Neal St. Anthony
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Two subsistence farmers in Senegal in West Africa, Dibor and Sophie, and dozens of others, are improving their product, their productivity and the economy of their families and country thanks to an improved thresher developed by St. Paul-based Compatible Technology International (CTI).

This is the time-tested nonprofit fueled partly by retired Minnesota engineers, businesspeople and educators who have developed simple, economical clean-water and food-processing systems for use and manufacture in Central American and African countries.

It’s sturdy, appropriate, portable technology designed for and with the people who use it.

Following several years of CTI product development with local farmers, the U.S. Agency for International Development recently awarded CTI a $2.2 million multiyear grant to work with Senegalese co-ops, farmers and others to spread the technology, which can be manufactured and maintained in country.

This is the largest investment ever in CTI, which has annual revenue of about $700,000, mostly from supportive donors.

The thresher, which costs only $400 to manufacture, can reduce by 90 percent the 12 hours a day that women work during the post-harvest months of December through March to pound harvested millet with a mortar and pestle and sort the grain from other plant material. It is increasingly being recognized in the low-income country of 15 million people as a way to provide more nutrition for the family as well as food for market with a lot less effort.

“Right now, we’re seeing women dance [for joy],” said a Senegalese farm wife in a CTI video. “We’re seeing women set up businesses. We’re seeing women with smiles on their faces, knowing that, ‘I’m going to be able to do something else with the rest of my day.’ ”

CTI’s thresher means Dibor spends far less time on the task and produces much more whole grain that is more nutritious and spoils less easily.

CTI and local partners are also providing Dibor with access to technology and training. Dibor is part of a network of 800 women who collectively package, label, market and sell their millet products in their local market. And they also produce more grain in bulk for sale to larger food processors.

The USAID grant is significant because CTI has produced various iterations of the thresher over the years with limited success.

It now has the capital for a market-based manufacturing, farmer-finance, marketing and distribution plan that it estimates will improve the household nutrition and economies of tens of thousands of families with a sustainable technology.

“This is a game-changer in Senegal,” said CTI Executive Director Alexandra Spieldoch. “It’s very exciting because this [mechanical] unit is much faster and portable. We have been improving this unit, based on farmer feedback and reducing the price as we go along.

“We will spend about four years working with farmers, who will be the spokespeople and marketers. This is what they wanted and needed. There is power in providing women farmers and young adults with access to tools and training and opening up new doors for economic opportunity.”

The national agricultural extension agency in Senegal is helping identify early-target villages and working on promotion. Pene et Fils, a Senegalese manufacturer, is making product and providing post-sales product support. Jaboot, a national food processing company which makes millet products and provides a market for grain, is a growing buyer for smallholder farmers of up to several acres. And women’s groups and seed producers are engaged.

This should help make Senegal a better-fed, more-prosperous country. It is a new area of women-centered economic growth. And it also bolsters the image of America as a supportive investor in the food-insecure region of West Africa.

There are 230,000 farmers of nutritious millet in Senegal and about 4 million in all of West Africa.

The thresher was first developed in 2010 by CTI volunteers Mounir Njah, a mechanical engineer, and Rolfe Leary, an agricultural scientist.

Other key players over the years included Don Jacobson, CTI’s lead technology coordinator and a former General Mills scientist; Vern Cardwell, a retired agronomist from the University of Minnesota; and Vang Xiong, a mechanical engineer at the University of St. Thomas. Industrial designer Marius Quintana also helped develop a safer, easier-to-use machine. Cargill, General Mills and Thomson Reuters have provided technical assistance or cash.

I first wrote about CTI 30 years ago, then operating out of a Richfield church basement. The story keeps getting better.

More information is at compatibletechnology.org.