Designed for rural farmers in Myanmar, Proximity Design's new sprinkler system is inexpensive, flexible, and reliable. The system was researched, designed, and made in Myanmar and tested with farmers. A first of it's kind in Myanmar, the system retails for an obtainable $55 USD and can be installed in less than a day.
Myanmar is the largest country Mainland Southeast Asia, it's also one of the poorest. Poverty is concentrated to the rural areas where a majority of the poor work in small scale agriculture (ref). Proximity works to improve the lives of Myanmar's small-shareholder farmers by introducing thoughtfully-designed products and services. The backbone of Proximity's offering has been they're widely used irrigation products that have helped transform the perviously back-breaking manual practice of transporting water to a field with the introduction of new pumping and irrigation tools.
To understand the current irrigation needs of small-shareholder farmer's in Myanmar and introduce a new product to meet their needs.
Myanmar is rapidly changing, new tools and technology are pouring into the country from neighbors like China and Thailand. Cheap gasoline and diesel pumps have transformed the way farmers approach irrigation and have displaced the need for Proximity's non-motorized products. While new irrigation tools like sprinkler heads and lay-flat tubing are becoming increasingly available, they aren't yet connected by a familiar use or system and most importantly they aren't designed for Myanmar farmers. This is where Proximity has the advantage; through a widespread network of agents and sales reps Proximity can deliver products and kits to Myanmar farmers, designed specifically for them, shaped by their needs, and delivered in a way that makes sense.
Myanmar is a diverse place with dozens of ethic groups and geological regions creating a colorful landscape of culture and behavior. Buddhism is a driving force in Myanmar life and has a huge impact on the rituals and beliefs of our customers. Regional differences further shape farming habits - farmers in Myanmar's arid Dry Zone face a tougher environment, relying heavily on traditional irrigation methods, more so than the more experimental farmers in the the fertile Irrawaddy Delta. There are also differences based on crop types where farmers cultivating highly competitive crops like betle are less likely to share advice with other farmers compared to those working with market-stable crops.
- 5 Weeks of Research & Synthesis
- 2 Geographic Regions: Myanmar's central Dry Zone and the Irrawaddy Delta
- 6 Townships: Pyawbwe, Yamethin, Yangon, Danubyu, Hinthada, and Pakokku
- 45 Participants: 30 Farmers, 5 Sales Reps, 7 Dealers, and 3 Proximity Stakeholders
We met our customers in their homes and their fields to help us to better understand the stress a technical failure brings, risking the health of an entire yield. We documented the diverse set of modifications and adaptations our customers were making to our products. We covered miles of back roads on motor bikes with our sales team to understand how our products are sold and transported. We came to understand that a farmer's practice is built from a connected network of knowledge. Information and new techniques are communicated between friends and competitors, through Facebook and the increasing number of shops popping up throughout the country. It was important that we try to characterize this interconnected network to better understand what it means to be a farmer in Myanmar. Here are a few key things we found:
Customization & Creativity
Generations under Myanmar's junta rule has necessitated a culture of adaptivity and resourcefulness. Modification and problem solving is woven into Myanmar's culture of making. Farmers modify our systems not just out of necessity but as a way to demonstrate their expertise to their community. We found many of our customers and sales reps repurposing our existing drip system in new and unexpected ways. If we embrace this experimentation and create a flexible design our customers will continue to modify and improve the products to best suit their use.
Proximity's goal from the start has always been to make farmer's lives easier, but in recent years this need has taken on new urgency as able-bodied men of all ages leave the country in search of better work abroad. In their absence farmers are facing labor shortages and rising costs, jeopardizing many farmer's ability to plant on time and maintain the health of their crops. The farmers that remain need technology that reduces their need for manual labor.
Previously, when things broke down farmers could resort to hiring additional labor to combat the problem but with the reduction of labor our customers have lost this safety net. With farmers now wholly reliant on our technology, technical problems take on a new sense of urgency where missing a few days of irrigation can result in an entire failed season. Our new irrigation systems need to be reliable and low maintenance - farmers need to trust that our designs wont let them down.
