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Expert Interview Series: Wesley Meier About Using Engineering Skills to Help Those in Need

Using engineering skills

Engineers and architects have the opportunity to help populations not only in their own communities, but also around the world.

“As technical professionals, we have a very practical skill and ability to make a tangible difference in the lives of so many,” says Wesley Meier, program director for Compatible Technology International (CTI), a nonprofit that helps create and distribute tools to developing countries.

In the U.S., professionals in these fields receive excellent education and are trained to solve problems with the work they do on a daily basis. “If we were to channel just a small portion of these learned skills to those living in need, we could have even greater impact in the world,” Wesley says.

We recently checked in with Wesley to find out about CTI and the projects they’ve been involved with, and learn more about some of the engineering and design needs of poorer populations around the globe. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us about Compatible Technology International. What is your mission?

Compatible Technology International (CTI) is a nonprofit organization headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. We design and distribute innovative tools that help families in the developing world rise above hunger and poverty. We were founded in 1981 in St. Paul by engineers and researchers who wanted to use their expertise to improve the lives of small farmers in developing countries.

Our tools are created in direct collaboration with rural small farmers, who live on roughly one to two hectares of land. These farmers have scarce resources to help them access safe water as well as harvest, process, and market their crops. We deliver our tools through our offices and partners across the globe to help rural communities increase their production of nutritious food, improve their access to markets, and elevate their economic standing.

Why are you so passionate about helping farmers in developing countries?

My passion for engineering in developing countries started my senior year of college, where I worked on a team to design a water value for a rural community in Mali, Africa. After the semester ended, I had the opportunity to travel to Mali to implement the design. This trip opened my eyes to the impact that I can have as an engineer, specifically in emerging economies.

Soon after this trip, I signed up and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. For two years, I worked hand-in-hand with farmers designing tools to make their lives better. Upon returning to the U.S., I started working for CTI, where I am able to put my engineering skills to use creating new tools for farmers in the developing world.

What sorts of work have you done for/with the farmers?

We innovate new technologies in close collaboration with farmers through every step of the design process, starting by listening to rural communities – and to women in particular – to understand their concerns, their needs and their culture. Our global design team researches existing technologies and collaborates directly with farmers to develop new innovations that are rugged, affordable and easy to operate and maintain.

Currently, we are working closely with farmers and researchers in Malawi to develop mechanized tools to help small farmers improve their production of peanuts. We first interviewed hundreds of farmers to learn about the challenges they face producing groundnuts and struggling to feed their families. Farmers universally expressed frustration with harvesting, stripping and shelling – operations that are usually done by women using little more than rudimentary hand tools. With direct input from farmers, we designed and field-tested an oxen-powered lifter to harvest groundnuts, a stripper to remove the pods from the roots and a hand-cranked sheller. Together, the prototypes process peanuts at least 10 times faster than traditional methods.

With less drudgery, more productivity and better quality nuts, famers can access new markets, increase their incomes and strengthen local food security.

In 2016, we are developing models for improving farmers’ access to markets using the groundnut tools as a catalyst. CTI will deploy the tools to farmer organizations in Malawi and Mozambique, impacting 2,000 to 3,000 farmers. CTI and partners will assess the social and economic impact of the tools and how they fit into the current groundnut market, laying the groundwork for scaled distribution to farmers in East Africa and beyond.

We also deliver technologies we’ve designed and/or vetted through direct sales to small farmers, small enterprises, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community cooperatives based in the developing world.

CTI’s tools are distributed from its offices in the U.S., Senegal and Nicaragua, and through direct sales to individuals, farmers’ associations and NGOs. Whenever possible, we train in-country partners to build local capacity for high-quality manufacturing and distribution.

Recognizing that giveaways often result in adverse consequences, and that our solutions are only useful if there’s a real demand, we offer our tools at an affordable rate; and with each sale, we help farmers access financing, business training and ongoing technical support.

In Nicaragua, we promote and install water chlorination systems for rural communities, and are currently providing safe water for more than 350,000 people in over 600 villages. In sub-Saharan Africa, we concentrate on helping communities access post-harvest tools for threshing grain and grinding high-value flour and nut butter.

