Google Hangout: A Conversation with Paul Polak

(Paul Polak and team) #21

I'm happy to have you participate!

paul polak

(Paul Polak and team) #22

Hi Rachel

there already is a substantive literature on social impact measurement, which I'm sure you've already found useful. But my view is that we pay far too much attention to detailed measures of impact, and far too little attention to achieving sustainable attractive bottom line profit, and the basic business details required to accomplish it.

So here's my approach to impact measures

1. What is the basic mission built into the DNA of the company, and to what extent is social impact inherent in the basic mission statement?

For example, if bringing electricty to customers without access to it at a price they find attractive and doing it at scale is built into your mission statement,, and you are successful in accomplishing your mission, then the impact is built in, There is plenty of convincing information about the contribution REA made to development in the US south, for example, and it should be pretty easy to outline some related key measures of impact

But then the key challenge is making attractive profits, which requires applying all the principles of running an excellent business, and this is far tougher to do than measuring social impact.

2. From interviewing thousands of poor people, I am convinced that helping them increase their net annual income is the single most important social impact measure. From the perspective of poor people themselves, all the other impact variables, like improved quality of life, improved education, empowerment, education,and health, flow from impoved net income. So i put a major focus on measruing improved net income, compared with people who are not company customers.

I hope this is helpful

(Paul Polak and team) #23

myra, I very much like your business model, which brings efficient surgical instrument sterilization to health clinics in emerging markets. Of course, the devil is in the details like obtaining government certification, designing an effective last mile distribution and marketing strategy.

I wish you very success!

(Paul Polak and team) #24

thanks myra

(Paul Polak and team) #25

thats a pretty broad question, Dorothy

My recent book,with Mal Warwick, The Business Solution to Poverty,might provide a useful overview for you about what we see as major gaps in the field, After you get a chance to look at it, I'd be happy to respond to more specific questions

good luck with your thesis!

(Paul Polak and team) #26

Hi Pamela

Our use of village theater only becomes economically justifiable when each performance reaches enough potential customers to make it worthwhile. If you have 1100 lights in 25 countries, that amounts to an average of about 44 lights in each country. I'm assuming you distribute by linking up with organisations in each country, so for me the first question is what do your partner organisations say would be the most useful marketing and instructional materials, and even more important, what kind of instructional materials do your end customers say they need? You need to ask them first.

In my experience, light is empowering if you don't have it, but in my marketing surveys of customers in villages without electricity, they are more motivated by access to electricity to do things like charge cellphones and to pump water than to gain access to light

(Paul Polak and team) #27

great that you found potential collaborating partners, Nibizi Jean-Marie!

(Paul Polak and team) #28

Hi Tom- I took a look at your Haiti Earthship, and its a really elegant design!

There's only one problem

It costs $4,000! Thats totally out of the affordability range for any $2/day family in the world, and therefore you could never build a viable profitable business serving poor customers with Earthships.

Do you have some ideas about how you could build an Earthship,that costs more in the range of $200 incorporating some of your key creative design concepts, and taking advantage of the key principles of the ruthless pursuit of affordability?,

(Pamela O'Brien) #29

Yes, you are right on target. Our lithium-ion battery has a USB port to also charge a cellphone and we have also created a solar-powered water filtration unit that is portable - allowing the 30 gallon tank to run off of 60 volts of DC power to pump up to 2000 gallons of water/day. We are all about empowering people with renewable energy solutions. Our work with 3M to advance our product has just been announced:

We partner with NGOs like Compassion International and VisionTrust International and their community development managers who provide us with feedback on the people and our solutions to ReEnergize Communities. Thank you!

(Tom Mallard) #30

Paul, to most people $4,000 seems very high but then it's up to building codes, earthquake, cyclone and tsunami resistant even in America where 1/3 of the people are in relative poverty a relevant context. The Haiti project is trying to supply that 3rd world country with people's income not much above $2/day being financed by government & NGO's because it's cheap considering the next time a hurricane hits or flooding..

But there's something far more important, it gives a family security. In refugee camps the emergency shelters always end up being permanent and there's zero personal security in tents and shanties, gangs or armed bands are common, this has happened almost immediately in the Philippines where roads stayed closed over a few days and local police were too few to protect everyone.

When the people in Haiti saw what a substantial home it was, complete with a shower & toilet and "bomber" construction it answers every shortcoming of shanty towns.

