Q&A with AIDFI CEO Auke Idzenga on Social Innovation

Bacolod-based social entrepreneur and marine engineer, Auke Idzenga, has been residing in the Philippines since 1985. His remarkable work in providing clean water to 600 remote villages, previously devoid of easy and convenient access, is truly inspiring. On behalf of his organization, the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation, Inc (AIDFI), Auke received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011 and has recently been honored with the 3rd Mansmith Innovation Awards for his innovative social initiatives. In this interview, he generously shares his journey in social innovation to uplift the rural poor in the Philippines.

Q1: Could you share the story behind your decision to dedicate your life to providing clean water to remote villages in the Philippines?

A1: I studied marine engineering because of my interest in technology and to see the world. After graduation I worked on three ships and saw extreme poverty. I then in 1984 decided to dedicate my life for the poor. I joined an Appropriate Technology group on a Technical University in the water lab with a ram pump made from concrete. I had never heard of such a pump which could bring up water from a lower source to a much greater height without electricity or fuel. Amazing. The model was crude but it blew me away and I knew there would come a time that I would work with it.

I left without any organizational support since I didn’t want to be ‘boxed’. My choice became the Philippines, where I had stayed twice.

I ended up in Negros and worked with sugar workers in a farm lot program. It was the period of hunger. Hacienderos had ceased planting because of the low world market prices. The sugar workers had no alternatives and were going hungry. We helped them to borrow a piece of land to produce their own food. We were too busy with organizing and providing basic inputs and guidance, that there was no time for technologies. Later we got engaged in land transfer of mostly indebted haciendas with the DBP and PNB under the new land reform program.

From my many visits to the projects, which were often in hilly areas, I observed the need for technologies, with water for drinking, household and irrigation as the most expressed need. Basic services (water, sanitation, energy, roads, health and education) were mostly absent. With three other Filipino colleagues we brainstormed about an organization catering agrarian reform communities with programs on Sustainable Agriculture and Appropriate Technologies. In 1992 we registered then the AIDFI. 

Q2: What were the biggest challenges you faced when initially trying to bring water to these remote areas?

A2: Actually AIDFI got involved in many different technologies for basic needs, it was a natural reaction to what we heard and saw. The ram pump was already very much there.

As said earlier it was in the pre digital period that we started. Our disadvantage was that we were in Negros. No computers and everything was expensive. To make a phone call or a telegram to my parents would cost me half of my monthly local ‘salary’. We had so many dreams and ideas but no money. AIDFI started in a very small rented bodega with a garage. There were instances we could not pay the rental or have our ‘salary’. To develop technologies we needed to have research material, but where to get those? From the US we bought a micro fiche reader with 1000 books on Appropriate Technologies. It had no possibility for printing but still was ‘langit’ for us.  I wrote a lot of letters to try to get some small funds. A few turned out positive and enabled us to buy some basic equipment’s from a closed shop. With some groups we still have contact after all those years since value the relationships and never forget that they helped us built what we are now.

Before AIDFI I had already experimented in Negros with ram pumps I designed. My first installation was at the farm of my father-in-law Gregorio in the mountains of Southern Negros. We pumped water from a 55 meter below creek to the highest point of his farm. A lot of experiments were carried out on his farm. It was my ‘laboratory’ and Gregorio loved it. Proven technologies were adapted by AIDFI.

Q3: How did you develop the solutions that have made this project successful?

A3: The ram pump was a forgotten technology. It was swept away during the Industrial Revolution since there was no concern for energy and pollution. When we started working with the ram pump hardly anybody had heard of it.

My idea was to see what was already existing in relation to the ram pump technology here in the Philippines. In the absence of computers I typed around one hundred letters to groups, academe and government agencies. Some responses were received a year later. I visited all the places which were mentioned in the replies, to learn from their experiences. On one hand there were the imported expensive models and at the other side the inferior DIY models. I saw the need for a crossbreed model based on local materials and spare parts (ordinary door hinge) It was labeled the AIDFI model and rigorously tested in projects. We observed and further modified, innovation never stops.  Our guiding principle for all our technologies is: “The designer knows he has reached perfection, not when there is no longer anything to add but no longer anything to take away” or simplification.

Things went slow because of the pre digital situation and introducing an unknown technology was hard. We developed a working miniature set which we could hand carry and display . That was the best thing we did. It fits in a camera box and has been displayed already in many countries.

In the digital era things went faster. In 2012 we moved from one project at a time to batches. We were instrumental in getting the technology institutionalized in the Department of Agriculture and started working with Coca-Cola Foundation, Inc. for whom we have implemented systems in 178 previous waterless upland villages benefitting 130,000 beneficiaries.