As the country has opened for commerce, Myanmar farmers have been exposed to a rush of new tools and methods, including sprinklers. Sprinkler systems are intuitive, simple, and versatile - satisfying many of the complex challenges facing Myanma farmers. Rather than improving the existing drip system Proximity would need to offer a dedicated sprinkler system, not just to stay competitive, but because it would give farmers the tools they really need.
Originally we planned to redesign Proximity's existing drip system, but research shifted our focus to the design of a new sprinkler system. Giving ourselves the latitude we needed to adjust ultimately led us to a better design, one best suited to our customers needs. During development problems and questions would arise that would force us to adjust, it was in these adaptations where the design ultimately took shape. Our research not only helped us identify what we should make but also shaped our decisions throughout the design of the sprinkler system:
Customization & Creativity
We tried to create a versatile kit of parts that would be easy to modify, allowing the various components to be replaced, repaired, modified, or supplemented with locally sourced parts giving farmers the flexibility to repair and adjust. The decision to sell our sprinkler system as a set of kits gives farmers the option to either buy a complete system or only the parts they need. All of this flexibility and modularity allows our design to grow and adapt naturally with a farmers needs and make it easier for us to respond with improvements to the design down the line.
Our sprinkler system only takes a day to setup and is designed to run for the duration of a planting season with minimal maintenance or adjustment. The sprinkler head we chose was not just the cheapest option but also the one least prone to clogging, reliving a major source of maintenance in the previous design.
A sprinkler system is a collection of separate parts - transmission lines, connectors, tubing, sprinkler heads - all working seamlessly together. To ensure durability and reliability we rigorously tested both the individual components as well as the complete system. From the design lab to the fields of our farmers, as our design progressed our tests grew to reflect the real situations our products would be used in.
Making in Myanmar:
Extreme constraints forces deeper creativity and in Myanmar you have to be creative. It was both a philosophical and pragmatic choice to produce the majority of the parts locally. This required balance between our goals, like affordability and durability, with the specific manufacturing capabilities and resources available in Myanmar.
Nestled deep in Yangon's dense industrial zone, most of our production partners have small shops equipped with manual lathes and mills, some over 50 years old. The skilled machinists we worked with saw our problems differently and helped us to positively shift our approach. The design process became a ongoing conversation, meeting with our partners daily to make adjustments, refining the design to best fit the resources available.
In true Myanmar fashion, the constraints of the place forced us to be more creative, leading to a better design overall.
How many kits can I fit on the back of a motorbike? - After weeks of prototyping different packaging designs our decision came down to this one question. With our sales reps sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to meet our customers, the ability to carry an additional set of sprinkler kits makes a big difference.
Do we sell the system as disparate sets of components or as a complete system? Do shops get different versions of the product from the sales team? How much does it cost? How much should we sell it for? As we refined our design hundreds questions had to be answered.
Working with procurement, manufacturing, distribution and sales ensured that our design made it to launch. We even collaborated with Proximity's sales and distribution teams to develop a Facebook page for the sprinkler system where farmers can find tutorials and reach out with questions.
Proximity's Sprinkler System launched on September 2nd, 2016 - the first sprinkler system available in Myanmar. At $55 USD it's less than a third the cost of a system a farmer could assemble from available components. Farmers now have access to an inexpensive and reliable method for irrigating their crops, reducing their costs, their reliance on labor, and giving them the tools to make their lives easier.
I was the creative lead on the project, shaping the decisions that the team made and facilitating the creative process. It was my responsibility to set and meet our deadlines and make sure we launched a product that exceeded our customer's needs and expectations.
Things I never thought I'd get to do:
- Fend off a poisonous snake while doing user testing.
- Dodge a pack of puppies chasing a full grown pig through an interview.
- Learn technical specifications of flows and pressures and all thing sprinklers.
- Ride on the back of a motorbike for hours to an interview in the middle of a paddy field.
- Travel to Bangkok on a clandestine mission for black-market sprinkler heads.
- Negotiate the international acquisition of irrigation components.
- Conduct interviews through a team of translators.
- Navigate Myanmar's maze of bureaucracy to import parts into the country.
- Myanmar Overview. (2016, September). Retrieved October, 2016, from http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/overview