Thursday, 31 July 2014

Human Centered Design approach in Nicaragua

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This June, 9 students and 2 professors from Iowa State University embarked on a journey to study abroad in Nicaragua for their class, “Engineering—Human Centered Design.” This trip marks what CTI and Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability (EOS) in Nicaragua hope to be the first of many.

Wes Meier, CTI’s Program Director, was on-site to welcome the team and also lay the foundation for their time in Nicaragua. Through his eyes, there was a functional purpose to the trip: giving undergraduate students an opportunity to study abroad and be immersed in another culture while working on engineering design. But Wes also knew that he had an opportunity to plant a seed for a methodology to engineering that was not just designing for the people, but was designing with the people.

“Human centered design” is about working with the people, listening closely to their needs, getting feedback on ideas, and ultimately co-designing technologies. And, the results of this trip speak for themselves on what can be accomplished with this approach. The students designed three simple prototypes during their time in Nicaragua:

1. Coffee roaster: a larger scale roaster than what is currently being used
2. Water catch system: a system that catches rain water from roofs
3. Biochar reactor (combined with a study of biochar in the soil): biochar is charcoal created from left over biomass (i.e. grass, manure, etc.) that when burned in a certain way creates rich fertilizer

Isn’t it amazing what can be designed when we listen first to what the people need?

This trip was a great introduction to this partnership between CTI, EOS and the Iowa State Engineering Department, with students and faculty giving it the green light for future years. The desire is to grow the program, so if you know of other universities that may be interested in participating in a collaborative study abroad program, focusing on “human centered design,” we want to hear from you. Please contact Wes Meier, Program Director, at with your information.


Najia Yarkhan, Student Volunteer

It was the beginning of our last semester at the University of Illinois, and with that came the Agricultural and Biological Engineering senior design course, taught by Professor Stephen Zahos. We had the obvious options of the projects dealing with agriculture and bioprocesses, typically for larger companies that would be expected in this course. However, one specific project caught my attention, as it was different from the rest.

It was for Compatible Technology International (CTI), a nonprofit based out of Minnesota that designs and distributes innovative tools that help families in the developing world rise above hunger and poverty. This project specifically targeted optimizing the Elton (left) and Mounir (right) breadfruit shredders. The shredders allow for the utilization of breadfruit, an abundant local crop in Haiti (and other countries with a similar climate) that spoils within 1-3 days of ripening. A process of shredding, grinding and drying the breadfruit allows for it to be utilized by the communities.

CTI’s human centered approach to solving problems and the social nature of this project made it stand out as both a unique and rewarding learning experience. Upon being assigned the project, a team of five of my peers (Anne Cederoth, Melissa Rios-Chavez, Richard Li, Vincent Tio, and Guannan Wang) and I set out to optimize the shredders for CTI.

We went through background documents that ranged from information about breadfruit to information about the target market. We had weekly meetings and tons of back and forth communication with CTI to continue to refine the results we were delivering. And we conducted extensive RPM, productivity, and ease of operation testing on both shredders.

Based on these steps, the team shifted the focus to the Elton shredder. In our opinion, it was the simpler, more productive design. It better took into account concepts of Human Centered Design and was better equipped for the end user’s needs. Ideas were generated for this optimization with the more concentrated goals of reducing cost, reducing the number of parts, simplifying ease of use, simplifying ease of cleaning, simplifying the overall design, and increasing durability.

Our team’s design, shown above, took the concepts of the Elton Shredder and built upon them. Parts were rearranged to separate removable and fixed parts and a hinged door was added for simpler blade removal for cleaning. The frame was updated to be more stable and taller so a chute would not be required to keep the shredded fruit falling in a straight line. The flywheel was changed to a solid mass that could be housed within the frame, and the blade support was flattened to further simplify cleaning.

This design also took into account the use of casting molds for large-scale production. Cost estimates were conducted using aPriori software, yielding a fully burdened cost of producing 100 shredders at $135 each, which was near the cost goals we had set. We believe this is a viable solution for CTI’s breadfruit shredders and hope to see it in reality one day.

Our team could not have asked for a more valuable senior design experience. Not only were each of us able to delve into something we did not previously know and learn along the way, but we also received incredible guidance from the staff at CTI and Prof. Zahos. The most rewarding part of all of this, though, was knowing the entire time that we were innovating technology to make a real difference in people’s lives.

