Humans and machines

  Joseph Rickman and Paula Bianca Ferrer   |  

A peddle thresher being tried by farmers in Bela Vista, Mozambique. A farmer’s life has never been an easy one. Before farmers can reap the full benefit of their harvest, they have to do many energy-sapping tasks: plowing, planting, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, threshing, transporting, and storing.

Traditionally, most activities on small rice farms require long hours of work, using a lot of family labor or energy. Studies show that, for each ton of rice produced, more than 7,000 megajoules of energy is needed, whether provided by humans or machines.

In physical terms, work or energy is a function of force and distance. The more force you need to apply or distance you need to travel, the more energy is required. The faster you accomplish this, the more power you exert. When humans or animals work in the field, the problem is that they can supply only a finite amount of energy at a given time. When they get tired, efficiency drops and so does the quality of work.

Are machines the answer? Although humans and animals have limited energy over time, machines don’t get tired, and they can get the job done much faster without sacrificing the quality of work.

For instance, to plow a hectare requires 150 person-days to finish, 12 days when animals are used, a day with a 2-wheel tractor, and 1–2 hours with a 4-wheel tractor. The same amount of energy of about 1,500 megajoules is required to do the job. The difference is in the time.

Aside from time, the labor cost should also be considered. Using a machine or hiring a contract service provider is cheaper. The cost for one-pass plowing using animals, a 2-wheel tractor, or a 4-wheel tractor is US$40–50 per hectare depending on the locality while manual labor costs more than $200 per hectare, and the job done is no better than the mechanical output anyway.

In terms of harvesting, hand harvesting and threshing cost $100–120 per hectare and hand cutting with mechanical threshing cost about $80 per hectare, which is similar to combine harvesting that costs $80–100 per hectare.

When a machine is introduced into a farming system, it often brings with it other benefits. The engine can be used as a power source for other machines such as threshers, water pumps, and electricity generators. Moreover, a farmer who owns a machine such as a 2-wheel tractor or thresher can do contract service work for other farmers.

Technical loopholes
Good management and understanding of the machine and the farming environment are all critical and should not be overlooked. For example, when mechanical threshers were brought to Mozambique from Asia, all had broken down with mechanical problems within 2 months. The cause of the problem was that farmers had always cut the straws long enough for easy grip when they manually flailed them over a drum to release the grain. However, mechanical threshers require short straws to be efficient.

Another problem encountered was that the farmers normally left their rice crop in the field until the moisture dropped to 15–16%, which made it easier for threshing. The mechanical threshers, however, were designed to thresh grains at 20–22% moisture, which not only gets the crop out of the field 3–4 weeks earlier but also gives higher grain yield of better quality. Farmers who were not used to managing grain with high moisture thus faced a problem. This resulted in a second technology, solar grain drying, which could dry the grain to 14% moisture for safe storage.

The biggest lesson here is that it’s very important to analyze the entire production chain before introducing new equipment.

Gears in place
In rice-producing countries where mechanization is at an early stage, many nuts and bolts have to be in place to develop a sustainable industry. Experiences from Asia and from some parts of Africa indicate that farm equipment can be introduced in a sustainable way through sound business principles and planning. Governments, training institutes, international organizations, NGOs, financial institutions, and the private sector all have a role to play.

The government’s main role is in the importation and testing of new equipment, as well as in the development of import and tax policies that support importers, dealers, and local manufacturers. Vocational training institutes need to develop curricula that focus on mechanization and can provide both technical and basic business planning and training for operators, mechanics, and artisans. Extension offices and NGOs need training to extend and support mechanized agriculture. Credit institutions need to be encouraged to structure loans to suit farmers and contract service suppliers.

Most importantly, there must be champions for rice mechanization who will link to all the stakeholders and who must be supported by the government to drive the process— from introduction to adoption.

Small equipment: A big hit in Africa
by Joseph Rickman

A number of examples in Africa tell stories of how farmers have successfully adopted small-scale equipment, which is now being manufactured locally.

The model of adoption has generally been the same. Once a suitable machine is identified, it is tested under a range of local conditions, modified when necessary, promoted by the government, and then linked to a local entrepreneur.

The use of locally manufactured mechanical threshers in Senegal is one very good example (see The little machine that could). When this equipment imported from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines was brought to Africa, the government, together with the Africa Rice Center and a local manufacturer, extended its use to the broader farming community. Now, more than 400 of these threshers—which have been adapted to local conditions— are being used in Senegal. In Tanzania, more than 600 two-wheel tractors, which were imported from Thailand, are now being widely used for rice production. Local dealers in Dar es Salaam support these tractors by supplying spare parts and training operators in using and maintaining the equipment. In Madagascar, locally manufactured mechanical weeders have been adopted widely. These weeders were originally imported from Asia but are now being fabricated locally.

In all of these cases, adoption and promotion have been based on sound business principles, without government subsidies.

Mr. Rickman is a senior scientist with specialization in mechanization and production systems. Ms. Ferrer is a science communication specialist at the International Rice Research Institute.

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