What is an appropriate technology?

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

It’s day one of Tech4Dev 2012, and the question on everyone’s lips is ­­- “What is an appropriate technology?”

I sat in on some fascinating presentations that aimed to answer this question by looking at water management technologies in India and Africa.

The one that provided the most food for thought was a talk by Ravinder Malik from the New Delhi branch of the International Water Management Institute.

Presenting research on the use of treadle pumps in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India, Malik broke the question down and asked “Who are technologies appropriate for, the promoters or the users?”

Treadle pumps are simple and cheap – but that doesn’t mean farmers want them. Credit: Mukul Soni

Treadle pumps use body weight and leg muscles to lift water from a depth of up to eight metres for use in irrigation. They were introduced in Bangladesh to great success in 1985, boosting crop productivity and helping to lift small farmers out of poverty. To date, 1.5 million of the pumps have been sold across the country.

On the strength of this success, the pumps were introduced and disseminated in India from the mid-1990s onwards.

But nearly 15 years later, says Malik, “promoters and donors are assuming status quo conditions [in India] and pouring huge amounts of money into treadle pumps”.

They are equating sales with demand, assuming that ownership implies usage – but rural India’s socioeconomic and technological landscape has changed.

Treadle pumps succeeded for a variety of reasons, including their simple design and their suitability for the conditions at the time – low irrigation water requirements, a lack of electricity in villages, and the high cost or awkwardness (for example, heavy diesel-powered pumps) of alternative technologies.

Nowadays, farmers have access to small, lightweight, fuel-efficient diesel-pumping kits and have improved access to electricity. There are increases in irrigation water requirements that treadle pumps can no longer meet. And there are increasing concerns over drudgery – many family members have refused to tread because of health-related concerns.

In Cooch Behar, just eight per cent of farmers are using the treadle pumps that they originally purchased. They told Malik and his team that they will never go back to using them – even though they are more affordable – preferring instead to buy or rent motorised pumping technologies.

“Low cost and affordability doesn’t mean farmers will accept and adopt,” Malik said, “and sales cannot be used as a proxy for adoption”.

“Treadle pumps have no new takers, they are slowly being phased out. Any more money pumped in is unlikely to serve the intended purpose of improving accessibility of irrigation for small farmers and helping them in improving their income.

“Tech adoption is a dynamic process and an intervention appropriate at one point in time and under given conditions may not remain so.”

He called for regular and independent monitoring in the field to understand the changing landscape of smallholder irrigation and ensure that farmers have access not only to technologies they need – but technologies they want.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

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