But even how simple the technology, it will need care. We train two local technicians in each village. We also realized that in order to make the systems sustainable social preparation through an holistic package was vital. All this geared towards ownership by the community over the technology and water associations. Women play a big role and around 70% of the officers are women. It was necessary to counter the old dole out system of doing projects. The social component is also groundwork for the further development we try to trigger through the holistic water system.

AIDFI also introduced water filters to be sure that the water is safe to drink, as well as a monitoring app because of the remoteness of our projects. The associations sent us vital data such as volume of water delivered, fees collected, meetings held and repairs and maintenance carried out.

AIDFI has innovation in its DNA and is constantly looking for further improvements in all aspects of its program.

We had observed that the public faucets in the villages placed near households gave lots of issues. The villagers were paying a monthly fee but there was unfair distribution causing poor collection. I then had the idea of a water kiosk which would provide 20 liters for a peso coin. We developed it around many electrical and electronic parts. The installed pilot units worked well but started experiencing many issues, it was too complicated. I then shifted to the idea of a kiosk based on a mechanical coin acceptor like those in gumball machines, combined with a toilet flush system. After some revisions we had a unique mechanical water kiosk. For Coca-Cola Foundation we manufactured and installed already some 200 kiosks.

The beauty of our mechanical water kiosk is that it can also be used in other water systems like gravity or electric or fuel driven.

The results with the kiosk are astonishing. The collection of fees increased many times. This gives financial space for the associations to pay for allowances, spare parts, repair, expansion etc. Some associations already used the collection for other kind of development.

Q4: Can you share any memorable stories or experiences from your journey that highlight the impact of clean water provision on these remote villages?

A4: The ram pumps brings us to many places, even abroad. The most ‘exciting’ experience were our installations in Northern Afghanistan during the war. With another technician I went there. Upon arrival in Kunduz, we decided to immediately start making an inventory of all materials we had ordered in advance. We heard a super loud bang and the security guards went out. When they came back they laughed and said, don’t worry it was only misfiring (of a rocket propeller)……..We worked in mountainous areas six hours drive from Kunduz, where there was no more vegetation left. Bringing up the water to 150 meters high opened up the possibility for the Afghan farmers to distribute water and grow fruit or nut trees. In many ways this was unforgettable. We later did technology transfer to three Afghans in a training in Bacolod. Eventhough we do not gain anything financially seeing our model being produced locally in Afghanistan, makes us proud. We did this also to Nepal, Colombia and Mexico. At the moment we are communicating with Ethiopia but finances at both sides hinders the transfer.

Q5: What are some of the most pressing challenges in the field of social entrepreneurship and innovation today, and how do you see them being addressed?

A5: The bureaucracy sees social enterprises as regular business. For example we have a coffeeshop at our office to generate income for our work but it is considered business. This creates difficulties for us. For a long time there is a Social Enterprising Bill in the making which eventually will provide special attention to social enterprises. We need an environment in which (social) enterprises are comforted and can thrive. Stimulation rather than restriction.

Another challenge is the constant need to look for funding. We work with the poorest of the poor who can’t afford to pay for the infrastructure, so the funds have to come from somewhere else. It cost so much time to explore for funds. We prefer to spent that time on quality manufacturing and installations, developing new concepts and carrying out actual research and development.

Q6: As a social entrepreneur, how do you measure the long-term sustainability and success of your projects? Are there specific metrics or indicators you focus on?

A6: From the 600 village systems we perfectly know the many benefits from easy access to an increased volume of water: better health and sanitation, time and money saved, ease in doing household activities and increased income from water related activities. We however never had the time and budgets to carry our impact research to gather evidence based data. Lately we developed an app for impact monitoring which will be launched this December. The trials of gathering data before an installation and six months after showed big changes. It confirms that bringing up water near the doorsteps or on the farms is changing the lives of uplanders. In order to create sustainable systems, AIDFI needs to be sustainable itself. In 2006 bought a 3000m2 lot, built an office and workshop, expanded this workshop with another 325m2 and invested in machines to produce good quality ram pumps and components of the systems. The poor also deserve good working technologies. We have a group of skilled and committed technicians and community facilitators and a passionate Management Team. AIDFI has a track record of 600 installed systems with 300.000 beneficiaries, pumps in fifteen countries and four technology transfers. A complete infrastructure to professionally carry out ram pump installations anywhere, any time.


Josiah Go is the Chairman and Chief Innovation Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc., offering eight innovation courses to help your company thrive. Visit www.mansmithinnovation.com to discover leading innovators in the Philippines. 

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