Without fail, the most impressive thing Mandela Washington Fellows working in agriculture will say they encountered in the United States is the high-tech machinery on American farms.
When Usman Ali Lawan visited an Oklahoma farm as a Fellow in 2017, he saw a tractor so big his whole 183 centimeter frame could fit in its wheel.
The farmer saw Usman’s awestruck reaction and asked him to guess how much land he and his son could clear in a single day using that tractor. The answer: 121 hectares.
“I’m like, ‘How do you do it?’” says Usman.
Sure, he admits, the tractor was impressive, but 121 hectares is astounding. That is the kind of harvest Usman wants for the farmers he works with at home in Nigeria. But he doesn’t think fancy farming equipment is the answer.
“It’s not just about a lack of resources. It’s also a lack of knowledge.”
Access to information and timesaving mechanization are among the top priorities for Fellows working to improve production for small-scale farmers. Using the resources available, they have been able to find or create the tools that African farmers need.
Information and Communication Technology
While it may not be as flashy as a tractor, a smartphone might prove a much more effective piece of equipment. Kweyu Suleiman Singoro, a 2018 Fellow, wanted to get the disabled farmers supported by his organization, Agrokenya, communicating on one network.
The information-sharing that happens when many farmers are connected over SMS or social media can be significant: Farmers may decide to diversify their crops if they know what other farmers are planting, or they may coordinate harvests so a flood of the same products doesn’t drive down prices.
Kweyu wants his farmers to see how technology can be used to “liberate activities in agriculture” and give them some control over their returns.
If a farming cooperative could pool its resources to invest in a single piece of high-tech equipment, Yao Job Yao, a 2017 Fellow from Côte d’Ivoire, would advise them to get a drone for data collection.
Using drones, Job says, farmers can take high-resolution photos to help them map out their land. From those photos, a farmer can determine what areas of a field need to be fertilized or watered. The photos can also be used to measure acreage, establish boundary lines or plan irrigation systems.
He has heard that farming cooperatives in Ghana have had success using the high-tech tools, but he also understands that cost is a limitation.
“They use the drone for a specific purpose. It is not something they use every day, so we don’t ask the farmers to buy. We ask a cooperative,” he says. “It is an investment for the future.”
Even if a drone is out of reach, Job believes there are more resources available to farmers than most realize.
“What I do every day is train community development workers how to identify the resources that they have to improve the lives of farmers and increase their income,” he says.
2017 Fellow Diana Wendy Atieno Tabuche is an expert at localized resourcing. The young Keny
an engineer doesn’t look further than the farms where she works to build machines that save time and energy.
“The mechanic materials, they are just thrown away. So I design a farm implement, and it is very efficient,” she says.
Diana Wendy’s first invention was a portable electric power cable holder she built from scrap metal, a welding machine and some power cables.
It made her think, “If I continue designing farm implements using local materials, they can actually increase production. And it would be so easy for farmers to access these tools because they would be cheaper [than market-price equipment].”
During her fellowship at Texas Tech University, Diana Wendy got to see some pretty advanced agricultural machinery up close. She took away ideas for how to expand her machines. But it was the network she created and what she experienced in fields outside of agriculture and engineering that opened her mind to what she can build.
Job Yao Yao shares Diana Wendy’s spirit of ingenuity.
“Maybe we don’t have machines, we don’t have big infrastructure, but at least we have our hands,” he says. “We can improve.”