might “jump-start economic development efforts as effectively as it does dead cell phones.”

I think this might be a little excessive, especially considering Weza’s $270 price tag. But the point is an important one–access to power, even self-generated, opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs. This is already happening with cell phones and hair salons; what’s next?

Kickstart is another foot-powered company; I’ve written about their MoneyMaker treadle pumps for irrigation on NextBillion quite a bit. They’ve introduced a new, lower-cost ?Hip Pump? and they?re back in the news–specifically, in Time Magazine and on National Public Radio, where co-founder and CEO Martin Fisher spoke with Scott Simon. The 4-plus minute interview is worth a listen, as Fisher expertly navigates through the basics of Kickstart’s business model while describing in detail the $34 Hip Pump (listen to the interview for a description of how it actually works). Fisher claims that the Hip Pump, which looks like a bicycle pump mounted on a skateboard, can draw water from as deep as 25 feet and can irrigate up to 1 acre of land. Not only that, but their monitoring and evaluation unit estimates that a farmer using the hip pump will see a profit of $1,000 in the first year alone (on a $34 investment–wow).

As I mentioned before, Freeplay and Kickstart are just two examples feet-in-action. Is it the best foot forward? Well, that depends on the models? sustainability, profitability, and usefulness to BOP communities. Kickstart’s well on their way there (you could even say they’ve arrived), and Freeplay is in a slightly different market–more Westernized–but that seems like it’s about to change and focus more on Africa. The demand for goods and services by the base of the pyramid is huge, and the private sector is getting better at delivering–one step at a time.