National Geographic News
Credit: Andrew Green

In the off-the-electric-grid village of Usuk, mechanic Paul Olupot of the Ugandan community-assistance group Pilgrim demonstrates a machine to deliver energy and ease grueling farm labor. Columbia University's chapter of Engineers Without Borders is seeking to install its Multifunction Platform Engine (below) in more villages.

Photograph by Andrew Green

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Andrew Green in Soroti, Uganda

For National Geographic News

Published September 14, 2012

Immaculate Kongai said she was quick to spot the potential of the Multifunction Energy Platform (MFP) as soon as it arrived in Usuk, her village in northeastern Uganda. Kongai grows and sells sorghum to local beer brewers, and has earned a reputation as a shrewd local entrepreneur. When the MFP—or, as she calls it, "the machine"—first showed up three years ago, she said she saw a chance to "make a lot more money" for her family.

The MFP is a mounted engine connected to a flywheel that can hook up to different attachments: a cassava chipper, a miller, hullers for rice and maize, and—the apparatus that caught Kongai's eye—an oil press. For the cost of fueling the engine, it expedites work that would otherwise be done by hand and can significantly increase the value of rural farmers' crops. The oil pressed from two kilograms of sunflowers, for instance, could sell for nearly three times as much as the unprocessed seeds.

(Related Blog Post: "Harvesting Energy in Eastern Uganda")

That additional income, Kongai said, would dwarf what she is able to make selling sorghum. And it would mean no longer worrying about finding money to send her three children to school or working 12-hour days in the fields that surround her house.

"I would be able to create time to do other things," she said.

That was why the MFPs were installed, said David Oh, the program liaison for Columbia University's chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Usuk's MFP is one of four that EWB has funded and helped install in Uganda's Teso region. With a grant from National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative, EWB is now looking for five more sites where MFPs could be installed.

(Related: Great Energy Challenge Grantees)

"Our original hope was that, with the MFP, [people] can do value addition to the agricultural products they produce," Oh said. The machine also can be used to provide power to nearby structures, or to charge cell phones and other electronics. In a region that has been beset by political strife, and where deforestation is rampant because people typically have relied on wood for fuel, the MFP offers an opportunity to mechanize the backbreaking labor that has stymied progress and extended the cycle of poverty.

Home to a small sliver of the 1.4 billion people in the world who have no access to electricity, villages like Usuk are the kind of place United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had in mind when he declared 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All, calling it "the golden thread that connects development, social inclusion, and environmental protection."

On the ground in Usuk, Oh explains more simply how the machine can contribute: The aim is to "decrease the workload for the community and help them use their time more effectively, so they can continue developing their community."

Politics, Floods, and Labor

In fact, there is little development in the Teso region (map) in northeast Uganda. Decades of conflict—including an incursion by the infamous Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in 2003—forced most people to flee or enter camps for internally displaced people. Floods ravaged the area in 2007.

"There was little intervention here and people really didn't have any hope," said Edward Eleazar, a coordinator with Pilgrim, a Ugandan nongovernmental organization based in Soroti. Most people were dependent upon agriculture, but the region's most productive crops—cassava, millet, sorghum, and sunflower—require enormous amounts of time and labor to peel, crush, dry, and grind. Compounding that effort is the ceaseless work of gathering fuel, which typically falls on women here as it does throughout the developing world. Collecting firewood leaves little time for education and other tasks, while it degrades the environment through deforestation.

(Related Story: "A Rainforest Advocate Taps the Energy of the Sugar Palm")

Eleazar said developing the region hinged on figuring out how to refine the crops and increase their value. That's where Engineers Without Borders and the MFPs came in. Though such machines have been used elsewhere in the region, those used by EWB are unique because they allow a range of different attachments, said Eleazar, whose group oversees sites on the ground in Uganda in conjunction with the EWB students at Columbia University in New York City. The machine can be tailored to work with whatever crop is being harvested.

EWB's program grew out of a project that Matt Basinger, a Columbia doctoral student, was working on in 2007. He wanted to create an electricity system that could run off sustainable fuels, such as vegetable oil, to operate agricultural processing equipment. Basinger integrated the project into EWB and by 2009 the group had two MFPs running, in Usuk and Orungo. In early 2011 they added two more, in Tubur and Anyara.

Related Blog Post: "Fueling Agricultural Change in Western Kenya")

The communities were chosen based on their willingness to organize into cooperatives of about 100 people and construct buildings to house the MFPs, according to Eleazar. Members pay less than a dollar each time they use the machine. That money is pooled and pays the salary for the MFP operator. It also pays for the petroleum diesel fuel that powers the engine. Although the EWB team designed the engine so that it could run on biofuel, the increased cost of doing so has kept the program for now dependent on fossil fuel. (Oh said EWB is still looking at sustainable fuel sources, such as oil from jatropha—a local weed—but they haven't yet hit on a cost-effective model.)

More Work to Do

Since the MFPs were installed, Eleazar said he has noticed marked improvements in the communities.

"I have seen people look much more healthy than they did before," he said. "Some say [school] absenteeism for their girls has reduced tremendously, because they no longer have to be involved long hours preparing food."

The MFPs have not completely delivered on their promise, though. Because no one in the community is trained to fix the MFP even when it has minor problems, they have to wait for a Pilgrim mechanic to travel from Soroti.

In Usuk, Kongai said the machine's frequent breakdowns mean she has used it only sporadically and has not been able to grow the sunflower-oil business she envisioned when the machine was first installed.

The frequent downtime of the MFP has led to a fraying of some of the cooperatives, Oh admits. Now, as the program expands, Oh said, EWB is taking lessons from Kongai and others to figure out how to improve the performance of the machines and encourage greater integration of the MFPs into the communities.

(Related Story: "Solar Energy Brings Food, Water, and Light to West Africa")

EWB and Pilgrim are now working on shoring up the first four sites and encouraging greater community ownership of the MFPs.

"The groups need to be strengthened," said David Ossiya, Pilgrim's community development program manager. "What we've been focusing on lately is getting them to start meeting again. Getting them to start collective activities."

The process started with a complete overhaul of the four machines in March. In August, a team of three students from EWB in New York joined Pilgrim to launch a training program for community members to learn how to fix minor mechanical problems. Pilgrim also is funding collective gardens at each of the sites, with proceeds targeted to maintain the MFPs. Ossiya said it could also help build stronger community ties.

During the meetings, the EWB team also encouraged the cooperatives to develop a business model and assign clear responsibilities for running the cooperative.

"We're going to give you enough support," including more mechanical and bookkeeping training, Oh told a group of nearly 50 cooperative members in Usuk. "You will be empowered enough that you can stand on your own feet."

(Related Blog Post: "Uganda's Household Farmers Become Organic Exporters")

After the meeting broke up in a round of applause, most of the cooperative members stayed to watch as a Pilgrim mechanic explained the machine's mechanisms. Four people volunteered to sit through further training to learn to repair the machine.

"We are very excited with what we have started," said Florence Agoti, the cooperative's treasurer. "We are ready to progress and achieve."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Note: A previous version of this story said 1.4 million people in the world live without access to electricity. That figure has been corrected to 1.4 billion.

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