In 2014 Proximity Designs won the Ashden Award for Energy and Agriculture. In an interview with Fiona Natusch, Business Development Manager, we learn about the new Lotus solar irrigation pump and other projects in the pipeline.

Proximity Designs: two years on


Posted By:

Ellie Mika

Proximity Designs is a social enterprise in Myanmar that designs, makes and markets low-cost products and services to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of farmers, and boost incomes.

Their most recent development has been the launch of the Lotus, a ‘radically affordable’ solar irrigation pump. Offered as a complete package, the Lotus includes a pump, 260W of solar panels and stand, all for the price of $345. Most solar pumps are intended for large scale farming and will cost thousands of dollars.

The Lotus pump can yield more than 15,000 litres of water per day, and makes sustainable farming easy. U Myat Kyaing, the product’s first customer, describes ownership as ‘quiet and relaxing’. Proximity Designs estimates it will take farmers about 11 months to pay back the solar pump, with fuel and labour savings, when converting from a diesel pump. Farmers in dry zones of the country can expect this return to be even quicker.

Intended for local markets, it was a difficult challenge for designers to create a pump that fits neatly into the 2-inch tube well found throughout Myanmar. However it was necessary for the product to be accessible for rural farmers. In the Mandalay region for example, water levels are low and ever-decreasing, making it really important to have an alternative to increasingly expensive diesel pumps.

Interestingly, inspiration for the name ‘Lotus’ came from the unique design itself. “When you turn it upside down, you can see the inside workings of the pump. The curves reminded designers of the top view of a Lotus plant,” explains Fiona.

There are many parallels with the flower too –it lives in water, opens and closes in sunlight, is activated by solar energy. The Lotus hosts many positive connotations in Myanmar both culturally and symbolically. It is the perfect name for a local aquatic product powered by the sun.

The pump reflects Proximity’s dedication to working with farmers to supply the best products. “Proximity Designs is very focused on Myanmar farmers,” says Fiona. “Our customers are great at giving us honest, critical feedback to help us improve our products. To design well, we need to be close to our customers—hence Proximity Designs”.

The Lotus Pump

Myanmar has certainly seen significant changes politically as it opens itself up more to the world. “Since 2011 there’s been a lot of change happening, which has been really good news,” she continues. “Small holder farmers have a lot more access to products and services than they’ve ever had before, but finding durable and affordable products that meet their specific needs can still be a challenge.”

Two mobile phone companies have entered Myanmar within the last 18 months resulting in a mass growth in the digital space. More and more farmers now have access to a smart phone, a big opportunity for Proximity Designs. Currently they are piloting mobile messaging services to test how to strengthen real-time communications with farmers, and share vital information and techniques.

These digital pilots are part of Proximity’s Farm Advisory Services that deliver affordable, best-fit cropping techniques to rice-farmers to help boost their yields and respond to pest and disease. Through support from USAid and Skoll Foundation in their Innovation Investment Alliance scheme, Proximity will also be expanding their advisory services from 2 to 30 out of the 40 major rice-growing townships by mid-2018.

Precision agriculture technologies such as irrigation sensors are also being explored. Sensors can help farmers determine the optimum level of irrigation which will reduce costs and risk of disease.

“It’s been an exciting few years for Proximity Designs,” says Fiona. We look forward to hearing where their journey takes them next!

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