Innovation of the Week: Empowering Impoverished Communities with Compatible Technologies

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By Matt Styslinger

World agriculture produces more food today than ever before. Since the 1960’s, massive funding has gone to new crop varieties, machinery, pesticides, and fertilizers—dramatically boosting yields in even some of the poorest parts of the world. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to ignore some simple—and inexpensive—tools, including grain stores, crop drying equipment, crates, and refrigeration that are needed to ensure that harvests make it to market. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, globally, as much as 50 percent of crops go bad before they can be eaten.

A CTI grinder can produce in one hour the same amount of nutritious groundnut paste—peanut butter—that is produced in eight hours using traditional methods. (Photo credit: CTI)

In its effort to alleviate poverty and hunger in the developing world, Compatible Technology International (CTI) designs, builds, and distributes affordable post-harvest tools—such as a cool storage shed and food processing grinder—for rural farmers in the developing world. CTI’s devices can help farmers process, store, and sell their crops.

While many organizations are focused on improved seeds, access to fertilizers, and irrigation to improve crop yields, relatively few are focused on post-harvest improvements. But many poor farmers live on yields from a hectare or less of land and getting the maximum benefit from those yields can make up the difference between abject poverty and a livable income.

CTI’s technologies are scaled to fit the needs of small villages, families, coops, and micro-businesses. Extra attention is paid to developing safe, affordable, environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, and culturally compatible devices in the hope that they will be more widely adopted and facilitate lasting change in poor farming communities. CTI encourages craftsmen and entrepreneurs in and around these communities to build and sell their devices, reducing dependence on outside assistance once the technology has been adopted.

“We are empowering impoverished communities to free themselves from hunger and poverty,” says CTI Executive Director Roger Salway in the organization’s 2010 annual report. “This is not relief, but development and empowerment,” according to Gabrielle Vincent, Haiti’s Country Director for Sonje Ayiti women’s co-operative—who is using grinders from CTI to process roasted cocoa beans into chocolate.

In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, heat and humidity cause potato crops to spoil about a month after harvest. As a result, farmers are forced to sell their potatoes very quickly at low prices. But CTI developed a cool storage shed that extends the crop’s shelf life to as long as four months. It is ventilated and stores crops over a pool of water, cooling the air as the water evaporates. CTI also developed a potato peeler and slicer, allowing farmers to process their crop for drying. This not only extends the shelf life of farmers’ produce even further, it adds value to the crop, which can then be sold at greater profit.

In Jalapa, Guatemala, farmers often lose as much as half of their harvested maize crop before it can be sold. CTI volunteers developed a corn crib which elevates cobs off the ground, and away from moisture and rodents. A corn sheller was also developed so that farmers could store shelled kernels in metal silos, produced by CTI-trained local artisans. A women’s micro-lending program helps finance the purchase of the silos, and farmers are soon able to pay back the loans with increased profits from their crop.

CTI’s most widely used device is a grinder that can make flour from grains and a creamy paste from roasted nuts. As a result, farmers can store their produce for longer and sell more value added products, like nut butters and grain flours. The grinder is designed to be manufactured in the developing world and is currently produced and sold in Uganda.

The McKnight Foundation has recently awarded CTI—in partnership with Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)—a four-year $673,000 research and development grant to improve child nutrition and rural livelihoods in Malawi and Tanzania. The project will focus on developing a low-cost, locally compatible device to improve the processing of groundnut (peanut) harvests—adding value and reducing post-harvest losses. Once the appropriate technology is identified, the project aims to transfer the technical and manufacturing expertise to East African organizations.

“This project is essentially about collaborating with these farm families about the crops growing naturally in their environments,” said CTI Vice President of Operations, Bert Rivers in a press release to PR Newswire. “We are also being educated by the farmers about the realities of their living conditions and farming systems.”

Instead of offering temporary food relief, CTI is working to create a long-term path out of hunger and poverty for the two-thirds of the world’s impoverished who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. As CTI’s website states, “It’s not about hand-outs, but a hand up.”

To read more about creating self-reliance for small-scale farmers and reducing post-harvest losses see: Developing Local Solutions for Self-Reliance, What Works: Reducing Food Waste, Nourishing the Planet TV: Beating the Heat to Reduce Post Harvest Waste, It’s All About the Process, Reducing Food Waste, and Investing in Better Food Storage.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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