Wednesday, 05 December 2012

From our Executive Director

Written by


CTI Executive Director Roger Salway and villagers inspect pearl millet grain that’s been processed with CTI’s new grain tools.

When I met Astou, a young woman from a rural village in Senegal, West Africa, she told me she wasn’t interested in the future that had been laid out for her. The man who wants to marry her, she told me, “wants me to spend my day pounding a mortar and pestle.” In Astou’s village, and throughout much of the developing world, women and girls still rely on rudimentary tools like a mortar and pestle to thresh and grind their grain. The work is long and exhausting, and in the end, much of their harvest is blown away in the wind or dropped in the dirt.

Astou is the head of a women’s organization in her community. She’s smart, ambitious, and determined to build a future for herself that doesn’t include working in the fields from dawn until dusk and having to choose between pulling her children out of school to work or risk the family going hungry. Like so many of the women I’ve met in the developing world, Astou isn’t settling for poverty. She hasn’t given up on the idea that she can have a better future—and neither have we.

I was in Astou’s village last December field testing CTI’s new grain processing tools with pearl millet farmers. We knew from preliminary trials that the tools could nearly double farmers’ yields and increase their efficiency tenfold. But we also knew that we couldn’t call our new grain tools a success until they’d been approved by the farmers they were designed for.

The farmers in Senegal were overjoyed when they saw what our tools can do. Women told us that access to more efficient farming tools mean much more than additional food and time, it means the opportunity to increase their incomes, send their kids to school and start businesses—the opportunity for a better future.

Compassionate and thoughtful engineering can provide real pathways out of hunger and poverty. Just as those of us living in wealthy countries have benefited from innovations in science, agriculture and technology, I believe that we can do profound good when we use our skills and knowledge to give developing world communities a hand up.

For more than thirty years, CTI has been providing practical tools that give impoverished communities the chance to overcome their food and water challenges. In 2012, we’ve given thousands of Nicaraguans sustainable sources of safe water, we’ve empowered farmers with post-harvest tools that help them raise their standard of living, and we’ve developed several exciting new technologies that we believe will radically transform lives.

I invite you to join us and support our mission to innovate for the greater good. Because while innovation alone can change our world, only innovation paired with compassion can save our world.

Roger Salway, CTI Executive Director

This letter was originally published in CTI’s 2012 Annual Report. Email if you would like to receive a copy of the Annual Report.

When we think of food waste, we often think about the massive amount of food we throw away in the developed world; uneaten food in our homes or unsold food from grocery stores and restaurants. But food waste also exists in countries with high rates of malnutrition and poverty, and it’s a huge contributor to global hunger. An estimated 15-50% of food produced in the developing world is lost after it’s harvested, often due to a lack of proper storage or processing technologies.

In a recent post on the Global Agriculture Development Initiative’s blog, CTI Senior Advisor Alexandra Spieldoch writes about post harvest losses and the need for technologies that can address this food waste and eliminate a major contributor to global hunger.

“There is little reliable data on post-harvest loss (PHL) and until recently it hasn’t played a big part in agricultural investment strategies. Only four percent of development assistance goes to agriculture and little of it for post-harvest programs. In light of high prices and lack of food availability, there seems to be new recognition that the world community can do more to prevent post-harvest loss as a means to meet world food demand.

In one of the most comprehensive reports to date, Missing Food: the Case of Post-Harvest Loss in Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank, the UN FAO and the UK Natural Resources Institute indicate that over 4 billion dollars of grain are lost annually in Sub Saharan Africa, which is enough to feed 48 million people for 12 months. PHL equals half of the region’s annual grain imports, and exceeds the total amount received through food aid over the last decade.  More investment in post-harvest technologies in Africa has great potential to improve food security as well as improve the lives of poor farmers. Helping small-scale women farmers get access to innovative, affordable tools that help them harvest, store and process their crops is a game-changer for development.”

Check out the full article on the  Global Agricultural Development Initiative’s Global Food for Thought Blog.

