iDE Global
Connect with iDE
Menu

A Tribute to Paul Polak

Market-Based Development Pioneer (1933 - 2019)


Guided by the principle that you shouldn’t design anything until you had talked to at least 100 potential users, Paul Polak pioneered market-based development for people living on less than $2/day. For over three decades, he put this principle to work, first as the founder and CEO of iDE, a non-profit guided by this philosophy which he led for 25 years, then as the founder and CEO for Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture that creates products for low-income earners; Spring Health, a for-profit venture that offers safe affordable drinking water to rural, poor customers in India; and D-Rev, a non-profit focused on design to benefit the other 90%—the majority of the population that designers had neglected traditionally—in order to help those less fortunate earn their way out of poverty.

Paul earned a medical degree focused on psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, moving to Denver, Colorado in 1959 to do a residency at the University of Colorado Medical Center. He received his certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1968 and practiced psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. It was during this time that he developed his philosophy of going to the homes and workplaces of those he worked with to better understand how their environment contributed to their challenges and conditions.

After a personal vacation to Bangladesh, Paul became inspired to apply the same methodology that he had been using with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver to help serve the 800 million people living on less than a dollar a day around the world. Having established iDE in 1981, Paul befriended Art DeFehr, who had been recently named the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Somalia. Art invited Paul and Gerry Dyck, whom Art had met when he was a guest lecturer at Gerry’s college earlier that year, to Somalia to research options that would benefit the refugees. The team initially proposed mud bricks for better construction, power generation using windmills, plastic extrusion—all of which proved too big as the Somali government wanted to pursue these ideas themselves. Focusing on smaller endeavors, the team noticed that the refugees were carrying wood, water, and food by hand or with a very inefficient cart pulled by a donkey. Using abandoned car parts for affordability and working with displaced blacksmiths, Paul modified the donkey cart the donkey could pull the weight rather than carrying the weight. The carts were then sold by the blacksmiths to other refugees on credit that they were able to pay back the loan after only two and a half months based on the income they could earn with the cart. Five hundred carts were sold, producing more than $1 million of net income for cart owners over the course of the three-year project. Gerry returned from Somalia in 1982 and began the process of incorporating iDE in Canada.

The next big success in Paul’s market develop activities occurred in Bangladesh. The treadle pump—a foot-powered pump, locally manufactured from sheet metal and bamboo—provided a perfect solution to raise people with very little land or landless people out of poverty. Specially tailored to very small farmers, the treadle pump proved to be an irrigation technology that “self-targeted to the poor,” compared to diesel pumps that were so powerful they could enable owner to sell the water to others and effectively become “water lords.” iDE’s pioneering role involved setting up a supply chain with manufacturers who produced the pump in small workshops; village dealers who took them on stock; and an army of installers (“mistries”) who went to the field, manually dug a borehole, and installed the pump. The treadle pump cost around $25 installed, and each of these businesses could make a good margin: the workshop 50 cents, the dealers from $2-3, and the mistries up to $5 per pump. For their investment, the farmers could increase their incomes between $100 by growing rice or up to $500 growing vegetables, and all this within 3 months of the dry season. Without that pump, nothing could grow on their fields. Although most established irrigation experts and the Government initially considered treadle pump a toy, when over two million pumps were sold through the private sector supply chain, people stopped laughing. The Bangladesh program was a major and significant poverty reduction program, with a comparable impact to the Grameen Bank, for which its founder, Mohammed Yunus, received the Nobel prize (the impact study, “Pedaling out of Poverty” by Tushaar Shah, documented this impact).

After 25 years of leading iDE, Paul stepped down as CEO in 2007 in order to follow his idea that a for-profit enterprise could fulfil a strategic role in making and delivering the products needed by the underserved poor population. The result of that research led to the creation of Windhorse International in 2008. Anticipating the social enterprise movement, Windhorse, Spring Health and their sister design company, D-Rev, have created products that cost substantially less than what had existed in the market, including a $400 hospital lamp for treating neo-natal jaundice, saving the lives of babies in impoverished areas that previously couldn’t afford the comparable $4,000 Western device. 

As a bottomless source of ideas and inspiration on how to create value for the poor by involving them in business, Paul was also known for his sharp wit and his willingness to “speak truth to power.” Eminently quotable, Paul relished challenging the status quo and those in power by inviting them to examine their beliefs with his stories of how he achieved success by talking to humble farmers.

Paul’s ideas about poverty and the power of business to be a positive force for change were captured in two books, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail (2008) and, in collaboration with Mal Warwick, The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers (2013), named as one of the Top Ten Business Books of 2013 by The Economist. Paul received the Florence Monito Del Giardino award for environmental preservation in 2008, Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award in the social responsibility category in 2004, was named one of the Scientific American “top 50” for his leadership in agricultural policy in 2003, and was named one of the world’s “Brave Thinkers” by The Atlantic Monthly in 2009. At the TEDxMileHigh event in Denver in 2011, he presented his story and challenged the participants to consider how business can help the poor. 

“If you don’t understand the problem you’ve set out to solve from your customers’ perspective; if your product or service won’t dramatically increase their income; and if you can’t sell 100 million of [your products], don’t bother.” —Paul Polak

From the Archives

Learn more about Paul Polak

Visit Paul’s website to learn more about his life’s work and for a complete list of news and media appearances.