I liken it to business this way, if you want a population to show up to work eager and able build them one of these, if you want someone stressed out with no personal security that their stuff is there when they get back, it's a shanty life and they can't possibly be worth as much but we can't blame them for it.

Then to reduce costs for where things are so bad, rebar isn't needed, natural fibers can be used for tension strength and adobe used instead of cement leaving water system parts like the pump & pipes and so on.

So I would suggest that if no money or aid is available, these can replace shanties at low cost by teaching people how to build them from what they have, these won't be as nice but will be far better than anything else to live from for families in the social context of the refugee camp or shanty town. This should be close to your $200 goal and include the drinking water, shower & toilet.

(Nibizi Jean-Marie) #31

Thanks, Pamela. How can we then partner? Thanks.

(Paul Polak and team) #32

Tom,, here's the bottom line question.

How many earthships do families who earn less than two dollars a day in Haiti live in now?

If that number is small, how many families do you think will live in earthship homes in Haiti 5 years from now?

I very much like the earthship concept, and I think its very attractive for customers who can afford it in the west. For example, I see earthship homes advertised for sale in the US at prices from $148,000 to $1.5 million., But they will never reach scale in Haiti with a materials cost of $4100 when they are made available as a charitable donation by governments and NGO's.

Instead, here's what's likely to happen when earthships are given away in Haiti

1. A few families will receive them, and will be very pleased

2. Charitable and goverment sources of funding will run out well before any meaningful scale is reached, and 99% of the families living in totally inadequate housing will continue to do so

3. There is a high likelihood that the families who do receive earthships will have to pay a bribe to get them, and therefore are likely to be wealthier families instead of poor ones

This is exactly what happened in Bangladesh when the World Bank decided to heavily subsidize $500 diesel pumps- the richest farmers paid bribes, got heavily subsidized diesel pumps, and put poor farmers without access to irrigation water at even more of a disadvantage. When we sold treadle pumps for $25 without subsidy through the private sector, , one and a half million families bought one, earned $150 million in new net annual income from their investment put more land under irrigation than the subsidized diesel pumps did

The same economic impact is likely to happen if and when you solve the practical challanges to building and marketing attractive, secure earthquake resistant homes in Haiti that sell for less than $200

Tom, thank you for continuing this very interesting and useful discussion


(Tom Mallard) #33

Paul, looking it up, current aid to Haiti has spent 2/3 of $1.8-billion, rebuilds are plywood and steel shanties, no clue on costs but well over $200, guessing $400 [they've had money disappear as well, scams & all].

"The estimated 2009 population of those 10 communes experiencing the earthquake’s greatest intensity was 1.3 million, or 14 percent of the nation’s total population of 9.0 million."

That comes out to $1,400/family, seems very possible by cutting down on rebar & cement and using adobe-plaster and natural fibers to build something at about $1,000 with close to the same features, $600 more than the shanty. There's a lot of rubble as well and that's a good building material not being used.

The shanties built have the mentioned drawbacks, they lack water systems, easy to break into, hard to keep warm, will blow away in a hurricane though OK on earthquakes.

My feeling is it can be worked out to $1,000 reasonably well, having Mike Reynolds involved a certain possibility to help come up with a survival unit another step down from this one yet having the water-sewage system, thermal mass and security.

I'm ok at architectural design, worked construction to be better at the design end, did some passive-solar in the 80's & my recent work more focused on simple upgrades to existing homes, including using hemp-mortar instead of cement, less cost lower carbon-footprint, we may be able to work that where storm surges or a tsunami aren't too high a risk.

To finally get to a $200 home looks like not feasible without giving up something important, although it can be done by individuals with over a million people involved that idea can't work in spite of my optimism.

I think this video has a vignette worth watching from before the Haiti project, that is more a serious try at a decent standard for a minimalist family home, the video shows the drawbacks of steel shanties where it's hot and it can rain hard as well. The film was taken a few months after the tsunami hit the Andaman's and the design of earthship done on-the-spot with local engineers, it's enlightening in many ways for these issues, the vignette begins 1-hour in:

Appreciate your interest and respect your passion to solving all this and your thinking a lot.

(Tom Mallard) #34

Paul, I found this example of using the tires and adobe in Mexico to replace shanties, 1-1/2 minutes:

Without going too far into a standard design, the main idea is to build with what's available that's considered trash so not implying where tires & bottles are rare to try to build with them. All cultures seem to really like how substantial using tires is, but adobe is similar and easier to find where you may not have so many tires & bottles to use, then others like mud-wattle and pit homes take over as designs.