By Brianna Besch, CTI Intern-

Last month the Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 850 million people on the planet are chronically hungry. The problem isn’t necessary lack of food—the world is growing more food than ever before—it’s that this food can’t be accessed by those most at risk of hunger: the rural poor, in particular, landless and smallholder farmers, who are not producing enough food to subsist. These farmers can’t compete in a global agricultural system stacked against them.

This is why CTI develops simple technologies that help farmers in the developing world overcome food insecurity. Our devices are designed specifically for the daily challenges small farmers face. They are efficient, affordable and culturally appropriate. Instead of encouraging farmers to grow more food, we help them keep the food they already have by reducing post-harvest processing losses.

Small developing world farmers are at a huge disadvantage in the global agricultural market. It started with the Green Revolution; the period in the 1960’s that promoted extensive deployment of chemical fertilizers, farm machinery and high-yielding varieties of grain. While many view this era as a great triumph (food production skyrocketed,) growing more food did not help feed the world’s poorest population—smallholder rural farmers. As production exploded and cheap, subsidized imports flooded developing world markets, grain prices plummeted. Smallholder farmers were unable to afford expensive inputs associated with high-yielding varieties, and using traditional production methods could not compete against large international agribusinesses. As a result, many farmers lost their land while others switched to cash crops, leaving them food insecure and deeper in poverty.

Increasing yields isn’t the only way increase food availability. Each year Sub-Saharan farmers lose $4 billion worth of grain in post-harvest processing. CTI works at a village level to harness this waste with simple, efficient, labor saving technologies.

One example is our newest set of grain processors. Farmers lose 15-50% of their grain in traditional processing methods:a mortar and pestle to remove grain from the stalk and separating grain from chaff in the wind. We created a stripper, thresher and winnower system for pearl millet, a highly nutritious traditional crop. These devices process grain ten-times faster than traditional methods, with less than 10% losses. During the testing phase, Oumar Sarr, from Senegal, described the system’s impact:

“I like the lack of yields lost in the process, the clean unbroken grain, but most importantly, what would take 10 women to do in an hour now takes 1 woman 10 minutes.”

Through a collaboration with the National Cooperative Business Association, we sent six of these systems to Senegal, and held trainings on them with rural villages last month.

While the problems of the world agricultural system are out of our hands, our work is one piece of a global solution to eradicating hunger. By focusing on post-harvest food capture, rather than highly technical yield increases, we are helping smallholder developing-world farmers compete when the deck is stacked against them.

Brianna is a senior Environmental Studies and Geography major at Macalester College, currently interning at CTI.

CTI recently attended the 2012 Norman Borlaug Dialogue, sponsored annually by the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, IA. Researchers, the private sector, non-governmental organizations came together to discuss the challenges of the global food system, and to explore partnerships that can make a positive difference. United Nations Secretary General presented this year’s World Food Prize to Professor Daniel Hillel, the Israeli scientist who is responsible for inventing drip irrigation, a practice which has greatly improved food production in arid areas around the world. Drip irrigation is a technology that has allowed farmers to use water to plant roots through small holes in pipes with a controlled amount of water, a method which reduces water loss and helps plants to absorb water more efficiently.

CTI Advisor Alexandra Spieldoch with Dr. Daniel Hillel, 2012 World Food Prize Laureate; and Danielle Nierenberg, Director of the Nourishing the Planet project at the Worldwatch Institute

From CTI’s perspective, thinking outside of the box to develop comprehensive solutions as exemplified by Professor Hillel is critical. Today, 870 million people are under-nourished and one out of six people are chronically hungry. With current food stocks low and global food prices high, UN officials are warning that there may a major hunger crisis in 2013. We need thoughtful action and we need to act quickly.

At the Norman Borlaug Dialogue, Jane Karuku, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA), stressed the need to ‘get back to basics.’ Real local solutions are not complicated, but require innovative business models if they are to truly have a positive impact on the rural poor. One major challenge is that the private sector and public institutions are not connected to grassroots farmers. As a result, nutrition suffers among the vulnerable groups who need it the most.

