Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.


Social Capitalists


San Francisco, California

Social impact: A
Aspiration: A
Entrepreneurship: B+
Innovation: A+
Sustainability: A-

At first glance, it's hard to be impressed by the MoneyMaker, a human-powered irrigation pump invented by the nonprofit group Appropriate Technologies for Enterprise Creation (ApproTEC). The thing looks more like one of the zany contraptions cobbled together by the professor on Gilligan's Island than a powerful tool meant to help eradicate world poverty.

But the story of people such as Njenga Kimani shows why a seemingly mundane thing like a cheap, foot-operated irrigation system can have a profound impact. Kimani and his wife once earned just $20 a month selling seeds and small tree saplings -- just about all they could grow with the available water supply. In 2001, the couple saw a demonstration of the MoneyMaker and saved up the $80 needed to buy one. Soon afterward, their income began rising, and today they own a nursery that nets about $250 per month.

For ApproTEC cofounders Nick Moon, 50, and Martin Fisher, 46, people like Kimani represent an entire class of individual farmers that had once slipped through the cracks of large-scale aid operations. In the mid-1980s, Moon and Fisher met in Kenya while working for the British agency ActionAid. Moon had sold his home-remodeling business; Fisher was on a Fulbright Scholarship after receiving his engineering doctorate from Stanford. By 1991, the two had formed ApproTEC.

Their first invention: a manual seed press allowing subsistence farmers to make cooking oil rather than having to buy it. That was stymied, Moon says, by vested interests of officials working for now-ousted Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Then the pair turned to irrigation. "We wondered why these rural farmers weren't using irrigation systems to grow during the dry season," Moon explains. It turns out that most, like Kimani, were using primitive methods such as simple buckets. The only pumps on the market were expensive motorized ones meant for larger plots.

Moon and Fisher developed a treadle pump that could handle the hills and valleys of sub-Saharan Africa, and quickly the MoneyMaker began gaining traction. Subsistence farmers saw their incomes increase as much as tenfold, because the system allowed them to grow through the dry season.

Today, the MoneyMaker is produced and distributed entirely by independent, for-profit companies -- and that's part of the power of ApproTEC's model. "We wouldn't get very far if we concentrated solely on the social-development side," Moon says. But there's far more work to be done. ApproTEC just kicked off a three-year expansion it hopes will produce 39,000 new businesses in Kenya and Tanzania, penetrate other markets in the region, and expand sales of its products to wholesalers worldwide.

-- Ryan Underwood

= repeat winner