SunWater: Affordable Solar Powered Pumps for Poor Farmers

We’re building a radically affordable solar water pump that will transform small plot agriculture and help bring the world's poorest families out of poverty.
Paul Polak
Golden, Colorado
United States
2 Team Members

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The Goal

We will build a cost effective solar water pump and system that will help improve the lives of 50 million people in developing countries. The solar pump is the key component of a complete water-to-crops irrigation system that is being designed by leading experts in the fields of irrigation, systems engineering, and solar energy. Using a method proven by Paul Polak, the system will be sold to farmers in some of the poorest regions in the world, enabling the farmers themselves to break their poverty cycles. We have the designs, the prototypes, and the motivation. Now we need your help as we work to build a production model we can take to field tests.


The Background

Did you know that there are a billion people in the world that make just $2 a day? Can you imagine what your life would be like if you made less than $20 a week? The vast majority of the families who live this reality are farmers in the developing world with small plots of land. They work together to grow the food they eat and hope to sell in the market. They make just enough to survive and have difficulty investing in labor-saving equipment.

To break out of the poverty cycle, poor farmers need to grow cash crops to increase their income. Cash crops are crops above and beyond the farmers' needs, but growing them is a challenge. Many farmers pump water by hand or carry it in buckets from a village pond to their crops. Not only is this a slow and physically grueling task, but often times the shallow wells and seasonal rains mean farmers can't grow crops in the dry season. Farmers need a reliable, low-cost water pumping system to grow the extra food they need to make a poverty-busting profit.

Diesel pumps are one option, but they use expensive diesel fuel, break down often, exhaust carbon into the atmosphere, and are relatively expensive. Diesel pumps cost $500 to buy and $700 a year for fuel and maintenance. Over a three year span the costs can reach $2,600, assuming diesel prices don’t increase. Electric pumps are another option. They’re cheap, but they use grid power that is unreliable in developing countries like India. In fact, grid power is so unreliable that most farmers who have an electric pump have a backup diesel pump too. Electric pumps can alternatively be powered with solar energy, but current systems can cost $5,000 or more, which is way out of the reach of poor farmers.

 Solar powered systems are available, but are currently far too expensive for poor farmers.

Solar powered systems are available, but they are currently far too expensive for poor farmers.

The Plan

Our big-picture goal is to create the entire water-to-crops system. We are creating a pressurized irrigation system that brings water to a one-hectare plot with a cost target of $2,900. This cost includes well drilling, water storage, tubing, installation, and the solar pump itself. Our whole system will be cheaper than buying just the panels and pump in the current solar-powered systems! In our quest to make our solution as affordable as possible we have worked in India with craftsmen to improve well efficiencies and with manufacturers to lower irrigation equipment costs.

The much lower cost means farmers will be able to pay off the loans they use to purchase one in less than two years. Plus, there’s no fuel to buy. This game-changing reduction in cost will enable farmers to transform their small plot agriculture, create water markets where they don’t currently exist, and significantly increase their earnings. 

The plan is to first sell them to farmers who make $3 to $5 a day who will be more likely to secure financing. When two or more of these pumps are in the same vicinity it creates a micro-market for excess water, creating opportunity for the poorer farmers. Selling a large number of these pumps over the next few years will also yield production efficiencies that can be used to lower prices even further so that more farmers can afford them. We know this works since we've seen it happen with our foot-powered treadle pumps.

 A treadle pump from Paul Polak's previous work. These helped raise 17 million people out of poverty.

A treadle pump from Paul Polak's previous work. These helped raise 17 million people out of poverty.

What We Need

It's not just the panels and the pump, we're out to improve everything from drilling the well to the tubes that carry the water to the crops. To make this kind of price leap we need to do end-to-end system testing and optimization. 

Quarter Scale Test ($25,000): A few things happen in parallel at this level.

  1. We will build a 500 Watt system that will be our testing platform for all the different components. We will build the whole system out including the panels, a concentrator, inverter, pump, and the irrigation tubing.  
  2. We will buy all the testing equipment, support hardware, and extra widgets that we need to make sure we're building the best system possible.
  3. We will fund all the perks out of the first several thousand dollars.

All three of these things have to happen at the same time!


Manufacturing Phase ($10,000): If we raise this much more money then we will build a full scale version after we learn as much as possible from the quarter scale testing. There will still be some tweaking as we perfect the system. We will also start getting supply chains ready for bulk purchases so we can reduce costs on the final version.


Test Phase ($15,000): Raising an additional $15,000 will let us field test the system! We will ship our best system and test it in the fields. Getting the system into the real world is incredibly important. If we can raise this much money we're well on our way to success.


Final Tweaks Phase ($5,000): An extra $5,000 will let the team make any major changes required from field testing.

 Production design of the SunWater solar pump.

Production design of the SunWater solar pump.

What You Get

We've lined up a series of perks meant to help you share in the spirit and excitement of using technology to help some of the poorest people on earth. We feel a lot of enthusiasm for our project and what it means and we want to help plant that seed in you as well. Check out our descriptions on the right and see what kind of inspiration we can create in your life.


