Cover Image
close this bookCERES No. 135 (FAO Ceres, 1992, 50 p.)
close this folderCentrepiece
View the documentThe ecology of the machine
View the documentAlive and pulling
View the documentTime to light some candles
View the documentMaximizing muscle power

Time to light some candles

Illuminating a fresh path toward selective motorization
by D.J. Greig

It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness", says the Chinese proverb, and where the recent history of the motorization of farming in developing countries is concerned, it might almost be a motto.

Darkness - in the form of misjudgement, mistakes, misunderstandings and misapplication of effort - has unquestionably dominated the past four decades, slowing progress and providing pessimists with abundant examples of good intentions gone awry. Many of these errors are being repeated still.

Of course, there has been some progress. FAO published data on tractors in use and arable land in cultivation (see table) gives an indication. But if the worldwide development enterprise, launched in the wake of the Second World War, is ultimately to be seen as more than what one critic calls "a ruin in the intellectual landscape", clear light must be thrown on the errors that have been made and a fresh path charted.

It's time to light some candles.

Tales of woe

Almost every month another tale of woe seems to surface about machines that can't perform the tasks for which they were purchased, about engines that break down and can't be repaired because they haven't been serviced, and about shortages of replacement parts because users can't afford to buy them or governments are unable or unwilling to allocate foreign exchange to import them.

Why are inappropriate machines and equipment still being supplied to developing countries?

There are many reasons, probably first among them the indisputable fact that manufacturers of tractors, implements and electric motors in developed countries are profit-oriented commercial enterprises, which always welcome additional export markets to increase sales and profits. Development aid programs have supported these firms' sales for a variety of economic, technical and political reasons, but the technology transferred from developed to developing countries in this way has rarely succeeded, because it was designed for other farmers in other parts of the world.

On this point, however, there is hope. Signs of a more realistic approach are beginning to emerge. Equipment manufacturers and development agencies alike appear to be realizing that farmers in developing countries are not the homogeneous group of conforming recipients of aid that many planners previously assumed. They are beginning to understand that there is a difference between the machinery and equipment commonly used in the developed countries and what is appropriate to the needs of farmers elsewhere. They are starting to see that providing unsuitable technology, even if it is free, does not further development and is not acceptable to either the donor or recipient countries.

Introducing a single new element of technology to a stabilized set of resources rarely succeeds, even in technically advanced countries where there are fewer initial basic constraints. A completely new production system, such as a new grain-drying and storage unit selected for local conditions of grain supply and distribution, is often more successful - provided it can be serviced and maintained. That means, for instance, that well-chosen electric motors on processing machinery may be a better investment than a tractor and soil-engaging implement, because they need less service and maintenance and so are less affected by the level of available support services.

But allowing commercial pressures to blind us to the advantages of such trade-offs isn't the only problem. Several other roadblocks have been ham pering motorization, including misunderstandings due to terminology, underestimation of costs, and failure to appreciate energy and fuel constraints.

To mechanize/to motorize

Confusion over terminology is a serious problem in planning the right mechanization for a developing country. Technical terms are introduced by specialists who know exactly what they mean, but the same words may have an entirely different meaning for other people. When the specialist speaks in terms that are already in general use to describe something quite different, the words may be misinterpreted and lead to the misrepresentation of basic concepts.

The verb "to mechanize" is a case in point. The Oxford Dictionary definition is "to give mechanical character to...", but in the specialist world of agricultural engineering it means much more. Mechanization describes the use of any device, powered by any means, for agricultural production and related activities. Mechanization can thus cover hand-hoes, animal-drawn plows, tractors and implements, grain-milling equipment and a range of crop-spraying equipment. It includes any device or operation using any energy source to improve effectiveness and efficiency of agricultural or related operations. It certainly is not limited to describing tractors with internal combustion engines, although this is the common interpretation.

To "motorize" was originally a military term for equipping foot soldiers with motor transport. In modern usage it is an all-embracing term to describe all operations involving the use of power derived from sources other than the direct application of human muscle energy. It includes all systems that convert external sources of energy through mechanical devices into forms of power that can be used in agricultural production operations. This could mean the use of electric motors and wind pumps as well as the tractor. It often describes the degree of application of external energy by a country's farmers, and is calculated as the ratio of the power available per unit area of land, usually as kilowatts per hectare.

Getting to the real costs

Many are the users of machinery and equipment who complain that the cost of machinery is too high and its utilization too low. They suggest the cost of a machine should be reduced by expanding its use to non-agricultural operations.

Herein lies a clue to mechanization's bad name among farmers, planners, governments, banks and aid agencies. They fail to consider that the high cost of agricultural machinery is unlikely to be reduced by using it as well for such vital - but non-revenue-generating - social services as rural transport. Only if realistic charges are made for the additional services will they reduce unit costs.

The misunderstanding goes deeper. The real problem is not necessarily underutilizing the machinery, but undervaluing the crops produced with the help of the machinery. Farmers are expected to produce low-cost food for the urban population, but agricultural machinery is expensive to own and operate, and its cost must be offset by the prices paid the farmer for the food the machinery helps produce.

If crop prices can't rise but must remain fairly stable, then there must be an increase in production, either by cultivating more hectares or increasing productivity per hectare. It is in giving the farmer and the farmer's family the ability to increase the area cultivated that the more obvious benefits of increased power become apparent. To boost productivity per hectare requires greater attention to growing crops and more inputs such as weeding, fertilizers and improved seeds. Machinery can provide timeliness of operation only when the additional power available is used effectively.

