Proximity Designs

Proximity Designs: Treating the poor as customers

A compelling problem: Nearly two billion people are stuck in rural poverty. They desperately need the right products and technologies to make a livable income.


Move rural Burmese farm families out of poverty

The idea

Treat the poor as customers; design, market and sell income-boosting products and services that farm families can afford.

How it works

  • Treat the poor as customers, not as beneficiaries of charity donations
  • Systematically identify opportunities for income-boosting products and services for rural households
  • Design in-country with world class collaborators
  • Provide farmers access to finance for products and crops
  • Target marketing campaigns to reach the rural poor
  • Sell through multiple existing sales channels

How it will go to scale

Proximity will grow to reach hundreds of thousands of farmers. They are also working to effect agricultural policy change that will allow other product and service providers to reach the rural poor.

Progress so far

Scale up: 74,000 irrigation products (i.e. pumps, drip systems and water storage systems) sold in Myanmar since 2007. Median income gains from each irrigation pump are approximately $300 over the first three years of use.

Millions of people stuck in grinding poverty have the entrepreneurial drive to work their way out;

what they lack are the moneymaking products to do it. Top-down efforts too often produce tools that don’t work for those they are supposed to help. Debbie Aung Din Taylor and Jim Taylor realized that the best way to assess a product’s value is if the poor are willing to buy it. Debbie and Jim set up a design lab in Myanmar that combines the best ideas the world has to offer with customer feedback at the village level, and they market the resulting products through existing sales channels. They started with a foot-treadle irrigation pump that sells for under $25. The pumps have energized rural villages that have long had little to celebrate, doubling incomes and allowing families to eat better, send their kids to school, and improve their farms. Proximity Designs is also developing or sourcing affordable new products like household lights, water storage, cook stoves, and providing access to finance for these and other farm needs. Both the products and the process have the potential to bring millions of families out of extreme poverty.

A compelling problem

Nearly two billion people are stuck in rural poverty. They desperately need the right products and technologies to make a livable income.

A scalable solution

Mulago assesses scalability based on five characteristics common to efforts that have taken lasting impact to scale.

Real impact: Using random sampling and controls, Proximity measures the change in farm income following a product purchase. Across all of Proximity’s activities, rural families experience net income increases ranging from $35 to $245 per year, depending on the product or service used.

Cost-effective: Using the Mulago metric of average additional three-year income per donor dollar, in 2013 Proximity increased 3-year farmer incomes an average of $656, at a donor cost of $39, so an increase of $17 in income per donor dollar.

Lasting behavior: Once a distribution chain is established, all key behavior changes are driven and maintained by profits.

Easy replication: Proximity uses and leverages existing market structures and supply chains, and products are broadly adaptable across cultures and settings.

A viable route to scale: Proximity is an extraordinarily well-run organization and has attracted an impressive amount of funding. This funding, along with the earned income from their product sales, should allow them to reach significant size.

Capacity to Deliver

Debbie and Jim Taylor have the ideal background in both business and economic development needed to succeed in Myanmar. The organization they have created incorporates the best of team-based management with clear performance incentives, as well as world-class product design. Their distribution network is so good that in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis their team was called on to deploy $13 million of relief funds, ensuring that the rice crop in the affected areas did not collapse and people did not lose their livelihoods. As Myanmar has opened up politically and economically, Jim and Debbie have led their team developing new lines of high impact products and services.

updated November 2013