David Wilson, John Lumkes 2017-06-28 00:35:55
A simple vehicle can revolutionize farming in the developing world Editor’s note: A report on Purdue’s student design projects in Africa appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Resource. In this article, ASABE member John Lumkes, who helped establish the Cameroon partnership, and ASABE member David Wilson, a former Purdue student and co-founder of a company that grew out of the partnership, provide an update. David Wilson recalls his first trip to Ethiopia: "From the road, we weaved our way around fields and over irrigation ditches. After ducking through a row of trees, we came upon freshly tilled soil. Walking down the middle of the field, plowing a row between the dark brown earth and the lush green grass, was a team of laborers: a man and a pair of oxen. We crossed the field and met the farmer as he brought the oxen to a halt at the end of the row. The oxen rested as conversation began with greetings in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. Not understanding the language, I observed and moved around to get some pictures. “There was the farmer in his polo, dress pants, and bare feet, speaking passionately about farming. There were the oxen: powerful creatures, but requiring regular food and rest. And there was the plow, dirt still plastered to its single blade and its wooden handle acting as a support for its owner. The irony was that I had seen a tool just like it the day before, but that one was enclosed in glass on the third floor of the National Museum of Ethiopia, the same museum that holds the fossilized fragments of AL 288-1 (a 3.2 million year old skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis), more commonly known as Lucy. “Later, I was told that the farmer was asserting the importance of Ethiopian farmers mechanizing their agriculture. Everyone knows that mechanization is necessary for small farmers to rise out of poverty in Africa. The extension agent and the businessman I was with knew it. The faculty at nearby Arsi University knew it. The foreign donor and Ethiopian government agencies we visited knew it. We all know that mechanization is needed, and we’ve known for decades. So, why was this farmer still using the same technology that was used thousands of years ago? “Plowing is not the only operation that’s still done manually. Planting and harvesting are also done by hand. Threshing, separation, and winnowing are done by hand or with the assistance of animals. Transporting crops is done by foot or cart. The limited number of middlemen with trucks means that farmers are pressured to sell to the middlemen at very low prices, or they must spend much of their hard-earned cash on transportation to markets. My encounter with that Ethiopian farmer is an example of the broader mechanization problem in Africa. There are tractors and even some big-name dealerships, but very little support for small-scale farmers, who are the largest group of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Often, imported tractors are not well supported with replacement parts or skilled maintenance and repair. Given the average farm size and income, most tractors and transport vehicles are too big and too expensive.” John Lumkes recalls the first Cameroon trip: “The challenges that David cites were the considerations of the African Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (ACREST), a non-governmental organization in western Cameroon, back in 2008 when they contacted me about designing appropriate, locally fabricated vehicles for rural transportation. Little did I know the sequence of events that would result from a simple meeting about offering a capstone design project to our agricultural engineering seniors to address this challenge. During the fall 2008 semester, I had eight students (agricultural engineering and agricultural systems management majors) sign up for the capstone project, and soon we were Skyping with our partner in Cameroon. None of us had any experience in Africa, and our discussions were eyeopening, but we were excited about working closely with an international partner who really wanted to find solutions. “Fast forwarding to early 2009, our partner invited us to visit Cameroon. I traveled with four students in May 2009. It would be an understatement to say that it was a transformational experience for each of us. I returned with a notebook full of ideas, new friendships in Cameroon, and excitement to get more students engaged in international co-design experiences. Since that initial trip, we’ve traveled every year to the same location in Cameroon, where we are building and testing affordable transportation options as well as renewable energy projects, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass briquettes. “Our most mature product is the AgRover, a three-wheel, multipurpose utility vehicle. The AgRover can transport up to 2,000 pounds on or off road at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. Not only can the vehicle be used for transportation, it can also power attachments like water pumps, food processors, and threshing machines, and it can pull small field implements like two-row planters and cultivators. Unlike imported tractors, the AgRover is made in-country using only locally available parts, so repairs and maintenance are easier and affordable. “If the story ended here, I would still count it as an amazing opportunity to see hundreds of Purdue students, representing the colleges of agriculture, engineering, liberal arts, and technology, get engaged in global design teams. Fortunately, this is only the beginning, and a group of alumni from this project (now called the Purdue Utility Project, or PUP team) have formed a company to pursue scale-up and broader dissemination. This has always been a