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University of Illinois Engineering Students Making a Difference in Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa there is great need for an affordable, reliable threshing machine to harvest a new crop in Ghana, soybean. In Africa, soybean is a profitable cash crop, but smallholder farmers must increase soybean yield and improve mechanization to meet growing demand. 

Dr. Kerry Clark, a researcher with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research (Soybean Innovation Lab, SIL) and a University of Missouri soybean specialist, has seen first-hand the struggles smallholder farmers face pulling dry mature plants by hand and then hand threshing to separate the grain from the pods.

The typical method for threshing soybeans in Africa involves laying the whole harvested plant on a tarp (or the ground if a tarp is not available), bundling the tarp, and then beating the bundled soybean plants to remove the seed from the pods (Click here to see a video of hand threshing). The work is difficult and time consuming, the grain losses are high and the resulting grain quality is poor. Poor seed quality leads poor germination, and poor grain quality leads to heavy discounts by buyers.  Low-cost mechanized threshing provides a solution.

Earlier this year (2016) Clark launched a design contest to spur interest in developing a soybean thresher to improve the productivity of smallholder farmers in Northern Ghana.   Currently in Africa mechanized threshers are imported and can be quite expensive, especially when the cost of service, parts and shipping charges are included.

“We hope that bringing inexpensive, locally made threshers to communities will bring about an increase in soybean production and a reduction in the labor that goes into a manual crop harvest. Nutrition will improve for smallholder soybean farmers when they have additional harvest that their families can consume,” said Dr. Clark.

University engineering students from the United States and Africa submitted their designs for a low-cost, mass producible soybean thresher for review. One of the submissions originated with two University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Mechanical Engineering students, Brandon Leung and Austin Hultmark.

“We thought it would be an impactful way to use our major. I like the idea of using my engineering major to solve bigger problems and have more world impact”, said Hultmark.

“We honesty had no idea that it was such a big issue. That they really don’t have the manufacturing capabilities that we do here and they don’t have a machine or tools to mass produce it on a scale to feed an entire community. And so designing and developing something that would work for just a family or for a small community that’s bike powered or gas powered and being very portable is something that could really make an impact, that’s something we were aiming for when we were designing our thresher”, said Leung.

Brandon and Austin learned about the contest from their professor in the class Engineering 498, Investigating Sustainable International Development.

“The class is really unique because it deals with similar issues, designing a service project in Lumbisi, Ecuador. The class is distinct because it’s not just engineering students, it draws students from across the campus, community health, anthropology, urban planning and global studies,” Leung said.

Brandon and Austin, both from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois and seniors in mechanical engineering, admit they knew very little about soybean threshers or mechanical harvesting in general before hearing of the contest.

“We knew nothing. Austin and I reached out to University of Illinois Professor Jeremy Guest letting him know we’re interested in the project, but we really don’t have much experience with threshers and it would be nice if he could connect us with a student,” Leung said.

Dr. Jeremy Guest is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and leads the Soybean Innovation Lab’s environmental research efforts. Dr. Guest’s team works to understand the local, regional and global environmental implications of transitioning to soy in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to use that understanding to inform policies and agricultural decision-making.

“Through Professor Guest, we got in contact with Stephen Swarm, a PhD student in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and he showed us the different types of threshers they had,” Hultmark said.

“They had a small one a big one, one that was on a tractor, and he was showing and teaching us how they worked and we asked him, a few questions like, what’s inefficient about this? What can be improved? So he gave us a couple of ideas. And Austin and I ran with that,” Leung Said.

The contest winners were announced in May 2016. ALMACO, a leading manufacturer of agricultural research equipment out of Nevada, Iowa judged the contest.  Cash Prizes of $750 USD for first place, $500 USD for second place, and $250 USD for third place were awarded to the contest winners. 

Brandon and Austin won third place in the design contest. Ignatius Xenyah Kwaku Awutey, Nathaniel Kwashie-Madjrie, Jeffrey Boakye Appiagyei, and Akendola Frederick Abangba from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana took second place. With the first place winning design to Rashid Mohammed Dinsariga, an engineering student at the University of Development Studies in Tamale, Ghana.

“I think mainly the big thing was just the awareness, many people don’t even know about the issue, so I think just getting that out there is a big thing and I’m sure that there are going to be more designers who are better than us who are willing to set up and design something even better for them,” said Leung.

Using the new designs, the Soybean Innovation Lab with its partner Catholic Relief Services (CRS), will lead an eight-day training program in August 2016 for local blacksmiths to build three threshers, which will be distributed to villages in the Northern Region of Ghana. The Soybean Innovation Lab and Catholic Relief Services are using a train-the-trainer model to enable local blacksmiths and manufacturers to share the knowledge and skills needed to ensure continued production of the threshers locally. This program is part of the Innovation Lab’s effort to build an African threshing network where designs, knowledge, and technology are shared to aid in increasing smallholder farmer productivity.

The eight-day training will be financed by the Feed the Future Ghana Agriculture Technology Transfer (ATT) project and the Agricultural Development and Value Chain Enhancement (ADVANCE) project, funded by USAID as part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and foods security initiative.

For Brandon and Austin, the thresher design contest might be the beginning of using their engineering knowledge to assist with non-profit organizations.

“I still don’t exactly know what I want to do with my major, but even before this contest I wanted to spend a few years after graduation doing some non-profit work, maybe something with the Peace Corps, something along those lines, using my engineering major to kind of solve some problems in developing countries”, said Hultmark.

“I’ve done a couple of internships in the aerospace industry and I’d like to enter that industry when I graduate, but then again after taking this class, this sustainability development class, it’s beginning to be more of a reality that before I go into grad school, maybe take that gap year do something with the Peace Corps or maybe one or two years of joining a non-profit organization and contributing to that cause”, Leung said.

The Soybean Innovation Lab is USAID’s only comprehensive program dedicated to soybean research for development. An international team of tropical soybean experts provides technical support to practitioners tasked with soybean development, including private sector firms, NGOs, extensionists, agronomists and Africa’s National Agricultural Research System.

About Feed the Future:

Feed the Future is the U.S. Governments’ global hunger and food security initiative. With a focus on smallholder farmers, particularly women, Feed the Future supports partner countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur economic growth and trade that increase incomes and reduce hunger, poverty, and undernutrition. For more information, visit