The inventors and engineers at Compatible Technology International have been developing tools to help African farmers process grain for years. But they've never had a streamlined system for putting them in farmers' hands — until now.

The unusual St. Paul nonprofit recently received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The money will fund an office in Senegal and outreach workers who will visit villages where subsistence farmers still manually cut and harvest grain the same way their ancestors did.

Farmers will be shown how to assemble and use the tabletop machines — which require no electricity — to harvest and grind their grains. The hope is that it will significantly increase grain production, which is critical to stem hunger in the drought-stricken West African nation.

"This allows us to get our equipment into one country — Senegal — and set up an office, transportation, a distribution process," said Alexandra Spieldoch, CTI's acting director. "It's a way to get our feet wet in a way that we haven't done before."

CTI is among many Minnesota nonprofits that work in developing nations. But it holds a special niche in terms of inventing low-tech devices that help farmers in poor nations become more efficient and bring their crops to market.

If all goes as planned, about 10 to 15 villages — with more than 10,000 people — will get a set of Minnesota-invented devices for communal use. Others will be sold, Spieldoch said.

Farmers will be surveyed about the devices and their feedback will inform further expansion into Senegal, Spieldoch said.

Each village will get a set of four devices. One strips the grain off the stalk; one separates it from the chaff; another winnows it; another grinds it. The machines will work with a grain called pearl millet. According to CTI, 75 percent of the Senegalese population depends on farming where pearl millet is a primary crop.

The grant marks an important turning point for CTI. Said Spieldoch: "We're poised to grow."

Jean Hopfensperger 612 673-4511