From our office in Senegal, CTI’s staff organizes demonstrations, makes sales, and provides training and business support to farmers and entrepreneurs. We are currently working with a Senegalese agricultural technology fabricator to develop local capacity for manufacturing and distribution of our technologies.

What is the impact of the engineering resources you provide to farmers? How does it affect their lives?

With the exception of the water chlorinator, most of CTI’s technologies address post-harvest activities, when farmers are faced with a short window of time to process, store and prepare their crops for home consumption or market sale. Millions of small farmers continue to depend on rudimentary tools – such as hand hoes and mortars and pestles – to harvest and process their crops. The inefficiency of these tools contributes to food loss and limits their ability to produce high-quality crops with potential for market sale.

Post-harvest handling and processing tools, including technologies that could help these farmers lift, thresh, winnow and grind food more efficiently and dry and store it effectively, are a missing link. Though large-scale technologies are available in some urban centers, small farmers are most in need of hand-operated or small, motorized options that are portable and affordable.

Tools carefully tailored to meet the specific needs of small farmers – and that are designed for use in circumstances in which electricity and other infrastructure are limited – enable them to increase production, reduce loss and deliver high-quality food to market. They also greatly alleviate the burden on women, who are responsible for the bulk of food processing and preparation activities.

How has this work impacted your life and the lives other CTI volunteers? What lessons have you learned?

My work and travel in rural areas, specifically in developing countries, have opened my eyes to the basic needs and standard levels that people are living with. This has humbled and affected my appreciation for the privilege that I have been given being born and raised in the United States.

All of the staff and volunteers at CTI work closely with our in-country staff to design tools that are appropriate for the target beneficiary. With this diverse team, we are challenged with our communication, but focus on the many skills that everyone brings to the table. In the U.S., we have experience with farm tools that work effectively and could also be modified to work in-country or specifically in Senegal.

Our Senegalese team has a great understanding of local manufacturing and local design constraints. Working as a team, we are able to bring all of these skills together to design an appropriate tool.

What have you found are the biggest needs of the people you serve from an engineering perspective?

Throughout our work, we have found that there is a lot of need for time- and labor-saving devices, specifically among smallholder farmers. Farmers are spending a lot of their time and energy processing the crops that they grow. Fairly simple devices can be designed to cut the processing time and potentially improve the quality of the goods. We have also found that to effectively implement these tools in the hands of farmers, the tools need to have an ability to generate income to pay off the cost of the tool as well as any associated operating costs. All of CTI’s designs are created with these basic needs in mind.

What are some other ways engineering professionals can help those in need?

There are a lot of great engineering organizations in the world which link up qualified engineers with already defined needs in developing countries. Many of these organizations have both long-term positions in the country that they are helping, as well as shorter-term support based in the U.S. No matter the project, it is critical that there is support in-country to facilitate the product or service that is created.

Most of these organizations manage this facilitation while using engineering expertise. Engineers for Change is an example of a networking organization that sources new ideas and posts them in a database for all to view and learn, as well as listing volunteer and paid engineering opportunities.

What innovations or tools are you most excited to have been involved with creating?

I am the most excited to be involved with the design of our millet thresher. Pearl millet is a staple crop traditionally grown throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and it can be cultivated in low nutrient and low rainfall areas. Although this hearty crop has been grown and harvested for over a hundred years, the traditional processing methods consist of a mortar and pestle, which are very laborious and time consuming. CTI has been working in Senegal for several years designing a hand-operated device that would strip the seed off of the panicle, thresh the seed to remove the glume, and separate the chaff from the clean grain. Many challenges have made this tool very difficult to design, but our team was finally able to effectively process the millet in one fluid process with our hand-operated device.

Hand operation is extremely critical in the rural areas that we work in as there is rarely electricity, and gas engines are expensive to operate. Hand-operated tools allow all farmers to work without additional costs to processing while also empowering the creation of micro-business opportunities.

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