Chapter ThreeLove the Problem, Not Your Solution

When Proximity Designs decided to work with smallholder farmers in Myanmar, the husband and wife cofounders, Jim Taylor and Debbie Aung Din, packed up their lives and moved there. They believed that poverty is so complicated that you need to be close to the problem – proximate – to understand its dynamics, have empathy for the people affected, and gain deep knowledge of the local realities.

In 2004, Jim and Debbie took aim at the problem of irrigation with a goal of improving crop production and relieving the backbreaking work of hauling water daily from distant sources. As existing alternatives were too expensive for their target customers, they set out to design a portable, lightweight, and affordable treadle pump – a foot‐powered suction pump to draw groundwater to the surface. Being local meant they could involve their users in every stage of the design process. It also allowed them to solicit rapid feedback from farmers on each iteration of their prototypes, sometimes on a daily basis.

Proximity believes in treating people as customers, giving them choice and dignity. Distributing goods for free implies deciding who receives them – putting people in the position of being supplicants and potentially creating divisive dynamics in a village. Instead, they decided to sell their treadle pumps. A farmer’s decision to buy or not sends a clear signal about their perceived value, reveals important consumer insight, and keeps Proximity ...

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