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    Entries in solar energy (4)

    Wednesday
    Oct212015

    Meet the lotus

    What do you get when you mix one signature drink, a custom fountain display, 150+ people, and a spacious new art gallery in Yangon? A product launch; Proximity-style.

    On October 15, 2015, Design Team co-leaders, Taiei Harimoto and Ko Aung Ko Ko unveiled the Lotus, a radically affordable, solar-powered irrigation pump for low-income farmers in Myanmar.

    As Myanmar began opening in 2011, the agricultural landscape also experienced significant change. Cheap diesel engines from China flowed into the market and many farmers invested in them as a way to mechanize their operations, only to find them dirty, difficult to operate, and expensive to run. “This presented an opportunity for us,” Product Designer Taiei Harimoto explained during the product launch. “Our customers’ irrigation methods are no longer the same,” he continued, “which means that they have new needs that we can design for.”

    Having identified this opportunity, Proximity embarked on an intensive human-centered design process to create the Lotus, which is unlike any other solar-powered irrigation pump in the world. Designed specifically for the local market, it is a submersible pump that fits neatly into the two-inch (50 mm) wide tube-wells found commonly in rural Myanmar—at its widest, the Lotus is 49mm in diameter. When working at a depth of 24ft, the Lotus pump can yield over 15,000 liters of water per day. The Lotus is also likely to be the world’s most affordable solar pump, retailing at only US$345, which includes 260W of solar panels. Most solar irrigation pumps available on the market cost several thousand dollars.

    Most importantly, the Lotus makes sustainable farming easy. Although smallholder farmers each own only a few acres of land, they have an immense collective impact on the health of our food systems. The Lotus will provide Myanmar farmers with sustainable options that are also cost saving.

    The Design Team’s unveiling of the new product was followed by a spirited discussion of its specs and limitations: How long does the Lotus last? Lifecycle testing has shown that it will serve customers for at least two seasons. Will there be financing available for farmers who can’t afford the upfront cost? For the first sales season, Proximity is not offering financing, in part to gauge what the demand is for the product now and to determine what type of financing might be optimal for this product. How long is the payback period for farmers switching from diesel engines to solar-powered irrigation? Ten months on average, and the payback period is even shorter for farmers switching from treadle pumps to the Lotus.

    We want to thank everyone who joined to celebrate with us, and if you weren’t able to make it, we will be releasing a short film about the event and how the Lotus is made in Myanmar in the coming weeks!

    Monday
    Nov032014

    Designing with the user

     

     

    Fresh off the boat (well, in this case, the plane), Steve Frechette is our Energy Team’s new Business Advisor and extrovert extraordinaire. When he’s not devouring every Burmese treat under the sun, he’s blogging about his experiences in Myanmar. Here, he reflects on his recent experience of the user-centered design process at Proximity Designs.  

    I’m new here, but I’ve been at Proximity long enough to realize that user-centered design is truly part of our DNA. Luckily, I was able to join in on an important part of that design process. As the energy team prepares to launch a new product, we traveled to Myanmar’s Dry Zone to gather concept feedback.

    By this stage, the team has already conducted and analyzed primary and secondary market research. Equipped with poster-board prototypes illustrating the potential products we’d like to offer, the Energy Team went back into the field to gather feedback on these potential solutions.

    In the course of 3 days, the team visited three villages, received 131 survey responses, and held focus group discussions at each location. It was an exhausting, eye opening experience that helped me to identify four conditions that were critical for the success of our concept feedback gathering and our overall design process.

    1) Quickly building rapport helps everyone to open up:

    Standing in front of a group of villagers, I was a bit nervous. But breaking the ice was critical for both them and me. To lead frank discussions, the team needs to make villagers who attend feel comfortable enough to share their preferences and experiences. On our end, I also had to be comfortable interacting with them. So after a deep breath, I stumbled through an introduction in basic Burmese and got some laughs from the group. It was heartening to see that some participants were so interested in the products that they stuck around after the formal session. Discussions with them led to in-depth learning about Myanmar rural energy needs. 

    2) Structure helps to simplify information exchange and keeps respondents focused.

    Direct interaction with villagers is incredibly valuable, but time is limited, and attendees, just like any of us, lose focus over time. We prepared with questionnaires, clipboards, and pens, and we asked villagers to gather in groups monitored by one of our team members. All of these groups were kept on track by a team member who “mc’d” the event. Visuals aids are also incredibly important to help communicate complicated product options. We had large vinyl sheets printed with visual mock-ups that could be hung from one of the village houses.

    3) Listen to what isn’t being said, and observe the environment.