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Najia Yarkhan attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an Agricultural and Biological Engineering major, with a Biological concentration. She now lives in San Francisco, working in education technology and pursuing her goals in social entrepreneurship.






The entrepreneurial spirit has always run strong throughout the years at CTI. With every innovation, CTI designs its tools so they are affordable and can improve the livelihoods of as many people as possible. In order to maximize its impact, CTI discourages ‘give aways,’ and instead seeks to inspire entrepreneurs and leaders in the developing world that demonstrate the same enterprising drive as CTI does in the workshop.

Entrepreneurs are risk-taking individuals that aim to innovate by providing a service to help lift up their community as well as themselves. To find these entrepreneurs, CTI partners with organizations such as Village Enterprise, Feed My Starving Children, and CLUSA. In addition, CTI often hires representatives within the local community to forge relationships with innovators and entrepreneurs.

Camarra Mamadou is a stellar example of an entrepreneur. As a Senegalese seed producer, his goal is to process and sell high quality pearl millet grain that is intended to become seed for next year’s crop. He owns about 3 hectares of land in the Mbour region of Senegal, where he employs two people who weed and plant. Mamadou was one of the first entrepreneurs to purchase CTI’s new grain processing tools. Previously, his threshing method resulted in a lot of cracked, poor-quality grain, and about a 10-15% loss with each harvest. With CTI’s tools, he can now produce high quality millet quickly, and lose hardly any grain. He can process seeds so quickly, that he sees a fast return on his investment, while ensuring a better millet harvest for the next year for his entire village. Mamadou’s story exhibits the power of an entrepreneur to make a great impact on entire community


Camarra Mamadou, a Senegalese entrepreneur that uses CTI’s grain tools to produce high quality seed for market sale.

Mamadou is not the only entrepreneur doing important work with CTI’s tools. Women entrepreneurs who purchase grinders often offer a grinding service to neighbors and villages for a small fee, making it a profitable enterprise that allows her to become business and market-savvy, so she can soon become her own employer. In Guyana, entrepreneurs grind peanut butter to sell for school lunches, helping not only themselves but also the next generation.

CTI’s overarching goal is to provide people with the tools to improve their livelihoods and supporting entrepreneurs does even more than that. “Entrepreneurs can help not only themselves, but others to rise above hunger and poverty,” says CTI’s Program Director Wes Meier. “It’s an essential part of our mission.” With that, the ripple effect is clear: by focusing on entrepreneurs CTI rewards imagination and ambition. Entrepreneurs give themselves the opportunity to make a living while benefiting their local community.

Blog pic of Sorcha

Sorcha Douglas is an intern from Macalester College, studying International Studies with a concentration in International Development and a minor in Environmental Studies.





Thursday, 17 April 2014

Safe water for 229,000 people and counting….

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This just in: We’ve now brought safe water to 229,852 people in Nicaragua, in more than 400 villages as of the end of March!


Thank you Pentair Foundation for helping us empower these communities with safer water and better health! We’re well on our way to reaching our goal of 250,000 people by June.

For the past 4 years, CTI has been helping rural farming communities in Nicaragua gain safe water with our Water Chlorinator—an inexpensive system made of PVC piping that produces clean water for an entire village for just pennies per day. Working throughout Western Nicaragua, our program manager and his staff train rural communities to build, install and maintain chlorinators. To expand our reach, we partner with Nicaragua-based development organizations (EOS International and Self-Help International) that install chlorinators in additional regions of the country. We also partner with the Nicaraguan Health Ministry, which accompanies our staff to the villages to provide communities with health and sanitation education.

WATERGOAL-13The Nicaraguan communities are highly invested in the program. In each village, we partner with formal water committees, called CAPs. The CAPs purchase the Water Chlorinators, maintain the systems, and collect a few cents from families in the village to fund the replacement chlorine tablets each month. Communities with our Water Chlorinator have experienced major health improvements and are extremely proud of their achievements.

