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Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia; Ownership and empowerment at the heart of a water pump sales startup

   /   Apr 27th, 2011New York City, News, South East Asia

Lack of access to water is a crucial roadblock in the path from poverty to wealth for many rural societies. Without irrigation techniques, farmers must rely on rainfall that may only come a few times a year.

Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia (bb2c) works in a poor rural region in Cambodia, where farmers rely on rain or the arduous and inefficient process of hauling buckets of water in order to produce crops. Bb2c is selling pumps made by Kickstart that gather water 21 feet down. But furthermore, bb2c is motivated by a grassroots approach to poverty-alleviation that strives to put the tools for development into the hands of the people who will use them to benefit themselves.

Dowser: How did you determine the need for the water pumps, and why Cambodia?
Paula Shirk, founder: I have an adopted boy from Cambodia and when I went to pick him up I was given a picture of his birth family. Over a year and a half I located his family. They were homeless and had no food. And I never gave them money but instead I gave them tools. I gave them a motor scooter so they could get their fish and vegetables home from the market. Then I gave them a cow. The family never asked for anything, but they really used these tools to get on their feet.

Once you help a family, you’re sort of into helping the village. I had to do a 37-page application with Heifer International and they turned me down, and told me to resubmit. But then I heard a Podcast that was talking about this guy Paul Polak [who wrote the book Out of Poverty]. The Podcast said two really important things: one is that to get out of poverty you need access to water. The other is that the local people have to be in charge of their own development.

Why did that resonate so much? I’m from a farm and my heritage is Mennonite, which focuses on self-sufficiency.

How is the pump an innovative solution to farmers’ water needs?
The pumps can irrigate an acre and a half. Before, the farmers could only raise the crops once a season, during the rainy season. Now they can raise two sets of crops. Vegetables are so scarce in Cambodia and they have to import them.

What was the process like of deciding on the price point and figuring out distribution?
We sell the pumps at because we don’t want to create dependency. And if you give them away, how do you decide who to give them to?

A lot of the process is common sense. We buy the pumps from Kickstart International, who sells these pumps in Africa. We’re the first people to take these pumps out of Africa, and I don’t get why because it’s such a simple solution.

We matched Kickstart’s price, even though we have greater overhead. But we can’t sell them for more than $95. So we run on a shoestring budget and we rely on donations to cover our overhead costs.

In terms of distribution, we went into a Muslim area for two reasons. One is that they had the soil and the water table that the pumps require. But also, no one else was going to help them. [Former Cambodian dictator] Pol Pot tried to wipe them out, and I think it’s still the policy of the government to do this.

We just got the shipment in, in March. We’ve sold about 20 and we’ve ordered another shipment.

What is something concrete you’ve been learning or challenged by as you’re starting this organization?
We’re building our own pump, because we can’t continue to sell the Kickstart pump. We have Cambodian engineers on staff and University of Wisconsin engineers on standby. But we really want the Cambodian engineers to do it. The Kickstart pump was made in the West, but the Cambodians should do it their own way, using local materials. Steel is expensive and the Kickstart pump has a lot of steel in it. We’re up to our third prototype now.

What happens if the pumps break?
The pump is a simple 2-piston treadle and it works by gravity. The pumps last for years. The replacement parts are really cheap.

There are a lot of people and organizations working on water issues, using a variety of approaches. What would be the benefits of sharing information or collaborating?
I know our team over there talks to a lot of NGOs. Kickstart is certainly helpful; we like working with them although it’s too costly. But a lot of groups are building wells, which is not the same as these pumps, which create a sense of individual ownership. And if the community owns it, nobody owns it. We’re really into this ownership, so in that sense our approach is different. But I hope that we, social entrepreneurs, can work together to develop these pumps.

What other issues do you see contributing to rural poverty in Cambodia?
Soil erosion, and trees being cut down for fuel. But we are focusing on this pump and later we’ll tackle the other issues. And one other topic here is that we want to help women. 65 percent of households are headed by women, but they are barely visible. So that’s on my mind too.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

6 Responses

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  2. While we applaud what bb2c is doing (and have enjoyed meeting with representatives of their org in the past) lack of collaboration continues to plague the development sector in Cambodia, and this interview exemplifies that unfortunate reality. There are a plethora of INGOs/NGOs/CBOs working to provide water solutions to the rural poor. One of those, RDIC ( has been working in Cambodia for decades and has on-site production facilities of pumps and filters. They’ve built up years of experience, ideas and innovations – bb2c would be STRONGLY encouraged to collaborate with them to serve the Cham communities they are focused on, versus going off on their own to produce a new pump. We can all learn so much from each other – if only we commit to principles of open sharing and cooperation. If we neglect these, then the only people that stand to lose, are those we are trying to serve.

  3. Daniela Papi says:

    To echo what Allie said – we have had one of these foot pumps for more than 4 years at one of the schools we work with in Siem Reap province through PEPY ( We bought it from RDIC and they make them here in Cambodia. That said, there are indeed some improvements which can be made and though I believe RDIC is currently working on some of them, I’m sure they would be open to partnerships as their goal is to get more people to invest in these type of rurally applicable technologies which help people generate wealth and health.

  4. Colin Taylor says:

    Allie and Daniela- Thank you for your concern. I work in Phnom Penh for BB2C and I’d like to respond to a couple of points that you raised. One of the first thing that we did when we started here was investigate all of these NGOs that have water solution projects going on in Cambodia. RDIC has been extremely helpful and we’ve visited their facility, but the truth is that they’ve discontinued their treadle pump project several years ago (Daniela bought this pump 4 years ago) due to the high costs of the pumps (I was quoted somewhere over $200/pump).
    They and Ideas at Work are producing a rope pump which draws ground water up, but there is a big distinction in this technology and a pressurized treadle pump. The rope pumps are extremely helpful, but a pump that can pressurize water has enormous benefits for agriculture and about the filters, we have one in our office but we don’t work with water sanitation. IDE-Cambodia’s Phnom Penh office says they have a functional program in Svey Rieng but upon visiting that facility the staff there told us that they stopped that project 5 years ago and BB2C is now working with their engineer there to develop a pump.
    Allie I completely agree when you say, ” We can all learn so much from each other – if only we commit to principles of open sharing and cooperation.” But the reality of the situation is that we are working for something very specific-a manually operated pressurized pump that can be cheaply produced here in Cambodia and no one actually has that. I feel your frustration as I have sent emails to organizations around the world requesting designs for their pumps only to get denials or empty responses.
    We along with IDE are working on a prototype and once we have something function will take it to RDIC and other NGOs we are in contact with for help.

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