Our Team

It’s a big dream, so why do we think we can succeed? The answer is that we've assembled a winning team. We have experts in affordable technology design, solar engineering, systems design, water pumping, and irrigation, all lead by an internationally known expert in international development and social business. 

Paul Polak is leading the team. He is internationally known for fighting poverty using business and technology, and is the author of the book Out of Poverty. He founded International Development Enterprises, an NGO that ended poverty for 17 million people, and has sold 1 million foot-powered treadle pumps to farmers in the developing world.

Jacob Mathew is the founder of Idiom Design and Consulting, a leading 100-person design consultancy in Bangalore, India. Jacob has developed many similar technology projects including the system design for Spring Health, a clean water business in India.

Jack Keller is a civil engineer and our expert on irrigation and water pumping. Keller has taught and conducted research and consultation in sprinkle and trickle irrigation in more than 60 countries. He is the author of more than 90 technical papers and two textbooks in the areas of agricultural water resources planning and engineering, on-farm water management, and irrigation system design.

Steve Katsaros is an award-winning engineer, patent agent, and CEO of Nokero. Nokero is a for-profit company with a mission to provide affordable solar technology solutions for poor, off-grid communities around the world. Steve is an expert in solar product design, manufacturing, and supply chains.

Many of the team's volunteer engineers come from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the same company that developed the science instruments in the Hubble Space Telescope and many other space systems. As professional space systems engineers they are experts in solar energy, mechanical, and systems design. This unique partnership gives the team access to a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise, made possible through the efforts of their former CEO, Dave Taylor.


Bringing it all Together

Paul Polak has been traveling the world and fighting poverty for decades with award winning solutions. He works very closely with poor people in remote villages to understand what they need to improve their lives. Time and again the answer is access to water for their crops. There are pumps available, but they’re expensive to buy and maintain. To make a big impact we have to make a big reduction in the cost. When farmers can buy their own solar-powered pump a whole new avenue for securing their own financial security is opened.

We have a need. We have a solution. Now we need your help as we build it!



Question: Why solar powered pumps?

Answer: Solar powered pumps don’t use diesel fuel, they rarely break down, and when they do they can be repaired easily. This system has very low operating costs compared to a diesel pump. Plus, they don’t create carbon emissions.

Question: Why are you using mirrors?

Answer: The single biggest cost in the sysytem is the solar panels. One panel can be several hundred dollars or more. A mirror is a few dollars and is widely available. By using a mirror to shine extra sunlight onto the panel we are increasing the energy output for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to buy another panel. Calculations show we can get the energy we need to run the pump with a set of these mirrors, saving thousands of dollars in the process.

Question: Why don’t you give these away for free? 

Answer: Charity is a wonderful, and often necessary, act of giving that will always have a place in the world. However, long term solutions to large problems need to scale up rapidly and be able to support themselves. That means a commercial enterprise. If the solution is profitable it can generate the resources needed to reach hundreds of millions of people. SunWater will help farmers make more money, which will drive interest in other farmers buying their own pump, enabling the benefits to be provided to more and more people.

Paul Polak and the team have also found that solutions are more successful if farmers own the pump. When a poor village receives a free water pump it almost always falls into disrepair and disuse because there’s no ownership of it, even when water is one of their key problems. But when a poor farmer buys his own pump the results are vastly different: it stays well maintained, is used as effectively as possible, and creative ways of extending the benefits to the farmer are found. If we want to solve long term problems in a long-term way the poor need cost-effective solutions they can own instead of handouts on a sporadic basis.

Question: How effective do you really think the project will be?

Answer: This matters on a large scale - we think we can install 1 million of our pumps in India in the first 10 years. This will reach 50 million people, raising millions of them out of poverty. In addition, through future extensions of the core technology, there will be the potential to turn millions of farmers into energy entrepreneurs, bringing solar electricity, household lighting, and cell phone charging to millions of rural households that will never connect to the grid. All this, plus we’ll reduce carbon emissions by replacing the diesel pumps with clean solar pumps. Paul Polak, Jacob Mathew, and Jack Keller have been working directly with the farmers for decades and understand what will work in the long run. They feel this is the kind of game changing project that can make a difference.

Question: I’d like a little more detail on what these pumps are for and how you plan on making this work. Can you share more information?

Answer: There are two key components to this project: develop and field test cost-effective solar powered pressurized irrigation systems and establish a commercial enterprise to promote their adoption by farmers in India.

Pumping surface or groundwater for irrigation is energy intensive and traditional photovoltaic (solar) powered irrigation systems can’t compete with fossil fueled surface irrigation systems. To make it work we have to minimize the energy requirements of crop irrigation. We will accomplish this by applying a systems approach for optimizing the series of water flow components from the water supply to the irrigated crops. The critical design tasks include: 

  • The well filter and screen must be designed to reduce drawdown.
  • The solar panel array, mirror concentrators, and pump mechanism must be optimized to produce pressurized water using the sun's energy.
  • The water distribution system must be optimized to increase the crop production per unit of irrigation water applied.

