Traditionally African grains are being grown in a field, the first step to inventing tools to combat famine by increasing crop yields.
Most Minnesotans have never heard of grains such as ivory teff or pearl millet -- much less wondered how to harvest them.
But a variety of odd-looking crops, traditional to Africa, are being grown for the first time in an experimental field in St. Paul under a banner announcing "Lost Crops of Africa.''
The folks behind the strange site, all workers at Compatible Technology International of St. Paul, are part of a growing movement to encourage African farmers to plant more of these drought-resistant crops and improve yields. Partnering with agronomists at the University of Minnesota, they are inventing equipment to revolutionize the way poor small farmers harvest and husk the grains.
It's a unique approach to combatting famine and hunger plaguing the developing world, including Somalia and Ethiopia, which are reeling from the most severe drought in decades.
"We've always had to travel to Africa to test our designs; now we will be able to do that here in Minnesota,'' said Roger Salway, executive director of CTI, explaining how the crops wound up in this St. Paul field.
"There is no John Deere teff harvester out there. We're creating the first technology for these crops.''
CTI has been inventing technology to combat hunger for years: It marks its 30th anniversary this month. Little known among ordinary Minnesotans, the small nonprofit located near the Amtrak station has captured the attention of development agencies across the globe.
"They fill a unique niche,'' said Lisa Franchett, deputy director of the West Africa program for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Few organizations are in the business of inventing agricultural equipment, she said, especially for subsistence farmers growing traditional crops.
"And most NGOs [nongovernment organizations] have focused on the production side of agriculture, such as seeds, irrigation, pesticides. ... I don't know many that have gotten involved in the post-harvest side of the work.''
USAID has invited CTI to Senegal this month to demonstrate its prototype for harvesting and husking pearl millet. Salway will head next to Mumbai, India. CTI is working with a hospital there to develop a therapeutic food to combat acute malnutrition.
Africa in Minnesota
On a sunny morning last week, two CTI volunteers were bent over a row of teff -- a plant resembling overgrown grass that swayed in a field on the U's agriculture campus. Wielding small sickles, they harvested the grain much like it's done roughly 8,000 miles away in Ethiopia, where it is a native crop.
Just feet away stood the rows of pearl millet, some 6 feet high, with long pointy tops. Nearby were peanuts, not exactly a lost crop but one in need of modern harvesting know-how. African women still pick and shell peanuts by hand, a painstakingly slow process that cuts their hands.
"These crops aren't lost in the sense that they're not grown, but they are being neglected by the research and development community,'' said Steve Clarke, a U agronomist working with CTI who visited the site last week.
One reason is the crops don't get high yields, said Clarke, and they're time-consuming to harvest. Another reason is that corn, wheat and other crops were introduced years ago and offered more opportunities to export. Unfortunately, they can't survive drought, a frequent occurrence in Africa, said Salway. Traditional crops can.
The teff picked this day will wind up in the CTI lab, a small workshop packed with small contraptions powered by wheels or by hand crank, since electricity and gas are not always available to the farmers.
CTI scientists, often in collaboration with national universities and always with the farmers themselves, will figure out the most practical way to strip the fine seeds, remove the tiny husks and eventually grind these mini grains into flour.
"These are the machines we use,'' said Salway, pointing to two odd-looking boxes standing on a table in the lab.
He picked up a stalk of pearl millet and pushed it through a small hole in "the stripper." It stripped away hundreds of tiny grains in about 40 seconds. It's a huge improvement on the methods used by poor African farmers: They beat the millet on the ground or use a mortar and pestle, said Salway. Farmers lose up to 50 percent of their crop doing this, he said.
Salway pointed out other inventions developed by CTI staff and its 150-some volunteer agronomists, engineers, nutritionists and others.
One is a "pepper eater," being designed with help of Minnesota's Ethiopian community and Stanford University students. It's a small boxlike device that chops red-hot peppers into pieces that can be used for cooking or sale.
Nearby was the CTI trademark "Ewing grinder'' that converts grains into flour in seconds. It stood on a table next to a wooden mortar and pestle. Salway noted: "This can do in 10 minutes what would otherwise take an hour.''
From a box in the corner, Salway pulled out a "fuel stick'' made from rice hulls, an alternative to firewood. CTI developed the technology and opened a production plant for the fuel in Bangladesh in 2009.
More than 30 countries, in Africa, Asia and South America, have benefitted from these Minnesota-grown technologies since CTI was founded in 1981.
George Ewing, a retired food scientist from General Mills, was among the organization's three founders. Looking back, he never considered how long the organization would survive; he and some colleagues just wanted to donate their talents to the world's most impoverished people.
"It's really a good feeling,'' Ewing said, "like something has been accomplished for the betterment of humanity.''
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511