A simple device resembling a walking stick could soon be helping small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to apply fertilisers to their crops and improve efficiency of their work.
The fertiliser applicator was developed as part of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation organised by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering and is currently undergoing tests at the University of Zambia in preparation for its market launch.
“I developed this technology out of my personal experience of the difficulties that small scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face,” said Musenga Silwawa, a part-time farmer and researcher at Zambia’s Agriculture Research Institute.
“The farmers there don’t have any appropriate technology. They rely 100 per cent on manual, physical labour. They don’t have tools designed for farming activities.”
Applying a fertiliser, for example, would normally take three people, going from one plant to another. The first opens a hole next to the plant, the second applies the fertiliser using only his hand and the third closes the hole.
“It’s not calibrated, it’s inconsistent, it’s wasteful and that’s how I came up with the technology,” Silwawa explained.
Silwawa’s design, a runner up in the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, consists of a backpack with the fertiliser, a simple transfer tube and a handheld walking-stick-like applicator. The device allows one person to do what three were doing previously.
“All the mechanism, the springs and valves and the calibration mechanism, is at the base of the handheld implement,” Silwawa described. “It’s activated by the effort of the hand, it requires minimum effort because the spring modes and the design helps with the placement of the fertiliser into the soil.”
According to data gathered by Silwawa, the device could reduce labour by up to 70 per cent.
Before entering the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, Silwawa spent five years developing the concept.
The biggest constraint, he said, was to keep the cost of the device low. Most of the target customers are very poor and wouldn’t be able to afford costly equipment. The researcher said the cost of the applicator would be about as high as that of one bag of fertiliser – between £22 and £25.
“These people are very price-sensitive, they are very conservative when it comes to changing their production techniques, it takes a bit of time to convince them,” Silwawa remarked.
To keep the cost down, the device is made mostly of locally sourced PVC.
The device has already raised interest at international fairs in Africa and Silwawa believes that it will indeed be a success.