Most handmade homes around the world make adobe with straw or the like, I'm updating that to hemp to gain tensile strength using the shiv as well so insulates without a separate layer that concrete demands. This would allow domed roofs and that would be a big deal, it may need a frame to build it but then would be free-standing so a community can built roofs without all of them needing rafters where wood is scarce.

This would require growing the hemp locally so hemp seed is part of establishing the method, that'll catch on as it has some 25,000 products now made from it so people can find a niche market to fill for cash. All this seems to imply that it's the water system that'll cost money in the end, and to be real the PV-battery-LED-charger kit as well, mobile phones are global and needed by anyone now and socially fill the need for schools where none exist with the internet and kids do jump on that.

The sewage system is really a septic tank from tires, a very clever use of them and the toilet is fed by gray water after the biological unit, aka the leech field, that can be dug in or built above ground These are bucket systems not piped. The biological unit uses the gray water to supply the nutrients & water to produce food in a small space for a family so to me this combo is inseparable.

Hope all this helps the thinking of methods, materials and the locale to fit together a functional home from very little in new materials and mainly hand tools to build them. As a designer used to innovation, my favorite reference for ideas is "Built by Hand: Venacular Buildings Around the World", Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City UT, 2003, ISBN 1-58685-237-X.

It's global and has examples from around the world done recently by the authors and a great photographer. To me it emphasizes the cultural aspects that make up locally built homes not in the Western view worthy of thought.

(Paul Polak and team) #35

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your thoughtful discussion. The need for decent affordable housing is a global need. One of its most important features is that most rural $2/day people live in hand built homes with mud and waddled walls, earth on floors, and thatched roofs. These homes have zero market value or loan value. You may find it useful to take a look at the concept for a $100 home that I outlined in Out of Poverty.

This basically builds a skeleton with eight beams out of locally available materials like bamboo. The design is 20 square meters in area and includes a low-cost serviceable non leaking roof using materials like cement tile. This infrastructure is filled in by mud and wattle. It allows the home owner to complete with more substance of materials like cinderblock, fifty blocks at a time as the family is able to afford them. This is a way more better quality homes can be built in these communities in order to create a more sustainable home.

As more income becomes available for the home, additional modules can be added. An external privy can be built for $35-$70. I can’t stress the importance enough to poor people of being able to use their home as a bankable/marketable asset. The earth home design is very attractive but includes many features that are not essential to everyday survival. For example, a $10 drip irrigation kit can create a 20 square meter kitchen garden. A decent pit latrine can be built between $35-$70. You can learn more about the latrine design from iDE Cambodia.

Wash water can be easily manually carried to gravity tank of the drip irrigation system. One of the most cost effective ways of using human waste for fertilizer is to simply pee in a plastic bottle. Urine is 80% of human waste. When mixed 5 to 1 with water it can be applied to directly to plants. An average adult produces 550 kilos of urine a year, which is equivalent to 3-3-5 fertilizers. The advantage of building homes that are much more affordable is that it can be totally accomplished through the private sector. You might find a recent competition to build a $300 home interesting if you haven't had the chance to see it. The firm that submitted the winning design is from India, Mahindra.

Hope you find this useful.

(Paul Polak and team) #36


Thank you for seeing Chris' request and answering! I was actually going to reply asking if anyone following the thread was knowledgable about youth networks.

(Pamela O'Brien) #37

Thank you Paul for providing this forum. Great to connect. We also work with 3M in the development of our product and will be creating a teaching model for their youth mentoring work as well as our Global IMPACT network. 3M is a great organization that other businesses could learn from. You can see our alliance with 3Mgives here: Changing the way businesses work together, changing children's lives for the better, we can all do more together.

FYI, 3M earned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce 2013 Corporate Citizenship Award for “Best Commitment to Education.” This award recognizes 3M’s 40-year partnership with the Saint Paul Public Schools, igniting an interest in science and encouraging students to pursue postsecondary STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines.

(Paul Polak and team) #38

Hi Chris,

This is Amanda, I work with Paul and the Out of Poverty team. I would love to provide you with some additional materials.

I'm sure you, among many, are most familiar with iDE-International Development Enterprises out of Denver. Paul founded that company in 1983. This is a non-profit organization that helps one acre farmers, who live on less than a dollar a day, double their income by gaining access to affordable irrigation tools like pumps. To date, these methods have helped over 20 million out of poverty and into the middle class. The Gates foundation has contributed $40 million to iDE's work. 25 years after founded, he handed it over to his successor and remains on the board. iDE link:

After iDE, Paul has put a lot of focus into designing for the other 90%. Paul took another step in this direction by creating D-Rev out of Palo Alto, CA. This non profit design firm has created many great affordable products like an artificial knee and affordable medical equipment.

