It’s a real question: how do you bring 21st century technology to global regions that don’t yet have true capitalism? One further wrinkle — and an urgent one it is — the technology you’re dealing with is for one of life’s biggest got-to-haves: water.

Xylem, a company whose very existence is premised on “providing innovative solutions to global water challenges,” says tackling the third-world sustainable-technology issue takes a combination of private, non-governmental organization (NGO), governmental and business partnerships.

About 1.5 billion farmers worldwide are “small holder,” i.e., those who farm their own food and cultivate about five acres of land. About 50% of the total workforce in India is involved in farming.

In March, Xylem introduced the Saajhi (Hindi for “companion”) treadle pump, which requires no electricity and is field serviceable, with a minimum number of removable parts and no tools required. Farmers operate the stepping pump with a dual foot pedal – a motion similar to climbing stairs – to generate a strong flow of water through a hose and spray nozzle. Its use should cut irrigation time, ease the farmer’s burden and make water application efficient.

Only first step

But, due to a paucity of good ways to get the pump into the hands of the small farmers that need it most, the company can’t stop there. The Saajhi, therefore, is the first product in Xylem’s “Essence of Life” business model.

Xylem, with more than 12,500 employees worldwide, is headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., and had 2012 revenues of about $3.8 billion. The name “Xylem” is derived from classical Greek, the company says, and in English typically denotes the tissue that transports water in plants.

Xylem knows all about the dismal record compiled from just “parachuting” technology into the world’s poorest regions. The Essence of Life program addresses the need — in tackling the intractable problems of the world’s poorest — for sustainable business models.

“Many places in the developing world are littered with the rusted remains of equipment that was introduced to improve productivity but over the long term couldn’t be maintained or sustained,” says Keith Teichmann, director of innovative networks, Xylem. “Two major problems are that farmers have no surplus income to invest and a distribution network may be lacking for sales and service.”

At a list price of about $200, Teichmann says Xylem is currently booking orders for the Saajhi from multiple customers for delivery starting in August. Its distribution model entails partnering with companies that sell agri-business necessities to small plot farmers, rather than traditional pump distributors.  

Long-sought solar pump

The next stage in the program’s development will be even more significant, says Teichmann. The long-sought solution to sustainable pumping has for some time been an affordable, portable, solar-powered pumping system. “People have been chasing this for a long time because it’s so much better than a diesel-powered pump. We’re putting complete units into the field in the fourth quarter, and our product will be released toward the end of the year. The systems will cost about $800.”

Products introduced through the Essence of Life business model need to be profitable, says Teichmann. At the same time, company support of the business model and its products speaks well for it in working with developing world governments on major infrastructure projects.

In developing products for harsh rural environments, Xylem says its Essence of Life program delivers affordability to rural customers along with a level of profitability that ensures business-model growth and longevity. Sustainability will as much rely on the farmers themselves imbibing the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism based on the reward of effort.