challenge of global service learning—how to increase the scale and impact beyond the local partnership. “David Wilson, a co-founder of the company, is one of the PUP alumni. David joined the team in his sophomore year (2010-2011) as an agricultural engineering student and worked on an alternative front suspension for the vehicle. In his junior year, he worked closely with the senior capstone students, he was a team leader during his senior year using the project for his capstone credit, and then he was instrumental as a graduate student helping me manage the project— while working on a multigrain thresher for smallholder farmers for his own research. I have also had the opportunity to work with other team alumni and partner with universities in Guinea and Uganda to build AgRovers. To date, we have AgRovers operating in Cameroon, Guinea, Kenya, Uganda, and now Nigeria.” Wilson tells how the company got started: “As the end of 2015 approached, we knew that we had developed a robust and versatile technology with the potential for high impact. With growing confidence in the design and a passion for improving lives, several other students and I applied for funding and wrote a business plan for a company called Mobile Agricultural Power Solutions (MAPS), focused on bringing the AgRover to market in developing countries. “Over the next year, that humble dream became a reality. I spent half of that time traveling (seven out of fourteen months), mostly in Africa building partnership and prototypes, but also in Europe to events like the Thought For Food Summit in Zürich (MAPS was a runner-up in the student competition) and the Siemens Stiftung Empowering People Award Ceremony and Workshop in Berlin (MAPS was a finalist). In Kenya, I built an AgRover with students at a small school, and in Ethiopia I learned about agricultural practices and explored partnership opportunities for manufacturing the AgRover. The main focus of MAPS has been Nigeria, where more than 90% of agricultural output is from farms smaller than 2 ha and where there are 40.6 million farms smaller than 6 ha. “In the fall of 2016, MAPS partnered with the Institute for Industrial Technology in Lagos, Nigeria, to begin fabricating an AgRover, the first in that country. By February 2017, we had hired four of the graduating students and transitioned to our own basic workshop in a warehouse. The first vehicle was finished, tested, and put to work on a palm oil farm, where it has been working since. Five more vehicles are underway. The goal of this first stage is to demonstrate the viability of the product to customers and to test the market with early sales and renting of the AgRover. “Right now, we are in the process of reducing the cost of production, navigating the maze of supply logistics, and seeking funding for scale-up, including investment. Our goal is to see the AgRover all over the rural roads of Africa, transforming the lives of smallholder farmers, but we aren’t limiting ourselves to one product. We will provide attachments and implements to go with the AgRover. In addition, we will continue to work with Purdue University to implement new appropriate technologies that are developed by John and the PUP team.” Lumkes explains the next steps: “Beyond the excitement of seeing PUP alumni form a company to build the AgRover, a product that they played a key role in developing as students, I also see an amazing win-win-win for Purdue, MAPS, and the customers (smallholder farmer and rural businesses). As I continue to mentor students on the PUP team, I see their excitement when they realize that they are part of something bigger, and seeing a path to commercialization for their projects energizes the students. Building, selling, and servicing AgRovers in Nigeria is giving our students valuable feedback about useful designs, available resources, customer needs, local prices, and other real-world concerns. “The end-users have a voice in the development of new products by the current team. Their feedback and their wish lists are leading to new ideas. For example, the current PUP team has been developing a smaller ‘mini AgRover’ suitable for individual farmers, testing an electric driveline for locations with off-peak excess electricity (specifically, a micro-hydroelectric system in Cameroon), developing a fire fighting module that fits in the bed of the AgRover, and testing and developing implements such as water pumps, maize grinders, light tillage components, and more. These projects are the result of international partnerships between MAPS and its customers. Instead of wondering what to do next, our team’s challenge is deciding what we must say ‘no’ to until a later semester! “Most important, the collaboration between the PUP team and MAPS means that useful technologies like the AgRover can actually benefit people, rather than collect dust in the lab. Farmers like the one David met in Ethiopia can have access to affordable and appropriate mechanization, so that they can reduce the drudgery of manual farming practices, improve their productivity, and increase their family income.” ASABE member David Wilson, Co-founder, Mobile Agricultural Power Solutions (MAPS), and Undergraduate Teaching Lab Manager, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., USA, email@example.com. ASABE member John H. Lumkes Jr., P.E., Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., USA, firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the Purdue Utility Project (PUP) at www.engineering.purdue.edu/pup and Mobile Agricultural Power Solutions (MAPS) at www.mobileAGpower.com. As an undergraduate, David Wilson appeared in DISCOVER (Resource, November/December 2012), available at http://www.asabe.org/media/222722/resource19-06novdec2012.pdf.
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