Too often in the past, planners have underestimated the cost of agricultural machinery, making it appear worthwhile in situations where its operation was not viable without subsidy. The concept of depreciation is a leading culprit in under-costing equipment, making it appear more affordable than it really is. Depreciation is a basic factor used in calculating machinery costs, yet has little to do with the real cost of owning or operating it. Calculations of depreciation were first introduced to regularize allowances against tax liability in developed countries. But a farmer's tractor or implement is a production resource in the same way as fertilizer or pesticides. Why should its cost be calculated differently?

Machinery and equipment costs are often figured as if capital had no earning potential and inflation did not exist. Calculations are usually made at constant prices and using free capital, both of which lead to misleading results over a set period. The real cost to a farmer who owns and operates a tractor and set of implements is the loss of the earnings he has used to purchase, hire or lease, to maintain and to operate the equipment over a period, compared with the earnings he would have had over the same period without the equipment. If there is no subsidy, the extra revenue generated by the equipment has to cover the losses in revenue the farmer has incurred by buying or renting, maintaining and operating the equipment.

The selection of the right equipment for each farm family is absolutely vital and is possible only if the estimated costs of its use are as realistic and accurate as possible. Methods for calculating costs of machinery and equipment as a cash flow, taking into account local rates of interest on borrowed and invested capital and the effects of inflation, have been worked out to help assess cost in the later stages of planning - provided local data are available.

Energy and fuel

It is generally agreed that a lack of energy is the major factor keeping the small-scale farmer from increasing production and productivity. What is now being debated is what form an increased energy input should take. The two choices for providing energy to mechanize agriculture come down to:

power in a rotating shaft;
a mobile linear force, almost always obtained by converting power in a rotating shaft into
draft force through a wheel in contact with the ground.

Electric motors are limited to providing non-mobile shaft power in a rotating shaft because batteries are too heavy and costly to supply electrical energy to a mobile motor. In the final analysis, the internal combustion engine based on spark or compression ignition combustion processes is likely to remain a main source of additional power for the farmer for years to come.

The search for more economical fuel consumption is leading to lighter vehicles, smaller engines and lower drag factors, all enabling the use of higher gearing. But at the same time, emission control, safety and noise reduction all lead to increased weight, complexity of design and fuel consumption. Because agricultural machines are relatively slow-moving, drag is not a problem, but emission control and the cost of importing fuel are becoming important considerations.

The logical move is to look for alternative fuels to replace or to mix with petrol and diesel. Here, there do not appear to be insurmountable technical problems. With a suitably modified or redesigned engine, it has been demonstrated that sunflower oil or sugar cane could be processed into feasible alternatives to liquid fossil fuels. The Brazilian sugar cane industry produces more energy than it consumes and so has a positive energy output (see Ceres No. 133). It is believed that sunflower production, under favorable circumstances, can also achieve a positive energy output. For other crops, the energy balance is less well-defined and is easily rendered negative by small changes in climatic and soil conditions.

Another consideration is that, at today's prices, vegetable oils are more valuable than mineral oils. A blend of 80 per cent coconut oil and 20 per cent diesel fuel is effective in a diesel engine, provided the engine is fitted with an upgraded fuel filtration system. But, given the relative prices of coconut oil and diesel fuel, selling the coconut oil for other uses provides the grower with a larger income than selling it as fuel. Using alternative fuels for engines developed to operate on mineral-based oils also increases engine deposits, can cause premature mechanical failure and makes increased maintenance necessary.

Down the road

What then is the solution to the problem of providing farmers in developing countries with more power?

The jobs that demand the most energy in crop production are soil tillage and crop weeding. It also takes considerable energy to transform crops into human food, and this processing usually falls to the women of the family, who already have the responsibility for housekeeping, child care and field work. The energy requirement for these tasks cannot be avoided, but it would be unrealistic to suggest that increased farm power for small-scale farmers in the developing countries must be based only on motorized mechanization and liquid fossil fuel energy. Most farmers cannot pay the price, and most governments don't have the foreign exchange.

There are, however, actions that the governments of developing countries and international organizations can take to help farmers mechanize. The first step is for governments to formulate national agricultural mechanization strategies that will rationalize the role of all forms of mechanization technology in agricultural development. Governments should consider:

following the principle of selective mechanization, whereby motorization is reserved foronly the most critical and energy-demanding tasks in target crops and for target farmer groups;
adopting measures to reduce the cost of mechanization in general and motorization in particular. These include improving machinery maintenance and repair, increasing training in machinery operation and management and revising machinery ownership patterns to effect greater efficiency;
supporting establishment and growth of local manufacturing and servicing enterprises to fabricate tools and implements and rebuild worn components in motorized equipment;
improving extension personnel's knowledge of the selection and effective use of mechanization equipment.

There were significant advances in the 1980s in providing motorized mechanization to small-scale farmers in many developing countries, particularly in Asia. Faster action over a wider area is needed if the farmers of the developing world are to have the power they need to meet national food production goals and overall rural development objectives - but not wholesale action. It must always be remembered that no two farming families are identical, either in their potential for increasing production or in their motivation to overcome the power constraints affecting their farming operations.