Anyone visiting a West African village will notice the distinctive sight and sound of women pounding food to eat - yams, cassava or rice. As combine harvesters spread across Europe and North America and the green revolution throughout Asia, farming and processing practices in Africa barely changed. Rice mills, such as the one shown below, are the exception, not the rule, in rice-growing countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Does this matter? Not if pounding rice by hand yielded the same quality of rice as milling it - but it doesn't and it's hard work as well. The evidence suggests that African farmers continue pounding by hand because the alternatives are too expensive or simply not available. In some countries, women are actually going back to hand pounding, because their diesel-powered mills broke down or were sold for scrap to fuel a civil war.
There are various programs led by NGOs and the UN trying to change this, based on the belief that agricultural processing technology is essential if farmers want to move beyond subsistence and grow a surplus for sale. However, their efforts are generally uncoordinated, fall well short of what is required and may just hand out the same old technology that is inefficient and breaks down easily.
Now there are two exciting developments in this field. The first is a program sponsored by the Gates Foundation to create 600 agro-enterprises in Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso using multifunctional platforms, essentially a diesel generator to which different machines (rice threshers or mills, peanut shellers and cassava graters) can be attached. It's a traditional grant-based program, but I'm optimistic because Gates is paying for it and they insist on value for money.
The second development - and one I am keen to join - is the spread of social enterprise models using new technology. New technology here means redesigning a product to make it simpler and cheaper: this is the One Laptop per Child model, not the MacBook Air! Typically these enterprises bring together engineers, designers and development practitioners and create some clever, cheap technology. The challenge, as always, is taking it to scale and getting people to pay for it.
There are some great organizations working out there: in the last few months, I have been introduced to the MIT D-Lab, the Extreme Affordability program at Stanford's d.school (d for design), KickStart and Design that Matters. Fortunately for me, Cambridge seems to be a hub for this kind of thing! I have also heard of Engineers without Borders and Practical Action. But nobody has developed a low-cost rice mill yet. Is nobody interested, or am I just not looking hard enough?