Tools trialled to curb post-harvest millet loss

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Copyright: Flickr/Gates Foundation

Speed read

  • Smallholders lose up to a fifth of their millet and sorghum grain after harvest
  • New hand-operated devices including a stripper and thresher will aim to tackle this loss
  • The hope is that intensive labour for women will also be reduced

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New tools for processing pearl millet are to be sent for testing in Senegal as part of a project which has just received a US$100,000 grant.

Pearl millet — the most widely grown type of millet — and sorghum make up three-quarters of the calories eaten by people in low-income households in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But few technologies have been developed to reduce the drudgery and time involved in harvesting and processing the crops — particularly for women, who do most of the labour — says Alesha Black, a programme officer at the Gates Foundation, which awarded the grant.

The set of four tools — a stripper, thresher, winnower and grinder — will be sent to 10–25 villages in Senegal. They will be assessed during the year-long pilot project to test whether they help farmers to increase the yield and quality of grain, and whether the work is less time consuming.

The processing of pearl millet grains after harvesting involves separating the grain from the chaff by hand, and then grinding in a mortar and pestle. It is hoped that the project — one of 20 to receive a 'Labour Saving Innovations for Women Smallholder Farmers' grant — will free women from their daily routine, and provide extra income from the sale of surplus grain. 

“After an hour of using traditional methods, a group of women can produce six kilograms of grain. With this processing suite, they can produce 45 to 60 kilograms.”

Alexandra Spieldoch

The organisation behind the tools, Compatible Technology International (CTI), conducted initial field trials of the tools in Mali and Senegal in 2009 and 2010. "We received very positive feedback from farmers," Alexandra Spieldoch, interim executive director of CTI, tells SciDev.Net.

"Our suite of technologies is about ten times more productive than [existing tools], in terms of the increase in yield, the reduction in time, and the improved grain quality. After an hour of using traditional methods, a group of women can produce six kilograms of grain. With CTI's grain processing suite, they can produce 45 to 60 kilograms."

The technology has been designed by a group of volunteer food science engineers and agronomists. "The tools do not require much maintenance and are designed to be durable," says Spieldoch. "The parts are basic, but we will provide training and technical support alongside distribution."

US$4 billion worth of grain is lost after harvest each year throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, with CTI estimating that farmers lose 15 to 50 per cent using traditional processing methods. The grant will also help CTI generate data to better understand the extent of losses in yield and quality.

Black says that similar innovations must be supported by business models which ensure that women can access and fund the purchase of new tools. "We're always excited about new technology, and how to make existing technology more effective, but we are also looking at how to improve women's access to these products."

The tools are currently manufactured in China, but CTI hopes that the project will allow them to commercialise the product, with a view to manufacturing in Africa.