D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellow: Field Notes from Tanzania on the Mutli-Crop Thresher

Elliot Avila, a 2015 D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow received his Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in June 2014. While at MIT, Elliot took multiple D-Lab classes and traveled with D-Lab to India and to Tanzania, where he worked on a bicycle-powered corn sheller and an early version of the Multicrop thresher. He attended the 2014 International Development Design Summit held in Tanzania, where he now lives and works.

Elliot and his team are developing an engine-powered Multicrop Thresher (MCT), a machine that can thresh the crops most common in the developing world (rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, barley). Their MCT improves upon traditional methods by eliminating the need for toilsome labor and greatly decreasing the time required to thresh and at a price that is a fraction of the cost of other modern threshing machinery on the market. 

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Maize production in Babati, Tanzania

A few months ago, I traveled to Babati, Tanzania to talk with farmers about their maize production and threshing methods. In order to develop a mechanized Multicrop Thresher (MCT) finely atuned to the needs of farmers, it has been important for me to carefully identify my target customers and understand the specifics of the environment in which they live and work. My discussions with farmers in Babati offered an interesting glimpse into different scales of farming and approaches to threshing.

The farmers

In Babati, the first farmer with whom I met owned a massive tractor and a maize sheller, easily 10-feet tall and just as wide. He had bought the pair of machines more than 30 years before, and used them solely on his 50-acre maize farm. Mechanization made the scale of his farm possible but the cost of his operation is prohibive to most farmers in the area and he certainly didn't need a technology like the MCT.

In contrast, down the road, I met with a group of mostly male farmers who threshed their maize by beating piles of grain with a stick, usually on dirt without a tarp. Most threshing jobs take several days, so they had formed a small farmers' group to assist each other with their farms. In return for help threshing, they offered payment to each other in the form of a day’s worth of food or liquor. However, these farmers were also unlikely to be my customers—they appeared more likely candidates for a lower-cost bicycle-powered maize sheller or handheld maize-sheller.

An ecosystem of opportunity

A third type of farmer, one that proved a likely beneficiary of the advantages offered by the MCT, lived close by. He was one of the village chairmen and worked two farms, totaling less than five acres, to support his two households. He grew pigeon peas and maize, with his larger farm producing 10 sacks (100 kilograms per sack) that season, all 10 of which would be kept for food rather than sold. During the harvest season, he had multiple resonsibilities around his households and farms, and so preferred to thresh his maize all in one day. To do that, he pays 1,500 Tanzanian shillings per sack, or about 15,000 Tanzanian shillings per year  to a group of maize sheller operators who make the rounds to different farms every season.

While this farmer couln't afford a powerful mechanized sheller himself, the expense of paying someone else with a machine saved him valuble time and effort needed for other aspects of his farming operation. This model, wherein entrepreneurs purchase machines and bring them to different farms to offer threshing services, is the one that I hope to replicate in other villages. 

The operators also benefit—I spoke with an owner of a maize sheller in a different village who charges 1,200 Tanzanian shillings per sack and can shell more than 100 sacks in a day (a quick payback period on purchased machinery if operating at full efficiency).Yet another beneficiary is the supplier, in this case the owner of a local workshop and his employees who produce and sell the shellers for $400, a price that is competitive with imported shellers from Asia.

Successes, challenges, and upcoming opportunities

The conversations I have had with farmers, entrepreneurs, and other innovators are all helping to paint a clearer picture of my target user and the environment in which the MCT will operate. I have also been able to design a machine that hits the specification targets my users care about the most: the MCT will sell for about 1.1 million Tanzanian shillings (about $500), uses a liter per hour of fuel, and can shell or thresh 10 100 kilogram sacks of grain per hour. Establishing financing will be important as well: my target customers prefer to make a down-payment up front and pay off the rest later.

Perhaps most exciting are the new opportunities that are presenting themselves. Through travel and conversation I’ve discovered interest in the MCT in Uganda and Rwanda, and connected with smallholder farmers growing barley for breweries, potential start-up collaborators, and others.

Over the next month and a half, my primary focus will be reaching even more people through visits to different communities and an upcoming agricultural fair. With any luck, I’ll resolve some of my questions and challenges and begin uncovering an even more complete profile of the MCT and its users.

2015 D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Elliot Avila.
2015 D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Elliot Avila.
Elliot (left) works on the Multicrop Thresher with a colleague.
Elliot (left) works on the Multicrop Thresher with a colleague.
Threshing maize.
Threshing maize.
The Multicrop Thresher atop a mound of maize.
The Multicrop Thresher atop a mound of maize.