Each semester students from the sophomore engineering design course ME 270 use their engineering skills, coupled with creativity, to produce technologies for the betterment of developing nations. This summer, one project made it beyond the design stage and was put to use in Eastern Africa, where it has potential to make a big difference for farmers.
Last spring, Brent Smith and a team of four other ME students designed a seed cleaner, or fanning mill, that would provide clean grain, in less time, and with better working conditions for soybean farmers in lesser developed countries.
The project stemmed from a grant awarded to the Value Added Agriculture Program (VAAP), which operates through Iowa State Extension and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to help farmers establish or expand farmer-initiated, value-added agriculture businesses.
Smith then spent the summer enhancing and tweaking the team’s original design, and eventually the fanning mill made its way to Uganda to be tested, something he says is exciting for him, but more importantly for the people it will help.
VAAP searches for solutions for Ugandan farmers
A partnership between ME 270 and VAAP wasn’t necessarily planned, but it became increasingly important as the program worked through a significant project.
In 2011, VAAP was awarded a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Farmer-to-Farmer program. From there, VAAP representatives began working with a niche group of farmers in the Kamuli district of Uganda.
The program’s co-directors, Margaret Smith and Linda Naeve, traveled to the district to assess the needs of women farmers and also formed a team of female farmers from Iowa willing to volunteer their time and skills. With her past experience as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, Margaret Smith was well prepared for the work that would need to be done in this underdeveloped area.
The team utilized weak link analysis to determine where aid for these farmers would be most effective. One of the biggest concerns to address was that the farmers lacked marketing skills, effective post-harvest handling techniques, and the ability to see the crops for their value.
VAAP assisted the women by creating small business associations among the farms, bringing farmers together to share the cost of transporting grain to better marketplaces and share purchases of farm equipment that would be too expensive for one farmer to purchase alone.
After the Ugandan farmers improved their grain quality with bicycle-powered maize shellers, VAAP increased focus the next year to the farmers’ soybean enterprise. Soybeans proved to grow well and offered another income and food source for farm families in the district. While the crop was doing much good for these farmers, the women expressed struggles with soybean harvesting.
An arduous process, harvesting soybeans requires the women to pull the crop by hand or cut it at the surface of the ground and allow the plants time to dry in the sun, with pods attached. Farmers then separate the soybeans from the pods by tapping them with a stick. Next, they put those beans into a large, shallow basket and winnow them. Traditional winnowing involves throwing a grain mass into the air and allowing the wind to remove the chaff.
Because of a lack of natural air movement in the area, this method does not work well for farmers in the Kamuli district as it requires them to blow on a grain mass while tossing it into the air. This process leads to inhalation of debris, resulting in respiratory problems and allergic reactions in farmers’ eyes and skin.
In need of a solution, VAAP reached out to ME 270.
ME 270 revives an old technology to assist the VAAP initiative
As ME 270 is already programmed to manage projects like VAAP’s, it seemed logical for students in the course to create a seed cleaner that would help the Ugandan farmers.
“The best thing we can teach our students is what an engineer can truly do for society by serving people,” says Jim Heise, a lecturer who teaches ME 270.“Projects like these offer a way for engineers to fight poverty by providing economic opportunity where it already exists.”
Brent Smith and classmates Anne Alter, Nathan Beougher, Jeffery Grenier, and Xingyuan Ma, who are all now entering their third year in ME, christened themselves “Team Clean Machine,” and were eager to design a fanning mill that operated more efficiently and cleanly than the winnowing method.
Their machine has an operator feeding seeds, along with pod, stem, and leaf residue, into the mouth of a hopper located on the top of the device. The seeds then funnel downward while the operator turns a crankshaft. As it turns, the crankshaft runs through the bottom of the hopper, agitating the contents, which fall through a controlled opening via a slider.
A fan, also powered by the crankshaft, blows air onto the falling contents, removing debris from the slider while the heavier beans fall directly into a basket. This version of a fanning mill is similar to many used in agriculture, but simpler and produced at a much lower cost.
After seeing the mill in action, Margaret Smith was so impressed she offered a $350 grant to perfect the design to be implemented in Uganda. Brent Smith accepted the challenge and registered for an independent study course.
“I was already planning on staying in Ames to take summer courses, so it just made sense to continue with this project,” he says. “There was also a great need for this machine in Uganda so I was happy to work on it.”
In August, three women farmers from Iowa—Lori Lang of Vinton, Cindy McCullough of Webster City, and April Hemmes of Hampton—met with him to learn more about the mill before setting out for Uganda to put it to the test.
Volunteers and fanning mill are well received
The group of volunteers, along with Naeve from VAAP, experienced some initial setbacks while traveling. Lang’s flight was delayed a full day, and her luggage containing the hand tools needed to re-construct the fanning mill did not arrive. They had their work cut out for them.
Exhibiting a farmer’s famous ability to improvise, the volunteers found makeshift parts at a local Ugandan hardware store and sought assistance drilling holes from a local construction business.
“It was a good lesson,” says Hemmes, who has been farming for the past 28 years. “We had to learn how to adapt and use what we had to make the fanning mill work. In the end we were able to get it to run smoothly.”
During their time in Uganda, the volunteers visited 10 farms, showing the farmers how the machine worked and gaging interest.
The fanning mill was an instant hit.
Previously, farmers could only clean 100kg, or about four bushels of soybeans, in two days, spending around 16 hours on the process, which comes out to about ¼ bushel per hour. With the fanning mill, the women could process 6.6 bushels each hour.
After seeing how useful the mill could be, the volunteers took it to St. Joseph’s Vocational Center, a local technical school, to show students and staff how it functioned and was constructed. Those at the school will work to re-create the machine using local tools and supplies so it can be made available at a reasonable cost to farmers. Staff and students in Uganda will also be in contact with ME 270 students this year, continuing to provide feedback on potential design improvements.
ME 270 and VAAP look forward to continuing a humanitarian partnership
Projects like this happen each year in ME 270, as Heise continually emphasizes working with organizations like VAAP—groups that are passionate about supporting developing nations as well as advancing the minds of young engineers.
Margaret Smith says a long-standing partnership is something she would fully embrace, and she encourages others to consider the opportunity. “I can’t tell you how much I love the ME 270 course,” she says. “It’s great because it gets young people to start thinking in terms of what they can do with their skill set and training. They may not be designing and creating the most current machine models, but instead are creating new twists on an older design, re-envisioned at a low cost for people who have no access to anything at all—it’s brilliant. This class is brilliant.”