Necessity, the mother of invention
Menker Wolde Kiross is an inventor. His inspiration, he says perhaps
surprisingly, comes from the impoverished rural farmers of Ethiopia - currently
struggling against an unprecedented famine.
But it is not their stoicism in the face of hardship or their continual fight
against the unpredictable elements that inspires the 58-year-old. It is the
skills they have developed and fine-tuned over centuries, in creating and using
workable small-scale farm equipment that, he says, guide his work.
"It is amazing how clever and inventive the farmers are," said
Menker. "It is remarkable how they produce things with what little
equipment they have."
Menker believes there is great potential in developing effective farm
equipment in the country - particularly when the government's growth policy is
He also says the work is gratifying. "We are tied of starving," he
adds from his shop in Addis Ababa, where his farm equipment is produced.
"We need to invest in our own creativity, rely on our skills if we are
going to break the cycle of dependency. We must take risks and believe in what
we can achieve."
But while Menker is optimistic about the country's future growth, he says he
- like many investors and development specialists - remains downtrodden. Little
investment flows into research and development in Ethiopia and cautious overseas
investors are wary about their returns.
Menker, the former head of rural technology at the ministry of agriculture,
says even ideas crucial for the drought-prone Ethiopia often receive little
The latest and potential bestseller is a foot-driven water pump, which cost
around US $1,000 to develop. The original idea was based on a design from Kenya
that Menker modified.
Many of the ideas developed at his workshop are based on technology from
other African countries which he then adapts to suit an Ethiopian market.
But despite widespread interest and good sales, few international
organisations have shown an interest in funding its development or the original
The pump draws water from depths of 7 metres and pumps over 9 metres high,
providing about one litre per second and can water around a hectare a day. It
costs US $130.
"This is a very simply piece of equipment with almost no moving parts or
nuts and bolts which means the farmers themselves can maintain it," says
Menker, who with four other people, owns Mamjad Engineering in the capital.
"This is really very useful particularly with the current water
harvesting drive by the government - it's also clean and economical, no climbing
into wells to bring the water out in buckets."
Menker and his team - he employs around 30 people - are currently building a
mobile sprinkler that works with the pump so farmers can walk and irrigate their
Among his customers are the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which
has bought 200 of the pumps for a project in drought-hit Tigray, northern
Although he recognises that most individual farmers could not afford pumps -
collectively the equipment is affordable.
"The problem with any new technology or equipment that improves
productivity is that it is unaffordable," he says. "Farmers need to
buy collectively or get support from the government or donors, basically they
need encouragement to see how new technology can help."
According to the United Nations opportunities for investing in businesses in
Africa generally, and Ethiopia in particular, are good.
The UN's Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) believes the continent
is a highly profitable place for investors hoping for high returns -
outstripping returns on investments in other regions.
UNCTAD has also praised the ongoing liberalisation of the Ethiopian economy
and the country's strong growth rates in recent years.
But, it admits, hurdles still remain for small-time businessmen like Menker.
UNCTAD says there has been a "slow take-up of privatisation
opportunities" in the impoverished nation which means low purchasing power
for the 67 million population.
And hopes for attracting greater investment also look bleak despite in-roads.
"The government should be providing private companies, like this one,
with extra incentives to create and develop products," Menker said.
"Tax breaks could help encourage this sector, so
inventors, people with good ideas can produce them and we can overcome reliance
on handouts and aid.
"Instead many ideas don't come to fruition because of a lack of interest
or support," he said. "Companies that produce luxury goods, like
perfume, will pay the same tax as companies investing in research and
development that eventually will benefit the country."
He also says small time inventors often find themselves squeezed out of the
market by aid organisations who have access to huge government development
funding to develop farm products for the country.
The Ethiopian Inventors' Association (EIA), a group of likeminded inventors
who joined forces in 1995, echo his view and say that many obstacles stand in
the way of bringing good ideas to the market.
Among them are renowned figures like Girma Kiefelow - an award-winning
inventor who has won plaudits both in Ethiopia and abroad.
His main invention is now used at the city's slaughterhouse to prevent
noxious smells that can travel up to 25 km spreading across the capital.
"It is extremely difficult in developing countries because it is very
hard to get the correct equipment for the projects you are developing,"
But the EIA welcomes the recent introduction of patent laws to Ethiopia,
which, it says, prevents businessmen from copying ideas once they come on the
However Menker laments the lack of development work carried out by Ethiopian
companies - acknowledging that the cost puts most firms off.
"It is very unusual for private companies to do this sort of work,"
he adds. "I am a development orientated person and the objective of the
company is to development projects through research. But unfortunately research
is very expensive."
His other developments in recent years include a modern-style beehive for bee
keeping - which are now being used all over the country - and a mobile seed
"I really thought the seed cleaner would sell like hot cakes," he
said, "because of the improved seeds being used that allow farmers to use
them for two or three times.
"But we have not sold many which is really due to promotion - the
hardest part of our work," added Menker.
And his latest invention - a hand-driven maize sheller that he hopes to sell
in Gambella, a remote region in western Ethiopia, stands idle in his warehouse.
Reaching farmers to show the products involves a huge amount of bureaucracy
in gaining permission from local officials and government offices, said Menker,
who trained at Jimma College of Agriculture in western Ethiopia before studying
in the UK.
"But one day, we hope things will pick up," he asserted.
This article courtesy of IRIN may not
necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. Copyright (c) UN Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003. Picture copyright IRIN.