Tuesday, 01 December 2009

Innovative Pearl Millet Device Tested in Mali

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Compatible Technology International has built the first hand-operated technology for processing pearl millet, a breakthrough that could triple the food supply in parts of the world most vulnerable to famine. Pearl millet is a cereal grain that grows in Africa and Asia in some of the world’s harshest climates. More than 500 million people depend on pearl millet to live, but because of the plant’s difficult characteristics, until now, no one has successfully developed technology for processing the plant on the village level.

 CTI volunteers became interested in pearl millet processing because of the enormous untapped potential of the grain. Pearl millet is highly nutritious and thrives in extreme heat and even under drought conditions, in places where maize or even sorghum will fail. Over a year ago, CTI began developing a device for stripping and threshing (separating the grain from the stalk and other plant debris) pearl millet. In the typical CTI fashion, volunteers sought a design that is simple enough to be replicated in-country, requires no electricity, and is appropriate to local cultures and customs. Collaborating on this effort was the OneLab Initiative, a group of engineers in Ohio who had formed a socially responsible design organization. After a year of trial and error, the team developed equipment for threshing and winnowing (isolating the grain from remaining plant material) pearl millet by hand.

 In early December, CTI Executive Director Roger Salway and OneLab engineer Thom Haubert traveled to Mali to visit communities who process pearl millet using traditional methods.  They visited a rural region where farmers break up the grain by driving over it with a tractor. For hours, Roger and Thom watched the farmers drive the tractor over the harvested pearl millet. Next, women collected the broken up plant material and poured it through the air, using the wind to carry away some of the dirt, and plant debris.

 After several hours of work, the Malian pearl millet farmers estimated that they were only capturing about 30-40% of the grain. With the traditional processing method completed, Roger asked one of the farmers to test CTI’s pearl millet processing equipment. The CTI thresher is modeled after an antique washer ringer and as the Malian farmer turned the handle, stalks of pearl millet were squeezed through the ringers and came out the other side stripped from the stalk and separated from the plant chaff. Next, the farmer dropped the plant material into CTI’s winnowing device (see photo above of Tom Haubert and a Malian farmer), turning the hand fan to blow away the lighter plant debris and isolate the heavier grain. The CTI process took about ten minutes and when completed, the farmers gathered around in awe of the bag full of clean, unbroken grain.  

“What blew me away was the expression on the farmers’ faces when they saw the grain. You cannot imagine the impact this will have on these communities.” – Roger Salway, CTI Executive Director

CTI’s pearl millet processing equipment captures an estimated 90% of the grain which amounts to a three fold increase in food production! The processing devices’ potential to increase the supply of this nutritious grain and simplify its extremely laborious production was enthusiastically received in Mali. Farmers, development experts, and crop scientists alike were thrilled and excited by CTI’s innovation in pearl millet processing. 

In the next few months, the CTI and OneLab team will use feedback from the Malian farmers to put finishing touches on the equipment design and begin to look for in-country manufacturers who can get the device into the hands of those who need it most.  All of this work requires continuing financial support, which we are actively seeking.

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