Fresh out of college, Debbie and Jim met whilst doing development work in the Mississippi Delta. Together, in the mid 1980s,
they moved to Cambodia, which after the destructive four-year reign of the
Khmer Rouge was in great need of social help. They eventually returned to the
US to start their family and complete MPAs at Harvard University. Jim then went on
to earn an MBA and work in the private sector, whilst Debbie
spent an increasing amount of time in her home country consulting for the World
Bank and the UN. In 2004, the Taylors decided to settle permanently in Burma.
With the aim of improving the lives of the country’s rural population, they set
up a social venture called Proximity Designs. Realizing that irrigation was a
major problem for small-plot farmers, Debbie and Jim focused on designing
foot-powered water pumps that enable farmers to effectively collect water and
hence extend the all-important growing season. However, they did not give away
their products for free; instead they sold them at an affordable price. “For
the poor, this way of aid is much less patronizing, and represents a
relationship of mutual exchange and respect.” With this approach, they built
relationships with their customers upon empathy. Through regular feedback, they
were able to improve their offerings and launch a complete line of necessary
products, amongst these a recently released low-cost rechargeable solar light. In 2008, Debbie, Jim and the Proximity team played a heroic role when they
mobilized their organization in order to provide humanitarian aid to the
survivors of Cyclone Nargis – a disaster that claimed over 140’000 lives.
Proximity’s field staff was the first on the scene of the affected areas, and
directly distributed recovery-kits, rice, seeds, water tanks and shelters. It
is estimated that by the end of the relief process, Jim and Debbie’s
organization had helped over 1.2 million people.
Today, Debbie and Jim’s aspirations remain the
same. They continue to passionately design products for rural families in
Myanmar, and since recent years also offer financing-services. Trough their
offerings, Debbie and Jim have so far managed to increase the incomes and
improve the quality of life of over 500’000 Burmese people.
Why did you agree to become Amazers?
It’s great to be part of something
celebrating the myriad alternative approaches to making the world a better
As Proximity is not a for-profit organisation, why do you sell your products, rather than give them away for free?
Yes, we are not a for-profit organization; we’re
a social enterprise and we sell our products at cost, subsidizing the R&D
through donations and putting any small profits we might make back into the
organization. Selling our products helps us to know their
worth, challenges us to always be delivering products that are relevant to the
customer, and enables us to have a two-way relationship based on empathy,
rather than sympathy. As customers rather than beneficiaries, the power is in
the hands of rural families in Myanmar. Anyone will take something for free,
and probably tell you that they like it even if they never use it, but you know
you’re really serving your customers if you've created something so useful that
they’re willing to invest their hard earned cash in it. If they do, as a
customer, if they find fault with it, they feel like they have a right to give
feedback, and then we can use that to improve and serve them better. It’s also
a far more sustainable and inclusive way of helping people out. Because we sell
things at cost, we’re not totally reliant on donor dollars to operate. We’re
also able to sell products all across the country and to anyone who wants to
buy them. There’s no village hierarchy to bypass and no conflict over who
receives something and who doesn't.
Do you believe that design, if used for the right purpose, could push development work further on a global scale? Have you ever thought of selling your products outside of Burma?
We believe design to be important for all companies, especially if they’re working with people. We’d like to see more human centered research happen in organizations serving underprivileged people. This means more listening, more empathy, and a lot of prototyping of new ideas. Currently we’re not looking to sell outside of Myanmar. Our reasons for this are that our products are designed specifically for the Myanmar market and might not suit other climates, environments, or users. Part of our success here is because we offer a full after-sales service of repairs, replacements, and spare parts that we couldn't ensure would be possible if we sold them abroad. We value knowing our customers as well as we can and we’ve invested a lot in doing that in Myanmar. This would be difficult to replicate in a new place.