Low Tech, High Impact: Can an Affordable, Hand-Powered Innovation Boost Food Production in Africa?
Editor’s note: This post is part of the NextBillion series, “Offline Innovation,” one of several topics we’re covering through special series this year. Click here for more details on our 2018 series.
“How much generator fuel does it cost to produce one bag of cassava flour?” I ask Samuel as we wander the hot, humid food production facility he manages in central Liberia. This is not just any factory, but a brand-new facility built with institutional aid money, complete with $200,000 of production equipment and a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included the Liberian President. I am here to learn more about how foreign aid was spent on this high-profile agriculture project.
Samuel shares the answer, and we stop and lean on a dusty cassava press to do the math. What we quickly conclude is that the facility has to be running at over 100 percent capacity just to break even, due to the high cost of the generator fuel that’s needed to run these new imported machines. And if a machine breaks? Hopefully Samuel can pay for someone to be flown into Liberia for the repairs. Samuel had run these numbers before, and knows they raise concerns about the factory’s viability. But when you are a small Liberian business offered $200,000 worth of equipment, how can you say no? With the equipment can come grants, technical support and prestige.
A few weeks later I meet with the organization responsible for purchasing the $200,000 worth of equipment for Samuel’s facility. I ask if they had run the numbers that Samuel and I had looked at earlier on that dusty cassava press. The answer? Not one of the dozens of people managing this multi-million-dollar agriculture development project had looked at the unit economics of operating this equipment. It had been assumed that high-tech processing equipment was the solution Liberia’s agriculture sector needed, but no one had taken five minutes to do the basic math to determine how much generator fuel was needed to run said equipment.
This is the reality of how many people think about agriculture sector development in emerging economies. No one asks about the costs of electricity, or the unit economics of selling cassava flour, or the capacity of local machinists to maintain and repair equipment. Systems that are “higher tech” are inherently seen as the right approach. And this can be true, in many contexts. But because large institutional aid projects are usually designed in a headquarters in London, Washington, D.C. or Brussels, local realities are often ignored.
The Advantages of Low Tech
When it comes to a country like Liberia, with some of the world’s most complex infrastructure challenges, a more nuanced approach to thinking about technological innovation is a must. Technology is not always the answer. Technology can be used to help find an answer, but if you’re trying to implement a project in rural Liberia without understanding the realities of doing business there, you’ll soon discover how limited high-tech solutions can be.
At JUST, we are on a mission to ensure that everyone, everywhere, eats well – whether that’s a family shopping at Walmart in West Virginia or a mom buying food in an open-air market in rural Liberia. JUST has built a business producing food like mayonnaise, cookies and salad dressing in large facilities in the U.S., but we’ve taken a decentralized approach adapted to Liberian realities in West Africa. Leveraging local machinists and our U.S-based process engineers, chefs and food scientists, we’ve designed production systems that can operate completely off the grid. Powered by hand cranking, these systems are used to produce a cassava-based porridge called Power Gari – and they do so without electricity, while maintaining scale and ensuring food safety.
The Power of Going Local
We’ve also built a model that is completely run by Liberian small businesses. In exchange for a licensing fee, JUST provides technical advice to the network of local entrepreneurs that participate in these production systems – but that’s where JUST’s role ends. Liberian businesses buy the ingredients, source the equipment, and manage the day-to-day operations of the value chain, working with one another to set price points, create new flavors of Power Gari, and manage other elements of the production and sales processes. Good quality crops are sourced from female smallholder farmers across Liberia, and then mixed by JUST’s primary small business partner, Kawadah Farms, at their production facility in northern Liberia. One of the hand-cranked mixing machines – which are designed by JUST, but built and sold by Liberian machinists – can produce 30 metric tons of Power Gari a month, enough for 600,000 meals. Additional production lines could be built in different parts of Liberia within a few weeks and with a couple thousand dollars of renovations. And the cost of one of the mixing machines that Kawadah uses? Not $200,000 but $850. This equipment is made by Liberian machinists using locally available steel 45 minutes down the road from Kawadah’s production facility.
Today in Liberia, the team at JUST has built a value chain of over 100 entrepreneurs, most of whom are women. This includes everyone from smallholder farmers and village-level aggregators, to agro processors and market women – all small-scale entrepreneurs who are now plugged into a food system that has national reach. There are no grants or subsidies that keep the cost of the end product artificially low – it’s naturally affordable due to efficiency and local sourcing. It’s a completely private sector approach based on Liberian realities.
It’s also a model where every person in the value chain can be profitable, and will continue to make money as the market for locally-grown nutritious food expands. There is no expensive generator fuel to purchase, and no broken equipment that takes months to repair. As it scales, this approach can ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to nutritious, delicious, affordable food. It may not be high-tech, but it’s high-impact.
Image provided by JUST.