In recent years, farmers in eastern Uganda have had to endure dire conditions that have caused them to lose three to four harvesting seasons in a row. Severe drought in 2007 was followed by several periods of flooding. Large swaths of their land were deforested for political reasons and for providing cooking fuel to sustain the local population.
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The region’s most productive crops, which include cassava, millet, sorghum, and sunflower, are also very time-consuming to produce. Cassava alone requires almost an entire day to make it into the basis for a meal for one family. The work of peeling, crushing, drying and grinding cassava takes a heavy toll on women who already work from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. collecting firewood, water and attending to other household tasks.
Recognizing the agricultural need, Engineers Without Borders USA-Columbia University (EWB-CU)*, which supports community-driven development programs, partnered with a local NGO called Pilgrim to build a Multifunction Energy Platform (MFP). The MFP uses an adapted Lister stationary engine to power numerous agricultural services, including milling, grinding, chopping and pressing. EWB-CU modified the engine to ensure that it could execute multiple functions and also have the capacity to run on biodiesel.
Pilgrim helps internally displaced persons resettle, begin farming again and become self-sufficient. Pilgrim’s Edward Eleazar said that because of the environmental devastation in eastern Uganda, locals there “had nothing. Their life was hopeless.”
With many villages around the town of Soroti not connected to an electricity grid, the MFP brought multiple benefits. Besides the helpful convenience of processing cassava and other crops, the MFP runs a press that turns sunflower into sunflower oil, which in turn can power the engine. Currently, locals prefer to use diesel because sunflower oil fetches a higher price. So they are selling sunflower oil and buying diesel to run the MFP.
The MFP has another important feature: It can be used as a generator, providing electricity for lighting, phone charging and tasks such as welding. One village plans to use their MFP generator to provide electricity for a nearby primary school.
Developments are still at an early stage and progress is slow, as with any new technology. Nonetheless, the prospects are promising. The MFP is capable of producing, for example, 24 bags of cassava in one day. Each bag sells for 80,000 Ush (~$32). This creates an attractive profit even after paying for fuel, which is roughly 14,000 Ush ($6) per day.
EWB-CU and Pilgrim are collaborating with communities to ensure their efforts are self-sustaining. David Oh, Columbia University student and EWB-CU volunteer, explained, “Local mechanics… train community members in the proper operation and repair of the engines, so that the systems can be maintained locally, without excessive reliance on external expertise.”
Eleazar, who knows the region well, said he “saw people work so hard everyday all through the year. People… struggle because they don’t add value to their produce. With MFPs, farmers are now adding value. They sell sunflower oil and also use the waste (sunflower cake) for poultry feed and seeds.”
With the income from MFP-generated products, and the extra time created by the MFP’s agricultural processing help, other benefits become possible. Communities are already brainstorming about how to allocate profits once they occur on a more regular basis. At one group meeting, locals thought of several viable uses, including paying school fees, establishing a drainage system and addressing local food insecurity needs.