Out of Their Design Comfort Zone
Volunteer engineers with Minnesota-based Compatible Technology International develop basic equipment to help people in developing countries process food. It may sound easy, but it’s not.
By Jean Thilmany
On a recent autumn Saturday morning, about 20 men and a few women have found their way to a basement room in a nondescript industrial building in a cluster of similar buildings next to St. Paul’s touted two-story Menards. The neighboring giant hardware store lends a twist of irony. The basement room’s occupants consist mostly of retired and practicing engineers and food scientists who meet to brainstorm and build simple food-processing tools and devices for use in developing countries. As an indication of just how crude the equipment is, they won’t use much, if anything, sold next door.
The engineers and food scientists volunteer for the nonprofit Compatible Technology International (CTI) in St. Paul, Minnesota. This Saturday morning, they’re passing around a large grocery bag filled with what looks like dried basil or oregano. Some of the more adventurous among the group take a little taste. The bag is actually filled with dried leaves from the moringa tree.
“It’s a whole tree you can eat,” says volunteer Dick Fulmer as he offers a little taste. He brought the bag of leaves in anticipation of his moringa report, due later this morning. What type of food-processing equipment might CTI come up with to ensure that workers in a distant country could indeed eat every part of the incredibly nutritious tree? People in places like West Africa, where the tree grows, sometimes lack for equipment that could turn leaf to edible food, so CTI’s answer might improve nutrition abroad with little effort or expense on the part of the people, Fulmer explains.
CTI was founded 25 years ago by a group of General Mills researchers headed by food scientist George Ewing, who wanted to spend his retirement creating simple technologies uniquely useful in the developing world. CTI’s primary tool is a food grinder made for rural villagers and comprised of a basic metal cylinder with a blade at the bottom and a crankshaft. Food goes into the cylindrical bin, the user turns the crank, and the ground food falls from the bottom. Looking like a very basic hand-powered Cuisinart, it is called a Ewing, appropriately enough.
CTI’s engineers and food scientists have a unique challenge: to figure out exactly what people living in distant cultures need and want and to design, as best they can, devices to fit those needs, says Bruce Humphrys, the nonprofit’s executive director. Humphrys emphasizes the “as best they can” part because it’s always hard for engineers in Minnesota to know exactly what people with a completely different lifestyle need and to figure out how they’ll use it.
Over the years, volunteers have come up with corn processing and storage methods for Guatemalan farmers, created the simple food grinder that can be easily flown to a remote location and set up by villagers, and engineered a potato dryer and other potato processing equipment. These may sound basic, but consider that the potato equipment, which consists of a peeler, slicer, blanching vat, stove, and drying racks, prevents surplus potatoes in parts of India from rotting before their economic value can be realized. Just knowing about those rotting potatoes spurred CTI members to action. It’s the perfect example of a seemingly simple problem but one so difficult to solve for those in developing countries without means, materials, or background information.
Those who use CTI’s equipment — often a group or an entire village, rather than a single family — usually have very limited financial resources and little knowledge of any types of food-processing equipment. That means CTI devices must be basic, meaning easy to set up and straightforward to use, Humphrys says. “The people we’re designing for have had no exposure to basic technologies we’ve taken for granted for 200 years, like a hoe.”
Operating With Little Knowledge
The challenge comes because the engineers in St. Paul are creating technologies for people in cultures of which they have no experience. Engineers don’t know enough about daily life in these countries to envision how villagers might use their technologies, and they have no idea of a villager’s needs. Even traveling to a village to experience life there often isn’t enough to give volunteers a full picture of day-to-day life and how their equipment might be put to use.
Humphrys relates a story: “Our guys visited a group of Guatemalan women hand-shelling corn. They saw the hard time they were having, how labor-intensive the shelling was, and on the spot they developed a sheller.” The sheller consisted of a piece of wood with a hole in the middle. The women pushed the ear of corn through the hole, shaving the kernels from the cob. When the engineers passed out their device, the women said thanks and put the sheller to work. But when the volunteers returned to that village several months later, they found the group still hand-cutting kernels from corn. “The women told them, ‘Thanks for your invention, it’s much easier. But this is the time we use to talk about men, school, and kids, and your device makes our work too fast for that.’ You have to realize there’s an environment these things will be used in. Not everyone in the world is intent on doing things faster and easier.”
But while not everyone may want faster and easier, those in the business of making money from food processing often welcome the CTI devices. To ensure the organization’s Omega VI peanut grinders wouldn’t sit rusting in some dusty corner of Mali, Africa, Jenni Amundson, CTI’s program director, traveled to Mali last January with volunteer Steve Clarke to see how the grinders were being used in the field. Along the way, they met with a women’s cooperative contemplating the grinder’s use. Amundson and Clarke wanted to demonstrate the technology and get the women’s feedback. Perhaps the women could use it to grind peanuts for the peanut butter they sold at market each day.