Innovation, including technologies to improve production as well as post-harvest technologies like the ones that CTI is developing, testing and scaling out, is essential. Unfortunately, support for post-harvest work has only been about 3 % of agricultural funding overall. Much of the conversations that took place at this event were focused ways to reduce post-harvest losses for large-scale production. CTI was a lone voice advocating for low-cost, appropriate technologies for reaching the poorest of the poor. We are unique in our approach to reduce loss while empowering farmers who are otherwise off the grid.

CTI’s technology solutions support responsible value-chains that are invested in local and regional markets. Here, the public and private sector at varying levels can play a significant role on ensuring that low-cost appropriate technologies have a positive impact on the rural poor. Better indicators are needed to ensure that market development fits in with a holistic understanding of local leadership in achieving food security and poverty reduction.

Leadership at all levels cannot be stressed enough. We need a coordinated effort among a mix of stakeholders to create an enabling environment that will make a difference. This includes investing in technology solutions through public-private partnerships and grassroots leaders, working closely with women leaders to turn the tide.

Though the obstacles are great, CTI is optimistic because there is more attention to cooperation than ever before. There is also more attention given to working with smallholder producers, particularly women, together to achieve development from the bottom-up. Leaders are recognizing that long-term commitments to agricultural development are what are most needed. And, there is political will among developed and developing country leaders to work more closely together. CTI understands the challenges as well as the opportunities and is ready to do its part.

Alexandra Spieldoch, Senior Advisor – Strategic Partnerships

Alexandra Spieldoch is an independent consultant and a Senior Advisor on Strategic Partnerships with Compatible Technology International with research, advocacy and leadership experience pertaining to gender, food security and sustainable development.

By Heather Stone, Volunteer- 

Heather speaking about her project at the August Africa Committe Meeting.

My inspiration to do this project started in the summer of 2011. I was the designated weed helper for my sister Tiffanie at Compatible Technology International’s plot: Lost Crops of Africa.  I’d never done any work in a field before, and my only previous work with plants was growing garden vegetables. The crops were very unfamiliar to me, as were the weeds.  The first couple days of going to the field was full of differentiating between weeds and crops. As I got more familiar with the plants, I started asking myself questions. One of the main ones was on the tef that was planted. It was planted in rows, but after a month we could barely get into the crop to weed. Why was the plant so prone to lodging (falling over) and how do farmers in Africa deal with this problem? I started doing research to answer these questions.

Tef is a staple crop grown in Ethiopia, eaten at every meal. The tef seed is so small it’s comparable to sand (there are 1.3 million seeds per pound). The farmers of Ethiopia don’t have any technologies to plant this miniscule seed, so they hand broadcast it, which leads to lodging, inability to weed, harvesting difficulties, a laborious process. I researched ways to plant small seeds, and putting seed in rows always came up as the best way to get the most yield out of a field.

Before I started building a tef seeder, I wanted to be able to compare my seeder with other commercially small grain seeders available  for under 100 dollars. There were 5 of them: the Earthway seeder, Vibrating seeder, Dial seeder, Water Bottle seeder and a Push seeder (pictured right in order).

To test these seeders I rolled out a 56cm x 300cm paper roll and laid duct tape (sticky side up) down the center of the paper to catch the seeds as they fell. I then marked 25cm away from the center and also 52cm away. I set a metronome to 72 beats per minute and walked that pace down the paper roll while working the seeding device. Afterwards, I picked 3 different 52cm x 30 cm blocks and counted the seeds in each region (5cm duct tape, 25cm and 52cm). I repeated this for each seeder with 4 trials each and recorded the data. From this test I found out that the water bottle seeder was the best seeder of all those tested, it rarely hit outside of the 25cm mark and the amount of seeds per cm was very reasonable. This was surprising and a little ironic. All of the seeders except the Water Bottle seeder were bought; this seeder I made up on my own, thinking that by dragging the water bottle with holes, it will follow the path you take it on. Since it’s on the ground you won’t have to worry about wind carrying the seed and dispersing them. I then did a field trial on these seeders and my findings confirmed what I’d found in the home trial.