Giving away the system will be ineffective in the long run; farmers must invest in the pumps in order to create the motivation that ownership brings. To do this, a commercial company will be established first in India and then in Africa. The business model will integrate solar-powered pumping systems with a package of services including financing (lease to own or loan), support for design, installation and operation/maintenance training, and farm advisory services to enhance farming enterprise profitability.

Paul Polak and his team have previously made drip irrigation more affordable for poor farmers. Drip irrigation is more effective than using sprinklers or flooding techniques.

Paul Polak and his team have previously made drip irrigation more affordable for poor farmers. Drip irrigation is more effective than using sprinklers or flooding techniques.

Question: How is the proposed technical solution sufficiently different from currently available technologies? 

Answer: The pump will be much cheaper than available options, but it's not just the pump that will make this work. We're using our collective field experience with small plot irrigation in Asia to create an end-to-end system specifically designed to help poor farmers irrigate their crops. We are taking a zero-based design approach to the problem, improving the whole process of irrigating crops with no limiting preconceptions. 

It’s worth noting that solar powered pumping systems with water delivery similar to five horsepower engine pumps are being promoted in India, but they require subsidies of up to 86% to make them attractive. Subsidies are costly and practically impossible for small plot farmers to obtain.


Find This Campaign On
raised by 241 people in 1 month
63% funded
No time left
$50,000 USD goal
Flexible Funding This campaign has ended and will receive all funds raised.
Campaign Closed
This campaign ended on June 9, 2013
Select a Perk
  • $10USD
    Get happy!

    100% of your contribution will be spent on developing a game changing solution to poverty. As a way to say thank you we'll add your name to a special page on our website. Feel good about yourself today!

    15 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
  • $15USD
    Solar Light Bulb - Take 2!

    Steve and his solar panel team have released a batch of 100 of their solar powered light bulbs. We're pleased to be able to offer these to you at this lower perk level! We also added a picture of them in the gallery so you can see what they're capable of. Great for emergency kits, camping, patios, and more!

    16 out of 100 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
  • $25USD
    Get posted!

    The team will send you a postcard from our field test site in India. It may take a little while as we build the unit then ship it out there, but we'll get it to you. Whenever it comes it'll be a fun surprise to get a postcard from halfway around the world!

    23 claimed
    Estimated delivery: November 2013
  • $25USD
    Get intellectual!

    Steve Katsaros, and his team of solar experts, have developed a solar powered book light. Charge it in the sun then read for hours. Great for camping and outdoor adventures too!

    28 out of 36 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
  • $35USD
    Get inspired!

    Paul wrote a book about his work called "Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail". Paul will send you an autographed copy of his book and help inspire you to find more ways to help create sustainable solutions to poverty.

    23 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
  • $45USD
    Get portable!

    Steve and the team have developed a solar powered flashlight. Charge it in the sun then get hours of use! Perfect for your outdoor travels and your emergency kit.

    10 out of 36 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
  • $60USD
    Get illuminated!

    Steve and the solar powered wizards have one more trick up their sleeve: a solar powered light bulb. A fully charged light bulb will last up to 6 hours and can provide light to read or navigate by. Waterproof and portable, it's great for all your outdoor activities.

    6 out of 36 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
  • $75USD
    Get shiny!

    We'll put your name on the back of the mirrors in our field test model. Anyone who sees these mirrors will see a list of all the people who helped make it happen. We'll put high resolution images of the mirrors on our website for you to download and thank you by name.

    2 claimed
    Estimated delivery: November 2013
  • $100USD
    Get Inspired! Again!

    Paul is working on a new book called "The Business Solution to Poverty". He will send you a freshly printed copy when it's published later this year. In it you'll learn what Paul's been up to in the last ten years and more about why he believes that the best way to help reduce poverty in the long term is through helping people increase their ability to earn money. We'll also add your name to the back of the mirrors we use in our field test.

    26 claimed
    Estimated delivery: November 2013
  • $500USD
    Get fed!

    If you are in the Denver area, or can come to the area, Paul and members of the design team will host a special lunch for the backers at this level. You can come and listen to Paul talk about his decades of world travels and adventures in fighting poverty. Or you can bring your own ideas and get feedback from the team. Your choice AND lunch is paid for at a great local restaurant. We'll also add your name to the back of the mirrors on our field test model.

    3 out of 12 claimed
    Estimated delivery: June 2013
  • $10,000USD
    Get recognition!

    Your name will appear on a prominent area of the field test model. The model and your name will appear in promotional materials as well as in the field during on site testing. This is a great way for you (or your company) to put your name on something that will make a difference in the lives of millions of people.

    1 out of 3 claimed
    Estimated delivery: November 2013
  • $10,000USD
    Get personal!

    Paul travels the world giving seminars about his work and practical solutions to poverty. The backer who claims this reward will have an opportunity for Paul to visit them for a special seminar. Spend the day with Paul and share ideas together. Note: Reasonable travel costs in the United States will be paid for. Also, Paul's time is in high demand so advance planning will be required.

    0 out of 1 claimed
    Estimated delivery: July 2013
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