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September 2003

Feature

 


Necessity, the mother of invention

Menkee Wolder Kiross and his water pump. Picture copyright IRIN.Menker Wolde Kiross is an inventor. His inspiration, he says perhaps surprisingly, comes from the impoverished rural farmers of Ethiopia - currently struggling against an unprecedented famine.

But it is not their stoicism in the face of hardship or their continual fight against the unpredictable elements that inspires the 58-year-old. It is the skills they have developed and fine-tuned over centuries, in creating and using workable small-scale farm equipment that, he says, guide his work.

"It is amazing how clever and inventive the farmers are," said Menker. "It is remarkable how they produce things with what little equipment they have."

Self reliance

Menker believes there is great potential in developing effective farm equipment in the country - particularly when the government's growth policy is agriculture-led.

He also says the work is gratifying. "We are tied of starving," he adds from his shop in Addis Ababa, where his farm equipment is produced. "We need to invest in our own creativity, rely on our skills if we are going to break the cycle of dependency. We must take risks and believe in what we can achieve."

But while Menker is optimistic about the country's future growth, he says he - like many investors and development specialists - remains downtrodden. Little investment flows into research and development in Ethiopia and cautious overseas investors are wary about their returns.

Menker, the former head of rural technology at the ministry of agriculture, says even ideas crucial for the drought-prone Ethiopia often receive little outside investment.

The latest and potential bestseller is a foot-driven water pump, which cost around US $1,000 to develop. The original idea was based on a design from Kenya that Menker modified.

Many of the ideas developed at his workshop are based on technology from other African countries which he then adapts to suit an Ethiopian market.

But despite widespread interest and good sales, few international organisations have shown an interest in funding its development or the original prototype.

The pump draws water from depths of 7 metres and pumps over 9 metres high, providing about one litre per second and can water around a hectare a day. It costs US $130.

"This is a very simply piece of equipment with almost no moving parts or nuts and bolts which means the farmers themselves can maintain it," says Menker, who with four other people, owns Mamjad Engineering in the capital.

"This is really very useful particularly with the current water harvesting drive by the government - it's also clean and economical, no climbing into wells to bring the water out in buckets."

Menker and his team - he employs around 30 people - are currently building a mobile sprinkler that works with the pump so farmers can walk and irrigate their land.

Among his customers are the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which has bought 200 of the pumps for a project in drought-hit Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

Hurdles

Although he recognises that most individual farmers could not afford pumps - collectively the equipment is affordable.

"The problem with any new technology or equipment that improves productivity is that it is unaffordable," he says. "Farmers need to buy collectively or get support from the government or donors, basically they need encouragement to see how new technology can help."

According to the United Nations opportunities for investing in businesses in Africa generally, and Ethiopia in particular, are good.

The UN's Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) believes the continent is a highly profitable place for investors hoping for high returns - outstripping returns on investments in other regions.

UNCTAD has also praised the ongoing liberalisation of the Ethiopian economy and the country's strong growth rates in recent years.

But, it admits, hurdles still remain for small-time businessmen like Menker.

UNCTAD says there has been a "slow take-up of privatisation opportunities" in the impoverished nation which means low purchasing power for the 67 million population.

And hopes for attracting greater investment also look bleak despite in-roads.

"The government should be providing private companies, like this one, with extra incentives to create and develop products," Menker said. "Tax breaks could help encourage this sector, so
inventors, people with good ideas can produce them and we can overcome reliance on handouts and aid.

"Instead many ideas don't come to fruition because of a lack of interest or support," he said. "Companies that produce luxury goods, like perfume, will pay the same tax as companies investing in research and development that eventually will benefit the country."

He also says small time inventors often find themselves squeezed out of the market by aid organisations who have access to huge government development funding to develop farm products for the country.

Affordable research

The Ethiopian Inventors' Association (EIA), a group of likeminded inventors who joined forces in 1995, echo his view and say that many obstacles stand in the way of bringing good ideas to the market.

Among them are renowned figures like Girma Kiefelow - an award-winning inventor who has won plaudits both in Ethiopia and abroad.

His main invention is now used at the city's slaughterhouse to prevent noxious smells that can travel up to 25 km spreading across the capital.

"It is extremely difficult in developing countries because it is very hard to get the correct equipment for the projects you are developing," says Girma.

But the EIA welcomes the recent introduction of patent laws to Ethiopia, which, it says, prevents businessmen from copying ideas once they come on the market.

However Menker laments the lack of development work carried out by Ethiopian companies - acknowledging that the cost puts most firms off.

"It is very unusual for private companies to do this sort of work," he adds. "I am a development orientated person and the objective of the company is to development projects through research. But unfortunately research is very expensive."

His other developments in recent years include a modern-style beehive for bee keeping - which are now being used all over the country - and a mobile seed cleaner.

"I really thought the seed cleaner would sell like hot cakes," he said, "because of the improved seeds being used that allow farmers to use them for two or three times.

"But we have not sold many which is really due to promotion - the hardest part of our work," added Menker.

And his latest invention - a hand-driven maize sheller that he hopes to sell in Gambella, a remote region in western Ethiopia, stands idle in his warehouse.

Reaching farmers to show the products involves a huge amount of bureaucracy in gaining permission from local officials and government offices, said Menker, who trained at Jimma College of Agriculture in western Ethiopia before studying in the UK.

"But one day, we hope things will pick up," he asserted.


This article courtesy of IRIN may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003. Picture copyright IRIN.

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