The next thing I did was make standards that I wanted my seeder to live up to. These included: lightweight, easily replicable design, made out of readily available materials, low cost, accurate and has an accepted seed flow rate.  I also made a list of materials that would be easily found in third world countries, including: cloth, wood, tires, nails, screws, bottles and cans. Then I went to designing and this is my final result:

Starting with the build; the handle is at about a 45 degree angle made to be pulled. The four (seed holding) water bottles are 4 ½ inches spread apart and are held to the wooden board by screws. There are aluminum slips in-between the wooden board and the caps of the bottles. This controls the flow of seed. On the underside of the board there are furrowing screws (right under the holes seed flow out of), these screws make divots in the ground for seeds to fall into. Because of the tilt to the seeder, the other side covers up the seed. There are also tacks in the wood to help the storing of the seeder, but these are optional.

With my seeder at hand, I tested the seeder the exact same way as the other small seeders with the paper roll method. The seeds never reached the 52 cm marker or the 25 cm marker; it was the most accurate along with having the most consistent seed flow rate.

The next step from here is to test my seeder directly against hand broadcasting. I am currently running tests on which got the most yield in a square foot.  I will let you know my findings on my next blog post.

Heather Stone is an 11th grade PSEO student at Century College, a local high school. 

Monday, 01 October 2012

Grinders Inspire Ugandan Entrepreneurs

Written by

When CTI creates new technologies, we strive to treat small farmers as co-designers by directly asking them about their food and water challenges and inviting farmers to evaluate our prototypes. Nonprofit Village Enterprise employs a similar philosophy when they train rural entrepreneurs in poor, rural communities. Village Enterprise trains community leaders in Uganda to be business mentors, and those mentors go on to provide business skills training and support to local entrepreneurs.

Recently, 30 of CTI’s grinders were delivered to Soroti, Uganda, where villagers were encouraged to come up with their own ideas for businesses that would work in their communities:

 “In our very first training session, one of the business owners had a monumental idea. After the demonstration, one woman raised her hand, “Can we grind millet and soya together in the grinder?”

Millet and soy are nearly perfect nutritional compliments to each other. Millet is high in B1 vitamins, rich in iron, but lacks lysine, which helps the body absorb calcium. Soy is high in protein, contains essential amino acids, and enough lysine to complement millet’s deficiency. It is a vital nutritional supplement especially for infants, elderly and pregnant women. There is a large demand for this superfood, particularly in hospitals, but it’s only located in urban markets at high prices. These markets, again, are essentially unreachable from the areas where we work.”

Check out Village Enterprise’s blog for the full story.

Friday, 21 September 2012

How Peanuts Can Help Change the World

Written by

By Laura Dorle, Intern—

Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are very familiar to those in the United States, and around the world. Here in the U.S., the peanut is our favorite nut—eaten raw, in the form of peanut butter, or in the many varieties that gave our own USDA scientist, George Washington Carver, his claim to fame.

We think of peanuts as the classic American nut, and in a sense they are, as they were domesticated in Peru in South America and are now grown around the world, serving an important role in many diets.

Peanuts, legumes, or groundnuts?

We group peanuts in the nut family, but unlike many other nuts we love to consume, the peanut does not grow on trees. In fact, they grow in the ground, and in many parts of the world their name gives way to that fact, groundnuts. They belong to the legume plant family, one that includes all those beans we know and enjoy. And as with all legumes, peanut plants have the ability to fix atomospheric nitrogen to improve the soil.

The peanut plant grows to about 12-18 inches in height, and has green ovular leaves. The plant produces yellow flowers, which continue to flower throughout the growing season (about four months). Once the flower is pollinated, it forms a “peg” which then bends toward the ground, and pushes the ovary into the top layer of soil where the peanut pod develops.