Amundson met with Mah Keita Tamboura, who heads an association of 25 small women’s groups in Mali that produce peanut butter. The women now grind their peanuts into peanut butter with mortar and pestle, Tamboura says. Women who aren’t members of the cooperative often use rocks to grind peanuts to sell as peanut butter, she says. “The grinder would add value, beyond saving time and effort, because the peanuts are ground finer. People are interested in the grinder because it’s less work then using a mortar and pestle, though it’s still a bit hard.” Motorized grinders — the Omega is a hand grinder — are available in Mali, but the blades can leave bits of iron in the peanut butter, and this has been known to cause health problems, and the blades wear quickly, Tamboura adds.
Her women’s cooperative is considering buying a CTI grinder, in which case CTI would find the money and the method to send it overseas. Those who receive the equipment purchase it for a small fee, Humphrys says. The fee makes the transaction less a donation, so users feel positive about the transaction and know they’ve played a role in bringing the equipment to their town or village. Equipment sales totals about four percent of the CTI budget.
Amundson went to Mali last winter, and she still remembers the lessons she learned there. “It’s a good way to remember that our technologies have an impact, a good opportunity to see what that impact is,” she says.
It Should Be a Breeze
Projects like the grinders for potential use in Mali sound easy in execution. After all, you have highly trained engineers and food scientists, many with an illustrious career’s worth of experience, volunteering to design straightforward tools. But sometimes the simplest tools are the most difficult to design, Humphrys says. And the same goes for the organization’s projects. They can seem basic and inexpensive to carry out, but that’s often not the case. And CTI engineers won’t stop puzzling with a problem until they have it perfected. After a quarter century of feedback and that many years spent tinkering with the grinder, CTI is now on its third version of the Ewing grinder named, appropriately enough, the Ewing III.
“Engineering is a structured pursuit,” Humphrys says. “We give these engineers broad instruction, not detailed. Our guys are creative, so they can design a simple, broad project with few detailed instructions. Other engineers might need more detailed instructions, like exact constraints and specifications.” Many engineers can design a complicated piece of machinery based on a set of specifications for an understood use. It takes an engineering genius to design a basic technology like a food chopper to make it simple enough to be set up and modified by someone who’s never seen higher technology than a rake, Humphrys adds. CTI projects are a lesson in creative engineering and a crash course in cross-cultural understanding. “The cultural sensitivity of our volunteers is high.”
A project may kick off when someone like a Peace Corps volunteer or a missionary who’s lived in a particular place asks CTI members to build a simple technology that addresses a local problem. Depending on the location and the type of project, it’s handed off to one of four committees: the Asia, Africa, Americas, or technology group. Volunteers sometimes travel to a location to figure out how a piece of equipment might be used, as Amundson and Clark did. Often, however, the budget doesn’t allow for overseas trips. Committees meet monthly, and during the interim, committee members experiment with parts of a project alone or in groups. Then they make progress reports at the monthly meetings.
Just Send Them an E-mail
Of course, CTI’s engineers can’t just fire off an e-mail to villagers asking if a certain design element makes sense. Much of the design has to happen in a vacuum. Still, engineers can get in touch with villagers, even if the process is difficult. “Even 10 or 15 years ago, it was hard to do our work in the Third World because of the paucity of communication,” Humphrys reveals. “Now we can be in contact with people all over the world through cell phones or an Internet café someone might be able to get to.” Still, brainstorming with villagers doesn’t happen with lightning speed. This can lead to design flaws and the need for rejiggering.
Testing the technologies also happens in a vacuum. For instance, all CTI-designed technologies are man-powered. But two retired male engineers who test a product in Minnesota won’t have the same build and stamina as the two school kids in Nicaragua who might use the equipment every day.
“When we test here, we get empirical data, but that doesn’t really tell us anything at all,” Humphrys says. “If we test on-site, though, the community will be so enthralled about having an American bring them a hunk of metal to set up and test that the data will be skewed. Almost all cultures are such that no one wants to report bad news. They think, ‘You’re nice enough to do this for us, so thanks.’ But then it sits in a corner and rusts.”
It’s also difficult to make a test run of the equipment using the exact type of grain villagers grow. CTI food scientists have found workarounds for most foods. They test equipment bound for Africa with a type of sorghum found in the southern U.S. that closely matches African sorghum. They import small amounts of other grains especially for test runs. But sometimes, you can’t get around it; you have to test a product in the field to know whether it’s even worth making.
CTI engineers never really know how a project will turn out or if their equipment can be easily used abroad. They even face shipping challenges. How do you design a simple tool, usually heavy, that can be shipped cheaply and easily? What’s more, to save space, the equipment often has to be disassembled for shipping, then made easy to assemble on the other end. Setup instruction needs to be minimal and easy to follow. Due to the to the language barrier, that instruction needs to be pictorial.
It all sounds daunting, but CTI volunteers feed off such challenges. By conquering them, these motivated engineers make cross-cultural exchanges happen to improve conditions in Third World countries, all from humble beginnings and monthly Saturday-morning meetings in a basement in St.Paul.
For more information on Compatible Technology International, visit www.compatibletechnology.org
Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in St.
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