Monday, June 27, 2011

Rescuing the Lost Crops of Africa

For the second time in just three years, we are facing a global food crisis as a result of rapidly rising food prices. In developing countries, where individuals often spend half of their income on food, record high food prices have pushed 44 million people into extreme poverty and hunger since June of 2010. As the world’s population grows, spikes in food prices are expected to continue, and important safety nets such as emergency food aid will not be able to keep up.

CTI is committed to creating inventive, sustainable solutions to address these challenges. Simply growing more food is not enough—not when between 15-50% of crops are lost after harvest, often due to post-harvest spoilage and inefficient processing methods.

In our Saint Paul workshop, CTI’s engineers have developed a prototype grain processing system that significantly reduces post-harvest losses, essentially doubling the amount of pearl millet grain farmers can produce. Though we are thrilled with the results, gaining access to pearl millet grain for testing prototypes has been a challenge. Pearl millet may feed 500 million people in Africa and Asia, but you won’t find freshly harvested pearl millet to test in Minnesota. While some grain stocks have been made available from generous donors such as USDA in Georgia, without ready access to pearl millet and other African crops, CTI’s engineers often have to send even initial prototypes oversees for testing during harvest seasons — a costly, slow process and a barrier to innovation.

The Lost Crops of Africa project is a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota (UMN) to grow seven African crops on one acre of land at UMN’s Saint Paul campus. With assistance from Professor Paul Porter and student assistant Tiffanie Stone, CTI will grow tef, finger millet, sorghum, fonio, pearl millet, grain amaranth, and groundnuts for processing. Although these crops are often unheard of by those living in more developed countries, they are commonly grown in different parts of Africa, where millions of people depend on them for their daily sustenance.

CTI will use the harvested African crops to develop and test post-harvest farming devices and tools for subsistence farmers. Growing the crops so close to home will allow our engineers to more easily refine new equipment to suit a particular crop. This way, when CTI brings new prototypes to Africa, we can minimize last minute “surprises” and reduce the time needed to reach user-acceptable solutions. Ultimately, this means CTI will be able to deliver more appropriate technologies faster and at a lower cost to our donors and our end-users.

In addition to the one acre plot of land, UMN has generously provided a student assistant to help oversee the Lost Crops of Africa program. Tiffanie Stone is studying Applied Plant Science and International Agriculture at UMN. Tiffanie will be contributing to CTI’s blog, where she’ll write updates on the challenges and triumphs that are thrown our way.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

International Day of the African Child

By Andrea Brovold, CTI Program Manager

Today is International Day of the African Child, a day commemorated every year on June 16, when in 1991 thousands of South African children marched and hundreds died in Soweto demanding the right to be taught in their own language. This year, on the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, the African Union is calling attention to the 30 million “street children” who live across the continent.

Westerners who have traveled to developing countries have probably encountered child beggars on the streets. "Street Kids" are plentiful in Senegal and Mali, around every corner you turn. These children end up on the streets because they were never given a chance for a childhood or an education. Some street kids are recruited by terrorist organizations; they are required to bring back 50 CFA daily, and if they don't bring back their daily allotment, they are beaten.

Since returning from West Africa this past winter, these are the beautiful faces both haunt me and push me to do the work we do at Compatible Technology International. Though many of Africa’s children are born into poverty, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have every opportunity to flourish.

While providing grinder training in Senegal last November, I met Roykia, a bright eyed energetic 11 year old girl. Though many of the other villagers were hesitant to use what must have looked like an odd, foreign machine, Roykia jumped right in and instructed the others, “We want finer flour, tighten the wing nut!” The grinder in that village is now used daily, allowing women to easily produce fine flour and peanut paste. The women are able to grind in 5 minutes what would have taken them traditionally in a mortar and pestle 45 minutes. Roykia’s community now have the opportunity to spend their free time and extra income pursuing educations or starting businesses—all because of the initiative of an 11 year old girl. I look forward to returning to her community on behalf of NCBA/USAID again this winter to continue our efforts in West Africa.