    Listening is a basic human function, but it’s surprising how quickly we can forget to be attentive if we focus on ticking through a laundry list of questions. Sometimes slowing down, and really listening, makes all the difference.

    “Listening,” extends not only to the words people are saying along with their gestures, but also includes paying attention to the kind of environments, cultures, and norms where people live. This sort of observation, or “listening,” helped me understand what can sometimes be difficult to articulate.

    For example, during one village visit, the women sat on one side of the space, the men sat on the opposite side, and the village leaders sat in the middle. This observation provides insight about the decision hierarchy that may exist in the village and how we should approach introducing a new product.

    4) Remember the stakeholders who may not be center stage.

    When designing a product or service for a group of people, it is critical to consider who, besides the end user, will be important in implementing that solution. In our case, our energy sales team and other Proximity staff who interact with villagers on a day-to-day basis will be directly involved in getting products to our customers. Some of these people have grown up in the same villages where we will be selling products and serve as a bridge between Proximity and the end-user. We used a focus-group setup to get their input on the various proposed solutions.

    Reflecting on the experience, I’ve realized how important it is to remember that we’re all people, not simply data points or information reserves. Trying to connect with individuals, as well as simply enjoying and appreciating the experience, goes a long way.

    All photos courtesy of Steve Frechette. 

     

    Wednesday
    Jun182014

    A Village of Solar Lighting Entrepreneurs

     Proximity's d.lights, left outside to charge 

    It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about challenges facing low-income farmers in Myanmar, but the migration of landless laborers is one of the biggest problems they encounter. Landless rural inhabitants are leaving their homes at accelerating rates in search of better futures in the cities and abroad, while farmers who count on their help to harvest crops are left short-handed. Migration is also hollowing out rural communities, with the elderly and the young becoming an ever larger portion of village populations.

    Despite this migration pattern, only 5 out of 100 families have left Set Thwar village in recent years. Surrounded by the sandy expanses characteristic of the Magway Region, it’s not initially obvious why Set Thwar’s inhabitants have stayed. However, all it takes is one conversation inside a bamboo-thatched home with a group of 20 or so women, to realize that small household businesses are the reason this community has remained united. 

    Daw Than Sein, for instance, deftly spins a stone wheel while molding a delicate clay vase. Pottery and incense are the village specialties, and she churns out a variety of vases and even an owl-shaped piggy bank in a matter of minutes. It’s no wonder she’s so skilled - she’s been working with clay since she was 15. What is surprising though, is the energy she brings to her craft; at 62, she doesn’t even stop to look up while recounting her family’s history. Almost mechanically, the row of pots next to her steadily expands while one of her six granddaughters sits down next to her, inspired to coat thin wooden sticks with incense to keep her grandmother company.

    Daw Thein Sein spins her magic

    Daw Than Sein’s family first purchased one of Proximity’s solar lights to save money during the monthly religious festivals, which would otherwise cost them 1,500 kyats in candles a night to attend. Before long, another, more significant benefit from the light became apparent: Daw Than Sein’s productivity doubled once she could work into the night. She went from making 50 vases a day, to easily finishing 100.

    “We can get 8 hours of light at night from the light. Now I keep making pots till 9:30pm. I didn’t want my daughters to take the light away to the festivals when they went, so before long, we had two solar lights in the family.”

    While Daw Than Sein’s pottery income is only one part of a larger equation, she’s able to contribute an estimated $360 more a year to her family’s income thanks to the solar light. Collectively, with her two sons working as drivers, her husband tending two acres of land, and her daughter and granddaughter helping transport Daw Than Sein crafts, the family’s able to earn enough to make an uncertain future in a distant city unappealing.

    Stories like Daw Than Sein’s abound in Set Thwar, where 100 families own nearly 150 solar lights. Thanks to the increased productivity of household businesses, few in Set Thwar see a reason to leave their homes. Their stories are a remarkable testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of Myanmar’s rural population, where a simple, well-designed product purchased on credit has the capacity to double revenues from businesses that have been passed down for generations. Daw Than Sain is optimistic about the future, and we thank her for showing us just how much difference a couple extra hours of light can make.

     

     

     

     

    Monday
    May062013

    Threshing by the light of my solar lantern

    With so much to do on the farm during the day, rice threshing has become a night time activity. When we went to visit one of our d.light customers in Dedaye we found him using two of his solar lights to light his thresher. Instead of having to use his money to run a generator in the field all night, he can now reinvest it into his farm, his family, and offering more casual labourers -- like the ones you see here -- employment in his village.