Peanuts and the developing world

Peanuts are highly nutritious, containing many important vitamins and minerals, and are high protein and oil content. Because peanuts grow in abundance in many parts of the developing world, including throughout East and West Africa, they have the potential to provide desperately-needed nutrition in many communities that suffer with extreme hunger.

Despite their importance to the global poor, peanuts can be dangerous. Without proper handling and storage, peanuts are particularly susceptible to aflatoxin contamination post-harvest, a deadly carcinogen produced by a fungus that causes food safety issues for local consumers and losses in the ability to export. That, combined with the difficulties of manual processing, can lead to significant yield and quality losses in poor communities.

Better peanut tools can improve nutrition and lives

Efforts to create greater efficiency in production and higher marketable values can play an important role in rural communities in the developing world to improve farmer livelihoods and community nutrition.

With the support of the McKnight Foundation, CTI, in partnership with Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, is working on a project to do just that. In Tanzania and Malawi in Eastern Africa they are testing and developing simple, affordable mechanical technologies to improve harvesting, handling, drying, stripping pods from plants, storage, shelling, and grinding. They have been evaluating these new technologies with farmers on the ground, as well as seeking to improve child nutrition and reduce aflatoxin contamination.

In the next few weeks, I will be running stripping, drying, and shelling efficiency tests on the peanuts that CTI and the University of Minnesota have been growing as part of the Orphan Crops project on the University’s St. Paul Campus.

Laura is a student intern from the University of Minnesota who is helping CTI manage its Orphan Crops Plot—a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.

We all know amazing women and mothers who’ve made great sacrifices for their children.

Moms in Ethiopia are no different, where thousands of women give nearly everything they have, including their health, to provide their kids with a better future.

An estimated 400,000 women in Ethiopia process hot peppers by hand—a laborious procedure that turns fresh peppers into higher-value products of dried flakes, seeds and powder. Women can earn good money selling pepper products, but the tiring work leaves her hands covered in hot pepper oil and her eyes, nose, and throat burning from pepper dust in the air. The work is debilitating; it often takes days for women to recover from the harsh effects of this process.

Like all moms, these women hope their children can get an education, and they’re happy to sacrifice their health if it means their daughters won’t have to do the same.

With your help, we can make these women’s dreams a reality.

Students at Stanford University developed the Pepper Eater, a device that mills dried peppers with a hand-crank much faster than and without the side effects of the traditional method. The students passed their creation along to CTI where some of the students and other CTI volunteers modified the Pepper Eater and took it to Ethiopia for additional testing and feedback. To everyone’s delight, it produced pepper flakes more safely, efficiently and of superior quality to those produced by traditional methods.

With improved safety and more efficient tools, women who process peppers for a living can earn more income to support their families and can avoid the debilitating health problems.

We are establishing local partners in Ethiopia and are currently seeking funding so we can start building and providing Pepper Eaters for 10-20 villages for extended field testing.

You can help!

If you want to help us provide safer and more efficient tools, visit our website to learn more or contribute to our efforts to dramatically improve the health and livelihoods of thousands of Ethiopian women.


By Laura Dorle, Intern

Laura is a student intern from the University of Minnesota who is helping CTI manage its Orphan Crops Plot—a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.

Most of our crops are now in their 13th week of growth, and most of them are doing well. There has, though, been a fair share of challenges in achieving their success.

Last year, one of the biggest challenges once the grain crops (primarily pearl millet and sorghum) completed pollination and reached their milk stage was a population of hungry birds that was eating away at the fresh grain. The team tried hard to deter the birds, using netting, noise makers, metallic streamers, and everything they could, but the birds only became more relentless in feeding on the grain.