When you think of African children, it would be easy to conjure images of desperate, malnourished children with swollen bellies—the images we’ve all seen on television. But on this day, I will remember the beautiful, strong, determined children who should be proud to be Africa’s future.

Friday, June 10, 2011

CTI team in Haiti finds extensive E. coli contamination in water samples

By Sam Usem, CTI Volunteer, Haiti

Over the last three days here in Cap-Haitien we have been testing the “Water Aqualyser”, a prototype water treatment device that CTI volunteers from the University of St. Thomas have spent the last year creating. After finding positive results of E. coli in 10 of 15 samples of well water, we decided to test the worst cases using our device. The town of Cap-Haitien, located in North Haiti, is facing high E.coli contamination, making it an ideal location for conducting proof-of-concept tests. 

We gathered contaminated water into a 5 gallon bucket and added 5 grams of salt. The Water Aqualyser uses electrolyzed metal plates to convert the salt into chlorine, which kills bacteria and harmful pathogens commonly present in untreated drinking water water. Today, we tested 4 different plate set-ups and tomorrow we will test the salt concentration. The goal is identify a design which will be low cost and require minimal operation time. The samples that have been run through the Water Aqualyser prototype will go into an incubator and be analyzed by the team. Field testing has allowed the team to ask locals about the device and how they believe it may be received.

The CTI team uses pedal power to run the Water Aqualyser Prototype
One of the most important pieces of the project is to gain user feedback from Haitian communities. In the North of Haiti most people drink ground water accessed by hand pumps. The hand pumps are plentiful, and at first look the water appears clean, so the communities have no qualms drinking the water. Here it is evident that the Aqualyser unit will have to be retrofit to the pump itself. In other places in the world we will have to design the unit around local lifestyles on order to ensure that the technology is truly compatible.

Today, the team is testing a hand pump that is used within a school community in Limonade. Of all of the samples we took, this pump produced the most badly contaminated water. It contained the over 100 colonies of E. coli as well as over 100 colonies of other bacteria. The ground water around the pump was also highly contaminated. Small children were drinking this water not knowing what harmful bacteria they were putting into their bodies.

Throughout our time here, the team will continue to test sites that were highly contaminated and gain user feedback. Look back to the blog next and soon for a final report.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CTI tests Water Aqualyser prototype in Haiti

By Sam Usem, CTI Volunteer, Haiti

Over 1 billion people on the planet lack access to clean water. Furthermore, they lack access to the means to create clean water systems. CTI and senior engineering students at the University of St. Thomas have created a new prototype device that can hopefully purify 5 gallons of water in less than 20 minutes. The device, or "Water Aqualyser" as it is known, sends an electrical current through salted water, converting the salt into chlorine that kills bacteria. The device has worked in Minnesota flawlessly but now it is time for testing in the field.

CTI volunteers test well water for bacteria in Haiti
Two volunteers from CTI, Dr. Murali and Sam Usem, have accompanied 3 students from the University of St. Thomas to Cap-Haitian in the North of Haiti to test the Water Aqualyser in local communities. They are being helped by the Haitian nonprofit Sonje Ayiti and the Texas-based nonprofit Living Waters International to identify contaminated wells that are being used on a daily basis. The group arrived to Haiti on June 5th and is already hard at work testing and identifying contaminated wells that they can test the new equipment on.

The team has tested 24 well sites, and already found signs of that bacteria and E coli are present. In the next few days the team will start to test the Water Aqualyser equipment under different parameters to try to cut down the time needed to purify the water. The end goal is a system that costs less than $50 dollars and takes less than 20 minutes to purify 5 gallons of water. More importantly, we are trying to development technologies that are appropriate and thus will be used by the local populations, so the team has been taking extensive notes with the local population on what has and has not worked in the past. As the unit is tested they will have local Haitians try the unit out themselves and give user feedback.

Now that the wells have been found, testing of the equipment itself begins tomorrow, so check back soon for more updates from the field.