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In connecting with African farmers, Minnesotans find that simple technologies can be a game changer

REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
In most Sub-Saharan African Countries, roughly 60 percent of people work in agriculture – a percentage that is even higher in rural areas where poverty rates are highest.

Three-quarters of the world’s hungriest and poorest people reside in developing countries and most of them are smallholder farmers who survive on less than one to five hectares of land (2.5 to 12 acres). Ironically, small plot family farms produce more than half of the world’s food. Yet their yields are often far below their potential. In most Sub-Saharan African Countries, roughly 60 percent of people work in agriculture – a percentage that is even higher in rural areas where poverty rates are highest.

Alexandra Spieldoch

They are mostly poor, hungry and vulnerable, and their contributions are largely overlooked and undervalued. In many places, women do the vast majority of the time-consuming, laborious post-harvest and processing work. Yet they have little or no access to more efficient food processing and handling tools that could significantly increase their capacity. They mostly depend on rudimentary tools — such as hand hoes and mortars and pestles — to harvest and process their crops. Though larger mechanization exists, it is also for larger markets and mostly operated by men. Providing women with post-harvest technology solutions that reduce drudgery, improve food quality and reduce loss would go a long way to reducing hunger and poverty.

Asking what is really needed

Bupe Mwakasungula

In solving problems, we look for magic bullets. But, we often miss the question: What is really needed and for whom? Often, companies arrive with technologies that farmers haven’t asked for and can’t afford. As a result, those technologies are not used. Too often, they are abandoned in the field.

But there’s a nonprofit here in Minnesota, founded by local food company engineers 35 years ago, that doesn’t foist unneeded technology on farmers. Compatible Technology International (CTI), based in St. Paul, is trying a different model that we hope will make a huge difference for African farmers, particularly women.

Our model is demand-driven. We demonstrate the equipment right at the farmer’s field, as we know farmers learn better by seeing and doing. We listen to them to understand their needs up front, and by doing so, we learn that hand-operated, simple motorized technologies for threshing, winnowing, shelling and grinding are a game changer for women in particular. With these types of technologies, farmers dramatically reduce their time and labor processing crops into food — completing their work in hours rather than days and weeks. They increase food quality and improve nutrition. And they have more economic opportunity to sell quality surplus to mid-level food processors and to develop value-added products for sale locally.

Women with more money and time invest in schools and health care for their children. They get educated themselves. And, they become leaders in their communities.

Investing in women food processors

What if we were to invest in a whole new cadre of women food processors selling quality crops, promoting nutritious food and consuming it using appropriate technology designed in collaboration with them? This means getting them the post-harvest processing tools they need and that they can afford; providing them with credit, training; and ensuring that they have a sustainable market from which they can benefit.

In Malawi, CTI is piloting a project with women producers of groundnuts or peanuts, which are known to a highly nutritious crop: good for nutrition, good for the soil. They are part of the traditional diet and consumed in a variety of ways. But, peanuts are also a cash crop for which there is national, regional and global demand.

Unfortunately, productive capacity is quite low, and nuts are of poor quality, largely because of the slow technological infusions into the agriculture sector, especially mechanization. A CTI technical team worked with women farmers to design prototypes that are now being manufactured and distributed within Malawi.

 “This is a miracle. Growing groundnuts has become so simple,” was how one woman farmer described the change. We can improve farmers’ nutrition and well-being as well as to strengthen the market in Malawi and other countries in Southern Africa.

A wealth of expertise

Because Minnesota is home to agricultural leaders in business and research as well as a number of nongovernmental organizations working internationally, we are able to leverage our knowledge and reach. CTI, whose board members include employees from Cargill, General Mills, Inc., Buhler and others, brings a significant wealth of expertise to the effort. Our technologies are helping people in 40 countries and we’ve reached 500,000 people.

Women play a pivotal role in development. Poverty can best be reduced when women are empowered to control resources. Melinda Gates says it nicely: “When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.”

Through this lens, we have the opportunity to develop new markets to enable women, who hold half the sky, to reach their potential for the good of all of us.

Alexandra Spieldoch is the executive director of Compatible Technology International. Bupe Mwakasungula is CTI’s Malawi project manager.


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