You can see other projects here:

Now, Paul spends most of his time creating a revolution in business. These three companies are all designed to lift at least 100 million $2 a day customers out of poverty, while earning attractive profits while doing it.

#1. Spring Health: This company sells safe drinking water to 100 million customers in small rural villages throughout India. Rapid growth and expansion is expected.

Here is their website:

#2. Torrefaction: This project deals with green coal and will impact 100 million customers with affordable green energy by converting agricultural waste to green coal.

#3. SunWater: This project works with afffordable photovoltaic energy delivered to villages without access to the electric grid. This link will take you to the Indiegogo campaign currently going. If you scroll down, you should find many useful parts on project including goals, business plan, needs, etc. The video is neat too!

I hope this information is helpful. If you have any further questions please don't hesitate to ask!

(Tom Mallard) #39

Paul, nice list, have referenced two of them and a reaction is to put homes into categories to compare them more accurately as budgets for needs vary widely by geography and climate, so, I want to separate those structures that handle earthquake, cyclone winds, flooding, storm surges or tsunamis in secondary locations not taking the full force of them but can be seriously damaged destroyed if not substantial. The earthship suggestion was intended for this category and serves the best per dollar and related to what is a higher price but I don't see other substitutes but as a designer feel progress in capital needed to build them can be reduced.

I've been using these two videos to study for these stronger homes, the first very brief of a storm surge noting that it has two stages, the first floods the foreshore and homes in about 1m of water, this water won't drain because the real surge is coming and hits after slack water with another 1-2m of water at triple the speed of the first part. The other shows wind gusts in a semi-protected area, the big hotel in town and shot by a news crew, my estimate is none of the gusts were much more than 170-mph at that location, the film continues as the crew walks the town to get an emergency flight out and shows damage in the town and the disruption to social order that's part of emergencies, 47-minutes.

From this so far one design detail to reduce the roofs getting blown away is simply to use about a 6" radius, or as large as practical on all corners. The other deals with eaves.

Where high winds can hit, the eaves and peaks of the roof are critical. A solution for them to have the main part of the roof finished flush to the outside of the walls and attached with 3-5 times more nails or ties than normal, then eaves added as separate pieces so if they blow away the main roof remains intact.

How the building is oriented to the main wind flow also matters a lot.

It's less risky to have the peak parallel to the main flow, across the roof can suck roofing up from aerodynamics so if one is across the wind it needs 5-times more fasteners minimum to survive. Then, peaks generally get caps of small pieces for rain, these get blown away fairly easily and that allows the wind to get under the main panels and damage or blow away the roof. Those two ideas, without testing it, should reduce the loss of the main roof in most cases only requiring more fasteners and the separation of eaves & porches from the main roof.

Then for the rest where none of these extremes are important as another category divided by climate-geography into three: semi-arid, temperate and polar.

This simplifies comparing costs better, a bamboo mud-wattle won't do in a cyclone area, and, no need for an earthship where they are fine. The simple sewage handling and water systems are needed in some form by any structure, and food production must be part of the design.

With that in mind I'll try to get in some time to evaluate your examples, some I've seen but this time to give a table to make valid comparisons so possibilities for improvements match the context.

As a design problem I did relating to this based on the tin homes built after the tsunami in the Andamans by the government. The strategy was two things, to add thermal-mass using dirt by using the back wall panels to make a double wall in the center filled with dirt and having a growing-cooking bottom section offset into the room. Passive solar for growing and light using 10-mil clear plastic. Water collection is easy off of any roof but to get the dirt for the thermal-mass and store the water it makes sense to dig a cistern and use that dirt.

So for now I'll close this one with an upgrade to the standard arctic cabin on stilts for permafrost I did to reduce heating oil needs. This basically was after eliminating most of the wind-chill losses, it was intended as a kit pre-cut & wrapped to fly in with the leasts expense & volume. In high winds using 30-mil will work or lexan is OK if it's cold-temp, plexiglas shatters with flying ice chunks.

(Nibizi Jean-Marie) #40

How can we work and partner with IDE-International Development Enteprises in Burundi? Please send a relpy at


Pastor Nibizi Jean-Marie