In Uganda, Villages Reap Benefits of “Machine” Energy

Friday, September 14, 2012

Immaculate Kongai said she was quick to spot the potential of the Multifunction Energy Platform (MFP) as soon as it arrived in Usuk, her village in northeastern Uganda. Kongai grows and sells sorghum to local beer brewers, and has earned a reputation as a shrewd local entrepreneur. When the MFP—or, as she calls it, “the machine”—first showed up three years ago, she said she saw a chance to “make a lot more money” for her family.

The MFP is a mounted engine connected to a flywheel that can hook up to different attachments: a cassava chipper, a miller, hullers for rice and maize, and—the apparatus that caught Kongai’s eye—an oil press. For the cost of fueling the engine, it expedites work that would otherwise be done by hand and can significantly increase the value of rural farmers’ crops. The oil pressed from two kilograms of sunflowers, for instance, could sell for nearly three times as much as the unprocessed seeds.

That additional income, Kongai said, would dwarf what she is able to make selling sorghum. And it would mean no longer worrying about finding money to send her three children to school or working 12-hour days in the fields that surround her house.

“I would be able to create time to do other things,” she said.

That was why the MFPs were installed, said David Oh, the program liaison for Columbia University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Usuk’s MFP is one of four that EWB has funded and helped install in Uganda’s Teso region. With a grant from National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, EWB is now looking for five more sites where MFPs could be installed.

“Our original hope was that, with the MFP, [people] can do value addition to the agricultural products they produce,” Oh said. The machine also can be used to provide power to nearby structures, or to charge cell phones and other electronics. In a region that has been beset by political strife, and where deforestation is rampant because people typically have relied on wood for fuel, the MFP offers an opportunity to mechanize the backbreaking labor that has stymied progress and extended the cycle of poverty.

Home to a small sliver of the 1.4 million people in the world who have no access to electricity, villages like Usuk are the kind of place United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had in mind when he declared 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All, calling it “the golden thread that connects development, social inclusion, and environmental protection.”

Source: National Geographic (link opens in a new window)

poverty alleviation, rural development