Visit our website to learn more about this project or make a contribution


AliouMeghan Fleckenstein, CTI Communications Director

It’s 110 degrees and CTI’s team is being introduced to a rural village near Kaolack by our Senegal Program Manager, Aliou Ndiaye. Speaking in Wolof, the local language, Aliou addresses about two dozen villagers who’ve gathered to greet us under the shade of a large tree,

“For the past 10 years you have seen the same rate of yield in your pearl millet crop. You have good seed and good farming practices, but we cannot extend the land. We are here today look at how postharvest technologies can help feed your families. We can’t find the solution without you. We can’t improve our technology or help other farmers use it without you. So we have to make you work. We need you to tell us honestly how you feel about the technology, what you like and dislike, and how you think it can impact your village.”

A team of CTI staff and volunteers is in Senegal to work with our local partners on expanding the distribution and impact of our recently-launched Grain Tools. Over the past few weeks, CTI has delivered sets of tools (including a pearl millet stripper, thresher, winnower and grinder) to 15 villages in Senegal as part of a program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the project is to place the suites in different types of villages throughout Senegal and gather data on their use so we can focus our distribution efforts on reaching the communities that stand to benefit most from the tools.

Villagers Provide Feedback

The village we were visiting had recently received CTI’s tools and  we wanted to check in with the community to provide additional training and get their initial reaction. First, we spoke to the village women’s organization. While in Senegal, I learned that formal women’s organizations are very common in villages, and some communities even have more than one. They often run businesses and use their earnings to pay for school fees or to purchase things for the group.

Womens Group Leader

The president of the women’s organization, Ndeye Gueye, spoke on behalf of the group, “We are very happy about this technology. It is very useful. In the past we were using the mortar and pestle and now that we have this, we can reduce drudgery for women and save grain. This technology may be a small thing, but for us it is a big gift.”

Other community members—both men and women— gathered to offer advice for increasing the output of the technology and improving the grinder so it can process wet millet. The villagers also expressed how much they enjoyed using the grinder to make peanut butter and they hoped to earn money grinding for others. They explained that previously, the village had been using an expensive motorized grinder provided by another organization, but when the machine broke just two years after they received it, the women had to return to grinding their peanuts by hand. We hear this type of story far too often at CTI—money being spent providing communities with expensive, complicated machinery that rarely lasts more than a few years.

After spending more time with the community, as we prepared to leave, Aliou addressed the group a final time, and was clear and direct that our collaboration is a partnership that will require work and commitment on both sides. Aliou explained,

Village Leader

“We are very happy about this technology. Everything you see starts small and grows. We see this as just the beginning.” – Demba Aly Ba, Village Leader

“We came here to work together to find solutions for the whole nation. This is our proposal to you, but it is just a proposal. If you do not want to do this, we can go to another village. But if you want to use the technology and tell us how you honestly feel about it, then let’s get to work.”

At CTI, we never stop pushing ourselves to do better, to improve our process and our technologies, and we depend on communities to give their honest opinions rather than telling us what they think we want to hear. In Senegal, this has not been a problem. The women and men are smart, outspoken, and engaged.

CTI team at our office1

Alexandra Spieldoch, CTI Executive Director

My biggest takeaway from my recent trip to Nicaragua is that CTI’s success with its Water Chlorinator is thanks to strong relationships. Our team in Nicaragua is absolutely committed to clean, safe water in support of a stronger country. And, they travel by bus, motorbike and even on foot to get our chlorinators installed where they are needed.

We work with organized water committees within villages, and it is with them that we have built our friendships. They take ownership of our technology. They pay for it, train to use it, and work with CTI to evaluate its effectiveness.

These water committees are autonomous bodies that have been organized throughout the country to implement the right to water. Each one has an executive committee to identify needs, make decisions and collect and spend money donated by the villagers themselves. This is not a small feat. Nicaragua has the second lowest GDP in the Americas after Haiti. There is little extra, but villagers know that the way forward has to be based on clean, safe water and healthy food.

Another important thing I learned is the way in which we are supporting women leaders at the executive levels  of the water committees.  In fact, women are often in charge of fund allocations as they are perceived to be more responsible.  When meeting one of the water committees in the coffee producing region of Matagalpa, I had the honor of meeting one of these woman leaders and her daughter

We are working in partnership with the Ministry of Health to support these water committees in their efforts and to double our impact over the next three years through more detailed monitoring, evaluation and promotion of the chlorinator.

