New Delhi: Like many successful Indians, Amitabha Sadangi begins his story with the line: “As a child, I used to walk 14km to school." But most such stories conclude at the doorstep of personal achievement; Sadangi’s has run on to touch the lives of millions of rural Indians and counting.

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Born in Gallery, a village in Orissa, Sadangi introduced low-cost micro-irrigation equipment to help farmers reduce their dependence on India’s notoriously unreliable monsoon showers.

Today, his initiative has helped one million farming households spread over 17 states increase their annual income.

Innovative tech: Amitabha Sadangi, at his office in New Delhi, with a scale model of a pump that can be operted with one’s feet. Ramesh Pathania/Mint

“Farming in India is planned around the monsoon. But that allows farmers to grow only one crop. If they have a reliable system of irrigation throughout the year, they can grow more than one crop on their land," he says, explaining the idea behind his initiative.

Though irrigation technologies are available, most are costly and are meant to be used by large farmers on huge tracts. But India mostly has subsistence farmers who till less than two hectares. Sadangi wanted to reach out to them by creating simple and low-cost irrigation techniques suited to small plots. Micro-irrigation was the answer.

In 1991, Sadangi, who has a degree in law, left his secure government job as an assistant labour officer in the Orissa government to start working on the nebulous concept. The result was International Development Enterprises India, or IDEI, launched in 2001, with Sadangi as chief executive.

IDEI engineers have developed variations of two basic micro-irrigation techniques. For eastern India, where the water table is shallow, they have developed the treadle pump. In the western states, where the water table runs deep, they offer affordable drip irrigation technology intervention (ADITI).

The technologies come in ready-to-use kits, such as a bucket kit or a drum kit, which are customized to help farmers grow off-season crops and raise their income. Unlike expensive diesel pumps or drip systems for large tracts, these kits can be used on plots as small as 20 sq. m, and can be bought for as little as 250.

Using IDEI technologies, farmers are able to grow up to three crops a season. In the nine years since IDEI’s launch, these technologies have helped generate an estimated $1 billion (Rs 4,440 crore) in additional income.

“Poor rural families in India keep migrating in search of work. How will they think of nutrition or education?" asks Sadangi. “My aim is to make the farmer think of the next crop or next season—not about the next meal."

Sadangi was awarded the outstanding social entrepreneur of the year award in 2008 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which promotes people and organizations working on social and ecological issues. He is also a member of the global Schwab network of social entrepreneurs.

IDEI mostly conducts research in the fields, but it also has two research centres in New Delhi and Bhubaneswar.

From six people in 2001, the organization has grown into a team of 700. Among its members is Kapil, who uses only one name and works as manager for technology development at IDEI’s Impact Centre in Delhi.

“Affordability is important. Marginalized farmers cannot invest much more than their labour, so we try to keep the cost as low as possible. Secondly, they should be easy to use and maintain," he says, standing in front of a soft board with a drawing of water pumps scrawled on it.

“Women-friendly systems are always a success," he adds. “They are made for each other."

But developing technologies isn’t enough, as Sadangi realized early on. It also has to be sold to mostly illiterate farmers who prefer using age-old means.

“Creating demand is very important. Farmers need to be made aware of the benefits of using a treadle pump, of how it can improve the quality of their lives," says Sadangi. “When a farmer can think beyond the next meal, he can think of his family’s nutrition, his children’s education, thereby creating a sustainable chain."

To build the demand for IDEI’s innovations, Sadangi took another innovative approach—film-making.

IDEI produces films that have a hero, a plot, singing and dancing—and problems. But along comes a product that solves the problems and makes everyone happy. Sadangi, IDEI workers say, loves to write his scripts.

The chief executive says he must ensure supply for the marketing technique to work. “Supply is crucial. If you show a film promoting a product and people come asking for it, you should have the product ready for installation, otherwise people lose interest."

Loss of interest, however, hardly seems to be a problem for IDEI, which had sold a total of 1.045 million kits until March.

“IDEI constantly revives its goals," says Vivian Gee, head for Asia, Schwab Foundation. “According to their last report submitted to us, they aim to reach 30 million people by 2020. Sadangi is a soft-spoken person, but he’s also a quiet doer. He knows how to connect with people and leverage from there."