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Re-Designing Africa's Ox-Powered Farm Tools  REMIX 


Buying tractors or the fuel required to power them is far beyond the reach of most African small farmers. At the same time, they are tired from the energy draining attempt to raise their families bey


Raising the productivity of the subsistence farmers not only improves the health and economic position of those families directly affected but also stimulates the development of and infrastructure in tool fabrication, animal husbandry and the search for better seed and plant stocks. Progress to a better future can come only once subsistence needs have been exceeded.

Summary.  Buying tractors or the fuel required to power them is far beyond the reach of most African small farmers.  At the same time, they are tired from the energy draining attempt to raise their families beyond subsistence farming to surplus production with the hand hoe.  Many have oxen or donkeys that can power a quadrupling of production with improved implements,  inputs, and practices.  In the 1960s, Africa missed out on the benefits of the Green Revolution, in part because it did not have the draft animal infrastructure that existed in Asia and Latin America.  Later, the tsetse-fly-carried sleeping sickness of cattle was removed as an obstacle, but the designs of small-scale farm implements available in Africa have not changed significantly in the 40 years that have elapsed. 

Picking up on the "Designing for the World's Poorest" projects at MIT and other institutions, it seems that we can focus outstanding skills on the challenges to Africa's small farmers.  An international network of farmers, agricultural historians, Amish, metal fabricators and machinists could work together digitally and personally to meld historic and contemporary implement design elements in response to challenges from Africa's farm communities for appropriately-scaled,  low-capital farm tools for draft animals.  The productive potential of these re-invented tools could be diffused through local manufacturers and farmer field schools.

Needs Assessment.  African farm production has dropped per capita.  Africa has not enjoyed the agricultural gains in production experienced through the Green Revolution that have in turn funded farm mechanization and tractors in Latin America and in Asia.  Most of Africa did not have a strong indigenous culture of using draft animals since sleeping sickness of cattle (trypanosome) carried by the tsetse fly prevented cattle from being worked effectively until veterinarian breakthroughs in the 1960s.  Through the Sahel, much of East Africa, Southern Africa, Madagascar, oxen and donkeys are now accepted by many small farmers as the most practical means of working fields.  Yet, there has been little investment in re-designing tools to meet the local equipment needs of draft animal farmers.  Even for such basic tasks as planting and weeding, the choice of implements is dismal.

Required Resources.   The needed creativity will emerge from direction and inspiration.  By bringing resources together in a process, we no longer need to wait for the individual inspiration of a John Deere or Cyrus McCormick.  The first resource required is a group of people from the field to detail the need (or opportunity).  This means gathering and surveying farmers in the target farming communities to detail their needs-what is limiting their farm growth.  They can usually quickly point to the seasonal bottlenecks in their abilities to handle the work load. Tillers International and others have done much of this work through field training and evaluations in various regions of Africa.  With a farm-based focus on the tasks that limit expansion of production, we can present these needs-based challenges to resource groups that have knowledge of a wide range of existing options: older American/European farmers, rural historians, Amish farmers, and international extensionists.  Once several relevant models are identified the design inevitably needs to be re-invented to the power of local draft animals and to the construction and maintenance abilities that exist in the target communities.  Tillers International and others have gathered historical tool collections and international examples of options to inspire this process. Several of these are featured in the Michael D. Hluchyj Re-Invention Lab in Tillers' Museum.  Indeed, several Amish implement manufacturers have joined Tillers on recent projects.  Clustering these resources in intensive design sessions with internationally experienced metal fabricators and ag engineers nearly assures creative output.  These design can quickly be put into farm trials in the target communities for testing and verification of appropriateness to the environment and farmer acceptability.   

Commercial viability of manufacturing and marketing will be the long-term benchmark of success.   To acheive commercial viability, innovations must prove attractive to community farmers.  The designs will be built in the field with cooperating rural enterprises.  These will be encouraged to build and market the tools to farmers with micro finance support.  While the design network will not be sustainable without continued contribution support, the implement manufacturers will be encouraged to work from the beginning on an entrepreneurial model.

 Business Case.  This design network is not a business model itself but an innovation process based on a communication framework.  Funding research, design and development from license fees for patents is not yet reliable in these rural markets.  If it were, this research and development could be underwriten by venture capitalists. However, we would be working with local manufacturers throughout the design process to assure that implements would be grounded in local production practicalities.  This would facilitate rapid hand over to manufacturing businesses.  Post development sales revenues of the tools should cover actual manufacturing and marketing costs on a sustainable basis.

Plan and Execution.  Tillers is collaborating with several development agencies in the field where weeding tools could immediately increase yields and reduce women's drudgery.   These include CRS in Northern Uganda and Land O Lakes in Mozambique.  We have recently included local manufacturers in discussions of their needs with Amish and other tool designers here in the US.  Amish designers such as Pioneer Equipment of Ohio, Graber Steel and Hochstetler or Indiana,  or I & J Manufacturing and White Horse of Pennsylvania have incorporated many contemporary design concepts into their equipment.  Their designs are fresh and new.  There is nothing archaic about the new generation of American draft animal implement designs.  However, designs for Africa need to be smaller in scale for lighter draft animals and less expensive.  Our next step would be to convene a "Threshing Floor" in which this talent would break the challenges down, create proto-types, test them, and repeat the process in rapid iterations until several ideas are ready for field testing in Africa.  Tillers staff can then send or carry plans to African small manufacturers, help re-create proto types on site to test the practicality of local manufacture and maintenance.  Given internet communication capabilities, farmer reactions could be back to the "Threshing Floor" panel in a couple of months for refinement and another iteration of improvement based on farmer comment and digital video feedback.  The Africa Rural Connect prize could move the weeding re-design forward significantly and demonstrate the power of this approach to a wider group of funders.   These implement designs would be available to interested agencies to help place in the hands of farmers with whom they work.

Real World Impact.  Nearly a billion people are capable of benefiting from these re-inventions of draft animal implements.  More immediately, Tillers International would itself focus dissemination of these re-designed tools to several thousand farmers in Mozambique, Uganda and a West African country.  To the extent that this project is tuned to the reactions of local African farmers, more effective farm tools will move from lead innovators in communities out to the majority of farmers, especially as micro-credit becomes available.  In the end, we should see some of the production abilities of small farmers in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania morphing into new designs that can transform the small farms of Africa into engines of change.  Small African farms are currently producing yields that are 25 to 33% of those obtained at local experiment stations.  New and more appropriate animal traction tools and practices should increase areas farmed by more than a factor of 2 and increase yields on each of those hectares by nearly double.  Combined these affects can be to quadruple production by a pairing re-designed tools and better associated practices.   

Richard Roosenberg RPCV Benin, 69-72, has also worked in a number of other countries with Tillers International including: Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Togo, Senegal, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.  He believes that Africa has the potential of redefining rural development.  Tillers includes a number of RPCVs in this project including: Brian Webb, Pat Crowley, Lynne Heasley, Clint Bolton, David Kramer, Jan and Ray Ott.  You can learn more about Tillers International at

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