Paul Polak with the $3 crop irrigatorPaul Polak, Founder, D-REV

In 2005, The luxury goods market was worth $455 billion.
$7 billion was spent on haircare products alone.
Corporations spent $140 Billion on advertising in the US alone.
Yet, median household net worth rose only 2% in 2 years. Ours is the very pinnacle of expenditure and wealth, yet this is a saturated and mature market.

What about the other 90% ?
Polak’s presentation made it clear to me that we really know next to nothing about these people. They don’t need Viagra, Botox, or mousse. They need products to help them work their way out of poverty. After interviewing 100 1-acre farmers a year for 25 years, Paul Polak, founded D-REV – to create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90% of the people on earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty.

Polak then introduced us to some of his friends and teachers – just a few of the 1.2 Billion people who live on $1 day or less, and the 3 Billion people who live on $5 day or less. In the world’s 525 million farms, 85% are less than 5 acres, representing half of all farms in developing countries. Therefore, small farmer prosperity is the key. Yet, says Polak, we must first rethink the 3 great poverty eradication myths:
1. We can donate our way out of poverty
2. We can end poverty through national economic growth (most growth affects cities – the vast majority of poor people live in rural areas and seldom benefit)
3. Multinationals as they are now will end poverty (the closet socialist in me loved this one)

Affordability isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
You can’t just make cosmetic changes existing first-world products. According to Polak, in order to find solutions to the world’s biggest problems, you have to go where the action is. You have to talk to the people who have the problem, and really listen to them. And you have to learn everything there is to know about the specific context.

Polak and his team had some great examples of product designs successfully developed with this criteria. One was a hanging irrigation bag, which is filled with water (usually hauled from off the farm) which the farmer than customizes by punching holes in the hose to trickle-water their particular crop. Total cost: $3. Better yet, local distributors sell them and make their own profit, becoming entrepreneurs in the process. And hopefully moving from the $1 a day category into the relative luxury of the $5 crowd.

Marketing these innovations takes thinking as well. Take the treadle pump. This is basically a primitive Stairmaster that pumps water to crops. Every 1-acre farmer should have one. Yet without significant media, (or even literacy) how do you get the message to your geographically distributed target market?

Advertising for the other 90%
In small villages, they hired local troubadours to write a song about the treadle pump, and spread its virtues wandering-minstrel style.
Launching in Bangalore, the team created a full Bollywood movie, with famous Indian actors, and played it outdoors to audiences of thousands. Apparently all of these movies feature a wedding, a near-suicide, a happy ending and a lot of dancing.
The film begins with a girl betrothed, yet her father is a farmer too poor to provide her dowry. She falls into the clutches of the dowry bandits and nearly commits suicide. At intermission, local dealers display and demonstrate the treadle pump, which also appears in the second half of the film, saving the day for the poor farmer and his daughter. Everybody dance.

I talked with Kurt Kuhlmann, who showed me some of the other simple innovations, like a low-power UV filter that can purify water a liter at a time, and a solar powered light that is nothing more than a power cell, an LED and a clip stand. All of which illustrated the key point that design is a process of creative problem solving.

Visiting their web site, however, I found few resources that would help me as a designer, engage with their cause. As not everyone can travel to these communities and spend time with these people, I would challenge Polak to take some of the learning his team has amassed and use it to create design briefs that designers can use back here in New Rome. Because Polak’s vision deserves to be spread further.

“90% of designers work for the richest 10% of customers. “Before I die I want to see this silly ratio turned on its head.” Paul Polak

One in a series of articles on Lorne’s Sustainable Journey to the Sustainable Brands 08 Conference in Monterey CA. Click here for the full list of sessions, or here for the ‘Fear & Loathing’ road trip journals.

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