KickStart is a nonprofit social enterprise with a mission to move millions of people in Sub–Saharan Africa out of poverty quickly, cost-effectively, and sustainably. To do this, KickStart designs and distributes affordable irrigation pumps that enable farmers to access shallow ground and surface water and irrigate their fields year-round. They grow and sell food during the dry season when prices are highest, adapt to climate change, and build lasting financial security. To date, KickStart has distributed over 390,000 pumps to farmers and their families.
Our development philosophy
Africa’s poor need a way to make more money. With irrigation and a reliable income, farmers pay for school fees, healthcare, housing, or re-invest in their businesses. KickStart’s impacts are created and owned by our farmer entrepreneurs.
Local supply chains
By working with the existing private sector, we ensure farmers have sustainable access to pumps and spare parts, and that we aren’t competing with the local market. If someone else is already doing it – we don’t.
We can’t irrigate Africa ourselves. KickStart partners with key stakeholders to reach and educate farmers and to create an enabling environment for the widespread take-up of irrigation.
Farmers’ needs are at the center of our design. To ensure their success, all products are developed for maximum durability, affordability, ease of use, and to make a return on investment within 6 months.
Where we work
KickStart has operations across 17 high-priority countries across Africa, managed by three Regional Hubs in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia.
If you sell pumps, why do you need donor funds?
KickStart’s guiding mission is to bring irrigation to as many farmers and vulnerable communities in Sub-Saharan Africa as possible – and we believe that the local private sector is the most effective and sustainable way to do that. However, at present, selling small scale irrigation equipment to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa faces several market failures that limit its capacity to be independently profitable:
- The target clients (smallholder farmers) are the least resourced population in the world. They have low incomes, little savings, limited access to credit, and are highly risk adverse.
- Widespread awareness of irrigated agriculture is very limited. With less than 4% of farmland in SSA irrigated, farmers have very limited experience with irrigation, its use, or its benefits.
- Switching from rain-fed to irrigated farming requires a major behavior change—planting, irrigating, cultivating, harvesting, and selling high-value crops year-round, instead of planting once or twice a year with the rain. This requires departing from generational farming practices and community norms.
- Limited availability of affordable irrigation products makes it beyond reach for most smallholders.
- Weak governance and budget capacities have failed to prioritize smallholder irrigation in SSA compared to other regions, where irrigation has been widely promoted and subsidized.
KickStart uses donor funds to tackle these challenges, from research and development of new technologies to key scaling activities that spread awareness, build local access, and promote enabling policies. See our model for more information (link).
Does irrigation deplete ground water reserves? Is it environmentally safe?
Sub-Saharan Africa uses < 5% of its renewable surface water and < 10% of its renewable groundwater, offering huge potential for agricultural transformation. These resources can be utilized safely without depleting the water supply and replicating the environmental errors made during the Green Revolution in Asia.
- KickStart’s pumps use zero carbon energy sources, which utilize high-water efficiency pressurized hosepipe, sprinkler and/or drip irrigation. This enables close targeting of the water to plant roots, which lower rates of evaporation, soil erosion, and soil salination compared to more commonly used flood or channel irrigation.
- By using human-powered energy or small-scale solar panels, our pumps only pull a limited amount of water in a day, further encouraging farmers to optimize their water usage.
- Unlike large electric, diesel, or solar-powered deep well pumps, KickStart’s pumps only pull water from shallow renewable rain-fed aquifers, avoiding the over-drafting of deep non-renewable aquifers.
If KickStart is based in Kenya, why do you manufacture your pumps in China?
Manufacturing of KickStart’s pump was originally based in Kenya. However, when we expanded our program to other regions across Africa, we were forced to move production. Africa’s inter-continental shipping networks are woefully underdeveloped, largely due to the economic history of colonialism making shipping to west or southern Africa from east Africa prohibitively slow and expensive. It is cheaper and more efficient to mass-produce in China and ship to our 17 priority countries directly from there. KickStart’s factory-based production is currently managed by our contract manufacturer, E-BI, and produced at Heng Ye Gong Mao Factory in China, allowing us to distribute our innovations to farmers across the continent.
Isn’t Africa a very dry place? Many people have to walk long distances for drinking water – so how do they have water for irrigation?
Access to potable drinking water continues to be a protracted challenge across the continent. However, irrigation for crops can use a much wider range of water sources and quality – including shallow hand-dug wells, ditches, springs, swamps, rivers, streams, lakes, dams, and water catchments many of which are not suitable for drinking.
An estimated 20% of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa can access a sustainable water source, right on their farms, either from a surface source or by hand-digging a shallow well. Digging a well or catchment is not inexpensive, but many families are willing to go for it as a good business investment for both irrigation and aquaculture. Once the catchment is dug, families will also use it for other household needs, often serving to improve overall WASH practices.
Why don’t you just give pumps away?
We believe that the local private sector is the most sustainable, durable, and cost-effective way to provide farmers with long-term access to irrigation. By establishing a profitable and independent supply chain of local stakeholders—made-up of importers, distributors, retail shops and service providers—we create a reliable infrastructure for farmers to learn about irrigation, purchase pumps, and access spare parts and services, which will outlast KickStart’s interventions. We also believe that farmers who have skin-in-the-game (fully or partially paying for the technologies, digging their own wells, attending trainings, preparing their fields, etc.) will better value and make better use of their new irrigation technologies. This model for distribution was built in response to the many failures of traditional aid models, which tend toward short-term hand-outs that often leave beneficiaries without clear or sustainable ownership, and with limited local resources to continue to support and promote the solutions when projects end.
Are you a non-profit or a for-profit organization?
