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Mechanized efficiency in a small, transportable package -- Youth innovator helps smallholder farmers reduce postharvest loss for greater food security

Published on December 27, 2017

Stephen Ssekanyo’s “Kungula thresher” fits nicely within his 3- by 2-meter exhibitor’s booth at the East African Farmers Federation Congress. It’s the size of a large wheelbarrow and is easy to transport. Stephen can deliver the mechanized maize thresher to farmers’ fields on the back of a motorcycle. It is innovative because of its size, transportability and efficiency. The machine can thresh and winnow 1,000kg of maize in one hour, using only a liter of fuel. It’s the perfect postharvest tool for smallholder farmers who want clean, ready-to-package maize at a price they can afford, and in the rural locations where they work.

Stephen has sold nearly 50 threshers at a $1,000 a piece since he was a finalist in the East African Postharvest Technology Competition and training program, supported by the USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub (the Hub) from February to May 2017. The Hub also supported Stephen to attend the farmers congress as a means to expand his networks for greater sales. Farmers buy the thresher as a group and transport it from farm to farm, significantly reducing the labor time and cost for all involved. Stephen field-tested his thresher in two districts of central Uganda for an entire year before the competition. He calculated that he reached 624 farmers with just six machines.

The thresher on display at the farmers’ congress is his fourth version. Stephen has been continually adjusting the machine based on farmer feedback. “We haven’t received any complaints about the machine [version 4] in six months,” he said. I think we’ve made all the adjustments needed.” Another USAID project, the Resilient Africa Network, helped Stephen and his team design the original Kungula thresher based on the desires of smallholder farmers and the practicalities of where and how they work.

The impact of the machine on smallholder farmers lives is significant. It reduces postharvest loss and removes hours of laborious hand shelling or “stick beating,” a practice where someone repeatedly whacks a bag of maize cobs with a stick to remove the kernels – a common practice among rural East African farmers who lack access to a mechanized thresher or can’t afford it. Stephen’s clean kernels fetch a higher price from millers and attract less moisture in storage, which directly translates to more income and greater food security for farmers. Unlike many models of mechanized threshers, the Kungula thresher can handle cobs that have a high-moisture level, again, catering to the realities of smallholder farmers who don’t have adequate cob storage or resilience to wait for sale or consumption.

USAID’s Hub supported the postharvest competition and training program to spur the development of innovative technologies that reduce food loss and waste in Africa. Poor postharvest practices currently result in the loss of 60 percent of all food that is produced in Africa. Stephen’s thresher and success in early sales is exactly what USAID wanted as an outcome of the competition – a cadre of young innovators galvanized to find solutions to Africa’s greatest challenges with the motivation and skills to scale up their innovations for regional uptake.