It's a safe bet that there are more people in the African countries of Malawi and Senegal than in Minnesota who know about St. Paul-based Compatible Technology International (CTI).

That's because thousands of tiny-income families on hardscrabble small farms and in rural communities are benefiting through better nutrition and bigger incomes. Post-harvest farm tools, such as low-cost grinders, threshers and peanut processors are designed by volunteer CTI engineers, in cooperation with African farmers.

This month, Edward Yakobe Sawerengera, the Malawi ambassador to the United States, visited CTI's headquarters to thank the men and women of this small social enterprise. The No. 1 industry of Malawi is small-plot agriculture. Sawerengera's degrees include agricultural marketing and supply, and he sees the benefits of increased production and higher farmer incomes.

The partnership is good for the U.S., too, Sawerengera said. In essence, his message was that when working poor people eat better and can afford to improve their dwelling and send their kids to school, that reflects well on America as a long-term partner.

In Malawi, CTI grinders are increasingly used by peanut farmers to create valuable, nutritious peanut paste — replacing manual methods of processing and producing high-quality food up to six times faster.

"A lot of our work in Malawi is thanks to the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, and their program that funds collaborative crop research and how to economically and ecologically strengthen the livelihoods of smallholder farmers," said CTI Executive Director Alexandra Spieldoch.

"We looked at ground nuts, a cash crop and a very important crop for their diets," Spieldoch said. "There's high demand there and in Europe and China. But most production is subsistence, with a hand hoe. We also work with small farm cooperatives. We are going into a third phase with McKnight of value-added technology, and oil presses and continuing to try and see how we can help with a complete suite of tools to help those farmers become more productive to create health and wealth."

As rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa often lack electricity, the work traditionally involves days of manual labor to process products that can take less than a day with a CTI Ewing Grinder.

Sawerengera was in St. Paul to "commend" an order of grinders, shipped along with a container of books bound for Malawi by St. Paul's Books for Africa.

The machines cost a few hundred dollars to make and pay for themselves in a year or two because of increased productivity. CTI also works with local manufacturers and repair people so the tools can be made and fixed in-country.

Ana, a small farmer in Senegal, reports that the increased productivity she gets from using a CTI grinder to process small crops has provided sufficient income to make a real difference, including paying for school fees for her kids, who might otherwise have to stay home and work.

A year ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded CTI a $2.2 million multiyear grant to work with Senegalese co-ops, farmers and others to supply its grain thresher, which costs about $400 to manufacture.

The thresher reduces by up to 90 percent the 12 hours a day that women work during the post-harvest months of December through March to pound millet. In the low-income country of 15 million people, it helps provide more nutrition for the family as well as food to market with a lot less effort.

"Right now, we're seeing women dance," said a farm wife in a CTI video. "We're seeing women set up businesses, women with smiles on their faces, knowing that, 'I'm going to be able to do something else with the rest of my day.' "

In 2017, CTI, which had revenue of about $1.1 million, including donated time and supplies, said it helped start 70 small African businesses thanks to its grinders and thresher that improved the diets and wealth of nearly 100,000 related producers and consumers.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at