KickStart is a US-based 501-C3 non-profit organization. By utilizing a hybrid social enterprise model, KickStart generates its own income from the sale of our products, which we supplement with donor-based revenue. This provides diverse revenue streams, promotes cost-efficient operations, and increases organizational capacities as the program scales into the future.
Why is irrigation so important in Sub-Saharan Africa?
There is proportionally far less irrigation in Sub-Saharan compared to other regions. Only about 4% of SSA’s farmland is irrigated, compared to over 40% across Asia and over 50% in India. Globally, irrigation produces an estimated 40% of our food and 60% of its value. This underdevelopment is hugely limiting for the SSA’s agricultural and economic potential and it keeps the population in perpetual cycles of food insecurity between rainfed harvests and highly dependent on imported food products. As seasonal rains become more unreliable, the need for irrigation is even more urgent, as once reliable rains fail or crops are wiped out by super storms. However, SSA can now avoid the mistakes other regions made introducing unsustainable flood and channel irrigation and leapfrog
Why aren’t other donors & NGOs investing in irrigation?
There are several reasons why irrigation has lacked support in previous development approaches.
- In the 1970-1980s, the World Bank and other bi and multi-lateral donors funded the construction of large-scale irrigation schemes across SSA. However, many of these projects ultimately failed; they were very expensive, required smallholders to move en-masse to reach the schemes, were poorly designed and implemented, and highly corrupted. As a result, irrigation was broadly de-prioritized by donors by the mid-1980s.
- Unsustainable small-scale irrigation projects in southern Asia caused environmental problems – owing to highly subsidized diesel/grid-electricity powered systems that would run all day, wash away nutrients, salinate soils, and deplete aquifers. While the projects produces enormous gains in regional food security and poverty reduction, the policy scheme gave irrigation a bad reputation among environmentalists.
- Unlike the corporate seed and fertilizer giants, which actively promote their improved drought resistant seeds and fertilizers, irrigation has far less private sector investment and lobbying power.
- Irrigation falls between WASH & Agriculture sectors, often falling outside the purview of both sector’s budgets and policy agendas. However, as a result of KickStart’s multi-pronged and collaborative advocacy efforts, the World Bank and various national governments are coming back on board, and re-building farmer-led irrigation agendas aimed at enabling climate adaptation, resilience and rural livelihoods.
How do farmers access pumps & spare parts?
KickStart creates a sustainable local supply chain to sell pumps and spare parts through local “agro-vet” farm distributors and retail shops, which are common in most small towns and cities. All the players in this supply chain (the manufacturer, importer/distributor, retailers, and KickStart) make a commercial margin/profit, driving long-term sustainability. KickStart then reaches and educates the farmers by partnering with organizations that work with thousands of farmers (INGOs, UN Agencies, Govts, businesses, etc.), and who distribute our pumps through a variety of methods (hand-outs with other forms of buy-in, farmer-friendly loans, subsidies, etc.).
How about financing? How do farmers afford pumps?
Some farmers buy pumps in cash at local agricultural shops, using their savings or by selling livestock/crops. However, to reach the least resourced and reduce the financial burden on farmers further, we work with partner organizations and MFIs to reach farmers with diverse financing options. Every partner works differently and with diverse target groups of farmers—demanding unique approaches. These schemes provide credit to farmers, encourage savings circles, subsidize pumps, or require alternative forms of skin-in-the-game for farmers to acquire pumps. We also partner to build and pilot new and unique models for financing, including Rent to Try & Buy (R2T&B) and Pay as You Go (PYG) initiatives.
How do the farmers sell their crops? Is finding local buyers a challenge?
Rain-fed crops are hard to sell because the markets are saturated, which causes up to 40% to spoil before its eaten or sold. However, irrigated crops grown in the in the off/dry season are easy to sell because there are so few other crops available at that time. Irrigators grow and harvest high-value crops in the off season and sell them on the local markets for high prices. In very many cases, buyers literally line-up at the farm gates of our farmers to buy their crops in the off-seasons. Many farmers have contracts to sell their fresh produce to local schools, hospitals, supermarkets, food processers or exporters.
The majority of calories that people eat comes from staple crops. How does irrigation help with calories?
Calorie-rich staple crops (maize, rice, erc.) have been long-prioritized in the food security sector. However, more recent nutritional security agendas put additional emphasis on high-value crops (fruits and vegetables), which are vital for child development. Irrigation is critical to improving production of both crop types. Farmers use irrigation to produce high-value crops in the off-season, making most of their money at the end of dry season, as the staple crop planting season arrives. These farmers use new incomes to purchase higher quality inputs (seeds and fertilizer) for staple crops, increasing rainfed crop yields as well. They also invest in livestock (cows, poultry, goats etc.), which increase household protein consumption.
What about farmers that don’t have existing access to water on their farms? What are their options?
An estimated 20% of farmers in SSA can access water from surface sources or shallow ground water right on their farms. For other, there are several options to expand water access:
- Wells: Shallow wells are often dug from family labor, while local well diggers are hired for wells as deep as 30 meters. Households often pay for a few meters to be dug at a time, as they make money from their harvests, livestock, etc.
- Boreholes: Farmers who live in places with shallow aquifers below layers of clay and silt—those in large lake flood zones, valley bottoms etc.–can use low-cost auguring/boring methods to drill small diameter tube wells to reach the water.
- Lease Land: Farmers often rent nearby plots with access to water. Renting uncultivated land in many parts of SSA is extremely cheap.
- Water Catchments: Households often dig or construct water catchments (clay or plastic-lined water ponds) to capture and store rainwater, utilizing family/community/hired labor.
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