Nick Moon, co-founder of KickStart
Many believe that food shortages like those currently faced by the people of Africa’s Eastern Horn are a vision of the years ahead. But imagine a future where Africa, instead of being a case study in suffering, had become a saviour in the frenzied battle for food security. Nick Moon, co-founder of KickStart, adamantly believes that African agriculture is an untapped resource in the fight to feed the world. “All that land, all that water and all that labour… there’s not a problem here, there’s a solution”.
When you travel through Africa, the vast expanses of open space make the cities feel like mere pin pricks on the landscape. Staring out of bus windows we noticed the huge amount of fertile land, some of it in cultivation but much more of it not. When we met Nick Moon, he was quick to explain that “Africa’s true competitive advantage is agriculture”. The trouble is that right now, not only is a lot of land left untouched, but the agricultural practices of small holder farmers means that land is not being used effectively.
Plant your crops and wait for God to bring the rains. This is the test of faith lived out by most subsistence farmers. As admirable as this fatalistic belief in God might be, it doesn’t make for good business. When the rains come (if they come at all) everyone takes their harvest to market where supply outstrips demand and profits are therefore very low. What’s more, once the rainy season passes food becomes very scarce again, forcing farming families into a vicious cycle of feast and famine.
Co-founded in Kenya in 1991 by Nick Moon and Martin Fisher, KickStart is dedicated to breaking this cycle. KickStart develops agricultural technology specifically geared towards the needs of small holder farmers so they can work themselves out of poverty quickly, efficiently and sustainably. Though they have a range of products on sale, by far the most successful is their MoneyMaker Water Pumps which allow farmers to irrigate their land all year round.
To date, KickStart has sold over 180,000 pumps across their operations in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali, Burkina Faso and through partners in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. For every 100 pumps sold, they estimate that 91 of them are used to transform the productivity of a farm by at least 400%. As a result hundreds of thousands of farmers are now growing crops for both internal and external markets, creating enough food to feed their families and earn an income which lifts them above the poverty line.
Nick and Martin have developed an array of agricultural products over the last 20 years but water pumps, they insist, are the most important of them all. “There may be other issues like seeds, soil fertility, access to markets, post harvest storage… but the primary bottleneck is water management. If you can capture, store and lift water onto your crops… you can grow more food, more intensely, more often.” As we travelled out to visit a MoneyMaker Pump in action, Nick explained to us how he and Martin came to become such experts on agricultural development.
A rampant socialist in his teens, at 17 Nick jacked in his formal education to train as a skilled woodworker. A high-flying student at the time, this move to join the modern-day proletariat showed real commitment to the Socialist cause (and upset his parents a lot). After re-training in woodwork he set up a social co-operative which evolved into a specialist company for the restoration of Georgian homes. However, Nick felt his business was too much of a divergence from his values. “It troubled me that we were becoming joiners for the gentry”, he explained. So in 1982 he sold up, moved to Kenya with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and has never gone back to live in the UK.
Posted to a small village in Western Kenya, Nick’s VSO experience was a steep learning curve. “I learnt a lot about what the world looks like through the lens of a small holder farmer”, he said, explaining how tough life was for the rural community he had lived in. After three years, he moved on to work for a well-known international NGO where he met Martin Fisher, a Stanford super brain who originally came to Kenya to pursue his academic interest in the link between technology and poverty. From what Nick told us, Martin’s academic credentials definitely put Nick’s unfinished secondary school career to shame!
Together Nick and Martin worked on just about every kind of development intervention, going from building rural water systems and schools to creating job training programs. Though Nick and Martin had a great time in the NGO world, they felt scarred by the pattern that emerged. Nine times out of ten, when they handed over a project to be run locally it would collapse. When this happens, it’s easy to point the finger at a lack of commitment from local people, but Nick would argue that it’s usually short-sighted NGOs which appear to be the cause of this recurring problem. They are accused of growing so obsessed with their own priorities that they lose sight of the genuine needs of the people they’re trying to help. “It’s a lot of money, a lot of work and a lot of expertise for very little social return”, Nick told us, convinced that conventional NGOs have had their time.
Determined to develop a new model for fighting global poverty, Nick and Martin started to look at the alternatives. What they concluded was simple but it required a softening of Nick’s socialist ideals. They realised that, just as is the case anywhere, the number one need of poor families in Africa is to find a way to make more money and that social interventions must reflect that. From this insight, ApproTEC (later renamed KickStart) was born.
Their model was, and still is, to develop, launch and promote simple money-making tools that poor entrepreneurs could use to create their own profitable businesses. Nick and Martin started by designing a press for making stabilised soil building blocks. However, despite the product proving popular, it didn’t hit the mark for their vision. “It meant people could build stronger houses for less money but we kept on asking ourselves, how do we really generate wealth?” Nick said. They challenged themselves to go further.
After years of searching for how they could truly help people at the ‘bottom of pyramid’, they decided to focus solely on small-scale farmers and in 1997 the first MoneyMaker was developed. Since then the pump’s design has undergone numerous iterations but it always follows the ‘plug and play’ principle. A local farmer can pick up a MoneyMaker pump in their local store for a very competitive price ($35 or $95 depending on the model) and start their new irrigation regime that very same day. Even better, if they can’t afford the investment outright, KickStart offer a microloan service to reduce the burden.