At CTI’s Spring Benefit Dinner, we are celebrating the power of innovation—the transformation of an idea into impact! You can help empower communities with innovative food and water tools by joining us in Minneapolis on May 8 for a Senegalese dinner and an R&D runway show! If you’re interested in attending the event or hosting a table, contact


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Most Powerful Tool of All

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CTI’s most valuable tool is not a grinder, nor a chlorinator, but it is something that can’t be built. In Nicaragua, CTI has spent many years BUILDING TRUST while installing our Water Chlorinators. By partnering with volunteer water committees in Nicaragua, CTI trains villages to install and maintain chlorinators to control the harmful bacteria in water. Together, CTI and Nicaraguan communities are eliminating waterborne illness while building strong collaborative relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

On a recent trip with CTI to Nicaragua, members of Project Redwood directly experienced the implementation of CTI’s work and saw the power of this partnership in action. Project Redwood is a foundation of the Stanford Business School Class of 1980 that supports international development projects that mitigate the causes and effects of poverty.

Project Redwood members reported that CTI infuses enthusiasm, respectfulness, passion, and dedication to clean drinking water among the extraordinary Nicaraguan people — and in the process they create a bond of trust. As one traveler wrote, “The positive and respectful relationship shared by CTI and local water committees is fundamental in the adoption of CTI’s systems in Nicaragua.” This relationship makes CTI’s Water Chlorinator all the more effective because technologies are only truly appropriate when there is trust between those who build it and those who use it.

With the great relationships between CTI and Nicaraguan villages comes more opportunity to reach CTI’s goal of providing clean drinking water to 250,000 Nicaraguans by the summer of 2014. Severe rural poverty and the prevalence of water-borne illnesses remain a threat to these communities, but CTI’s Water Chlorinator makes water safe and that is key to their health, vitality, and opportunity. Project Redwood’s experience confirms that livelihoods can improve with great technology and trust.

To find out more about Project Redwood’s experience with CTI in Nicaragua, read their blogs here.

Blog pic of Sorcha

Sorcha Douglas is an intern from Macalester College, studying International Studies with a concentration in International Development and a minor in Environmental Studies.





The global food waste problem is enormous in scale. Recent estimates indicated that waste accounts for one third to one half of all current food production. Much of this loss comes from post harvest inefficiencies that have long lasting environmental and socio-economic consequences. Since most developing countries rely on agriculture as their main economic sector, addressing post-harvest loss can have a significant impact on poverty reduction, crop resiliency, and sustainability of rural livelihoods.

In recent reports stemming from the 68th General Assembly publications, the United Nations recommends that prevention of post-harvest food waste is key as well as investment and engineering in “relatively simple technologies which can provide effective solutions and dramatically reduce losses.” This is precisely where Compatible Technology International (CTI) comes in.

Cereal grains grown in developing countries traditionally incur up to 50% post-harvest loss due to spillage, poor separation and drying contamination, or storage. One particularly important grain is pearl millet, a drought resistant crop grown in Sub-Saharan Africa that is highly nutritious. With CTI’s Pearl Millet Suite, farmers capture more than 90% of their harvest, helping them produce millet flour ten times faster than by using traditional methods.

The tools are simple: a stripper, thresher, winnower, and grinder, all engineered for the needs of a small farmer.

For impoverished communities struggling in times of a changing climate, CTI’s Pearl Millet Suite, more efficient post-harvest grain production could be the difference between a thriving farm and going hungry for years to come. With less food waste, farmers can diversify their crops to increase their resilience in times of environmental stress and spend less time in the field, allowing for more economic opportunity to sell their increased yield.

The impact is enormous: Security for food can lead to increased security for many other aspects of life: education, healthcare, and increasing economic power.

Blog pic of Sorcha

Sorcha Douglas is an intern from Macalester College, studying International Studies with a concentration in International Development and a minor in Environmental Studies.




Wednesday, 18 September 2013

CTI welcomes new Executive Director!

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We have exciting news!  We are thrilled to announce that our Board of Directors has voted unanimously to appoint Alexandra Spieldoch as CTI’s Executive Director. While serving as interim director over the past several months, Alexandra has been an outstanding leader for the organization.  Alexandra has many years of experience working in economic policy reform, food security and sustainable development. Check out Alexandra’s bio on our website.