Well, those sparrows and other small birds are at it again. The bird issue was a large part of the discussion before the crops were planted. The team made the decision that this year we would bag the heads of sorghum and pearl millet as protection. Corn breeders at the University use special paper bags to prevent cross-pollination, and we were able to access some of those bags for the sorghum. Pearl millet, on the other hand, has a head that is much longer and narrower than the sorghum head. For that, we have used paper bags sent to us by ARS/USDA pearl millet researchers in Georgia. Though we were not totally sure about the effect that these bags would have, after a couple weeks, the heads that have been bagged are doing much better (untouched so far) than those without (see pictures below for visual).

Of course birds are not the only pests running around our urban ecosystem. We’ve had bunnies chewing on the Bambara groundnuts. The Bambara groundnuts are looking sickly, but we’ve since fenced them so maybe we have some chance. We also have had to continue to fight a virus induced by leafhoppers in the legumes. Finally, we’ve noticed that the fonio is rather behind where we thought it would be by this point. Some of the team hypothesized that like finger millet, a crop from last year with a similar problem. Day-length sensitivity may be an issue (reproductive stage triggered only by shorter days than we have in summer), but so far we have not come across any conclusive literature.

Obviously, growing season pests are a problem, especially when we have very little of each crop to begin with, but they’re not our focus in this project. Luckily, there are many researchers who are focusing on how to reduce pests and disease to increase healthy yields. With those increased yields, come tough questions on better post-harvest storage, market access, and efficient processing. Those are the questions that CTI is addressing, and as our crops get ready for harvest within the next month or so, I’m excited to learn more and test some of their innovative technologies. More to come on that!

Meanwhile, if you live in the Twin Cities area, feel free to come visit the plot yourself (PDF with directions). If not, we’ll continue to do the best we can to relay the experience virtually.

Thursday, 02 August 2012

Tending to Orphan Crops of the World

Written by

By Laura Dorle, Intern —

Groundnuts (also known as peanuts)

Last summer, CTI and the University of Minnesota (UMN) collaborated in growing six “Orphan Crops”: teff, finger millet, pearl millet, sorghum, grain amaranth, and groundnuts (peanuts).

Orphan crops are important food crops for subsistence farmers in many African as well as Asian and South American communities, as they have a strong cultural importance, and are often more nutritious and drought resistant than many of the large commodity crops.

Most agricultural research has focused on increasing the yields of commodity crops, such as wheat or corn. However, simply growing more food is not enough—not when between 15-50% of crops are lost after harvest, often due to post-harvest spoilage and inefficient processing methods. That is why CTI is committed to filling some of the gaps in the research by working on orphan crops, focusing on the post-harvest side of the value chain helping bring rural farmers out of subsistence living while improving their livelihoods.

Tiffanie Stone, a recent graduate of the University, was the student intern on the St. Paul Campus plot last year with the guidance of Agronomy Professor Paul Porter and other UMN and CTI colleagues.

This year, we are at it again, and I’ve joined the team, along with many of the great folks from CTI and UMN who originated the project. I’m Laura Dorle, student intern with the Orphan Crops project and a junior in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Program at the U. With a particular interest in food, agriculture, and international development, and a great desire to learn a lot more in those areas, this project was the perfect opportunity to do so.

The plot has been off to a good start thus far. The crops were planted in late May. In addition to the crops from last year, we also planted cowpeas, fonio, quinoa, mung beans, and Bambara groundnuts. Most have been doing very well, despite heavy rains early and intense heat. As usual, there is group of stealthy weeds that are thriving right along with them, and a lot of volunteers have been out there working hard to battle them, the leafhoppers, and Japanese beetles.

Orphan Crops Plot

When the crops begin to mature at the end of the summer through the fall, we’ll be able to use them to do field tests of CTI’s post-harvest equipment including prototypes of groundnut processing technologies that are being developed for a program in Malawi and Tanzania funded by the McKnight Foundation. We will also be testing CTI’s new pearl millet processing suite on additional grains.

I’m really excited to be working on this project. Be sure to stay tuned. More updates to come as the process continues! And we’ll be organizing some field visits starting in mid-August!