We went to see a MoneyMaker Pump in action at a local farm on the outskirts of Nairobi. Johnson, a fit, youthful looking farmer, was working with his family on a plot of French beans for sale overseas. His MoneyMaker Pump was in full swing and Nick explained to us how the process works. The farmer digs a hole up to eight metres deep until they hit the water table lying just beneath the surface. The pump, which is operated manually like a step machine in the gym, sits next to the hole with two long hoses coming out of it. When you start pumping, water is sucked up one hose and pumped out the other. Though Nikki’s efforts to work the pump were feeble (months of no exercise had taken their toll!), this design is infinitely quicker and more efficient than the bucket and rope alternative which many farmers still use.
“I have become a serious businessman and this is my office”, Johnson told us whilst he looked out across his rugged plot. Before he invested in a MoneyMaker Pump he rented 0.2 acres of land and watered his crops using a bucket and well. After being lent a MoneyMaker Pump by a neighbour, he was able to significantly increase his yield and make the transition into growing high value commercial crops. He now owns two MoneyMaker Pumps, rents 2.7 acres of land, has bought 0.9 acres of his own and grows everything from bananas to water melons and maize. Chuffed to be setting an example to his community, Johnson makes enough money to send his three children to school and is about to buy a motorbike.
KickStart is not the first or only organisation to produce these kinds of pumps (also known as ‘Treadle Pumps’). Thanks to the collective efforts of many organisations such as IDE, SK Industries and Practical Action  significant improvements are being made in small-scale irrigation whilst many large-scale developments have failed to meet expectations. Africa as a whole continues to be the world’s most food-insecure region but the United Nations believe that increased roll-out of low-cost treadle pumps could significantly boost food security across the African continent.  In order for this to happen, it’s essential that the organisations driving this change are scalable and sustainable. And that’s where KickStart’s market-based solution really stands out.
Whilst KickStart helps people like Johnson to set up their own self-sustaining businesses, KickStart itself is not a profit-making company. In 2011 they spent $10m, one third of which is was covered by income from product sales and the remainder by funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Importantly, however, KickStart never intends to become a profit-making entity. Instead they want to stimulate a market for water management products and encourage new competitors to enter the game. “Others might come in and do it better than us and we don’t care, we want them to do it”, Nick explained. At this point, KickStart plan to shift their focus onto new products and markets.
As yet, they haven’t attracted any real competitors into the market as most organisations in this field are producing lower volumes of pumps and invariably give them away free. But KickStart are not worried. Consumer demand is growing but reaching a critical mass takes time, especially when your products require people to adopt a whole new mindset. KickStart’s marketing strategy has to convince people who’ve relied on the rains for centuries that a pump is better. What’s more, if KickStart want the market for water management products to be sustainable, they have to showcase the fact that farming can be lucrative and stem the flow of young people leaving their villages in hopes of a more comfortable city life.
These challenges are exactly why KickStart’s sales strategy is very hands-on. In Kenya, for example, KickStart has a team of 65 regional sales representatives who work with people face-to-face. Key to their approach is local demonstration events held on farms where people come together and see the MoneyMaker Pump in action. Using traditional sales methodology, the sales reps use these events as an opportunity to convert their hot prospects and build their list of future clients. Every effort is made to promote the brand with caps and T-shirts – always a popular give away and we too weren’t allowed to leave the office without a MoneyMaker baseball cap.
This business savvy approach is reflected in every part of KickStart’s operating model. But, as with their iterative approach to product design, it’s taken time for the KickStart business to reach today’s level of sophistication. Nick’s decision to complete an MBA was a key turning point for the organisation, enabling them to lay much stronger business foundations. All the same, KickStart has been winning awards left right and centre for years, including recognition from Skoll and Schwab, as well as Bill Clinton. In 2003 they also picked up another nice little accolade – TIME Magazine’s European Hero Award and in 2012 they were recognised in Forbes Magazine as one of the Top 30 Social Enterprises in the World.
Hero status is big. But we think it’s justified. KickStart estimate they have helped 600,000 people out of poverty (and that’s a conservative number). Even better, they see this as just the start. Nick told us that within the next 15 years he believes, “Every single person of a responsible age in Africa will know what agriculture water management technology solutions are out there, and what value they can offer them, and be able to walk down to their local store and invest.”
Nick is not a man of few words and every question we asked him opened up a long debate over the best way to tackle social change. Luckily, he’s a hugely fascinating guy so we never got bored…in fact he’s currently planning to move on from KickStart and we definitely think he should become a lecturer. He left us totally convinced that where a cause or need can be linked to a market-based solution, it should be. What’s more, he left us dreaming about a future where Band Aid’s 1980s hit ‘Feed the World’ becomes a massive irony. With help from KickStart, it might just turn out to be Africa that ends up feeding us all.
For more info visit:
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Treadle Pumps in Africa (2000)
 International Food Policy Research Institute (2010), Global Hunger Index (2010)
Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011