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View the documentAppropriate mechanisation for African agriculture

Appropriate mechanisation for African agriculture


In most African countries 70 - 80 % of the population is still engaged in agriculture but, despite this, food production is not growing fast enough to keep up with population growth. It is apparent that to increase agricultural output the productivity of the land under cultivation must be increased and a substantial improvement would be achieved through improved mechanisation.

Mechanisation does not mean solely tractorisation, however, but all implements from hand tools, animal draft implements, tractors and postharvest machinery used to transport, process and store produce. But mechanisation must be appropriate to the varying conditions of different regions and not only appropriate but affordable. A farmer has to make a significant profit before he can buy, or get a loan to buy, motorised equipment or even draught animals and the appropriate tools. He must mechanise in stages.

Many African farmers have small holdings of mixed crops and motorised machinery may not, contrary to expectation, actually improve yields. Most serious trials have shown that, in mixed cropping systems, good hand cultivation is more effective. In particular, post emergence weeding is difficult by machine and agricultural engineers can do more to help such farmers by improving hand tools and draught animal harness and equipment. Kenya, among other countries, has recognised the importance of this first step - that improvement of animal traction harness and equipment will increase the productivity of both man and animals. Old European designs have been modified using local fibres and fabrics in the harnesses. Tools are made lighter than European models to ease the load on draught animals faced with breaking up hard dry soil and, where necessary the width of cut on ploughs and cultivators has been reduced.

Hand tools remain the most widely used implements in Africa for cultivation, weeding, harvesting and even threshing. Many traditional designs reflect the materials available in the past when relatively simple technology for casting metal often resulted in heavy hoes and sickle blades. Now that modern steel is available, it is possible to make strong and long - lasting hoes and other tools from less weight of metal. This in turn permits a change in design of handles: - for instance, hoe handles can be made longer and cultivation and weeding can be done with less effort and with a straighter back.

It is essential that farmers are encouraged to increase yields and produce more for sale so that extra income is generated. It is only when yields have been achieved which are above those required for susbsistence, and there is a market for their produce that provides them with a profit. that farmers will have money to invest in improved mechanisation. Therefore marketing and pricing policies for farm produce must take account of this. Shortage of money is the main constraint preventing improved mechanisation for, if machinery is to be developed, there must be a market in which to sell it. Further, for larger, more complicated machinery which carries high development costs, the potential market has to be wider than one nation. It is here that regional cooperation through such associations as the African Regional Centre for Engineering Design and Manufacturing (ARCEDEM) and the Euro African Association of Agricultural Engineers (ACEMA) is essential to achieve standardisation. And standardisation brings with it economics of scale. Too often in the past individual nations have developed their own design specifications resulting in too many machines available for one job/process, all requiring their own spare parts, in a market that is too small. Regional cooperation could lead to different countries specialising in different equipment. (This sounds like Utopia, whereas the reality is more likely to be a desire on the part of each nation to be the one with the manufacturing base selling to all its neighbours). Governments must agree on a realistic level of cross - border tax levies since high tax on spare parts will discourage proper maintenance.

Agricultural engineers have to realise that appropriate technology is not necessarily simple technology. A battery - started engine that is incapable of hand - starting will soon cease to be useful if there is no readily available power source to recharge the battery. Spare parts must be easily and quickly available and stored efficiently. It has been found that up to 15% of spare parts may be unusable through bad storage which has led to corrosion and other damage. Maintenance input must be kept low and simple or running costs can be ruinous.

The small farmer may well derive more benefit from technological development in produce storage, handling and processing than in tractorisation. Up to 30% of a crop can be lost post - harvest and if this largely unnecessary wastage can be reduced by improving harvesting, transportation from field to store, improving threshing and shelling machines and conveyors then the principal aim of increasing agricultural productivity of the land will already, to some extent, have been achieved.

Simple tools developed for easier harvesting of cassava allows tubers to be lifted over a longer season even from dry, hard soils. This removes the need to harvest only when soils are soft and this reduces long - term storage of tubers which spoil in store. Improvements to groundnut shellers can reduce cracking and greatly increase the value of shelled nuts offered for sale. More efficient sugar cane crushers and palm nut crackers yield more juice and oil. Simple solar driers speed the loss of moisture and, in the case of fish, can reduce losses to insect infestation. Improved stores improve smoking of fish and reduce fuel costs.

For pest control in the field, the development of lightweight battery driven ultra low volume (ULV) sprayers has reduced the difficulty of finding a supply of clean water since the pesticides formulated for these sprayers do not require dilution: a plastic container of ready - to - use chemical is simply screwed onto the sprayer head. Operators are also spared the weight of a water - filled knapsack sprayer on their backs resulting in less fatigue and a much faster rate of work.


Tractorisation has most potential in areas of limited rainfall and where field size is sufficient for manoeuvrability. Although smaller, cheaper tractors or even two - wheel cultivators may seem desirable and more attainable for the small farmer, the often hard dry conditions in Africa require a bigger, more powerful machine. Since few farmers have sufficient land to justify a tractor, this leaves him with the option of purchasing the tractor and hiring it out on a contract basis or forming a tractor - owning cooperative. Both options can be successful but for contract hire it is essential that land is cleared of rocks and tree stumps or the cost of repairs to the tractor will soon exceed the hire charge. Communal ownership is proving successful in Zimbabwe although there are problems with the input of time and the level of mangement skill that is required to operate the scheme: small farmers cannot spare time from their own farm work to manage the tractor hiring and, in many cases, do not have the numeracy and literacy skills required. This highlights a major need - that of training. This has to be solved by long term planning if mechanisation is to be successful and to achieve its objectives.

The African Regional Centre for Engineering Design and Manufacturing (ARCEDEM) based in Ibadan, Nigeria, was established in 1980 to develop the capability for engineering design and manufacture of industrial and agricultural machines and equipment. It now has 24 Member States and 250 African engineers trained in design and development. It is funded by annual contributions from Member States and by grants from international organisations, national governments and financial institutions. It is cosponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

ARCEDEM, which has a staff of 250 trained engineers, provides facilities for the design, development, adaptation and testing of machinery and equipment and also training in design, manufacture and maintenance.

Km 9 Ibadan - Iwo Road, PMB 19, UI Post Office,
Ibadan Nigeria


Theoretical training and practical training - working on farms or in workshops - must be encouraged. But practical training necessitates a network of such farms as can provide trainees with the right sort of experience and learning. Students of general agriculture in University should be given a background in mechanisation while those studying engineering should be exposed to aspects of agriculture. Trainers themselves need training since they do not always understand the needs and attitudes of their trainees and there are insufficient good teaching aids available for teacher support. Trainers must be able not only to inform but to motivate trainees to learn more and practice what they have been taught. Maintenance is an attitude of mind and if people think that all is well provided the tractor is running and that therefore no attention need be given to lubrication or to warning signs of impending mechanical trouble then that tractor will have a short working life.

Development of industrialisation in general will also have some benefits for agriculture but this argument cannot be taken too far. Trained mechanics in Africa are often the graduates of automotive mechanic courses and two problems result: either these mechanics are unable to meet the demands of agricultural machinery services, adjustment, maintenance and repair because of their lack of relevant training; or they move from agricultural machinery maintenance to work with cars and trucks where they feel more comfortable, are part of an urban community and usually earn more. With regard to skilled operators of agricultural machinery few training programmes do more than train drivers. The skills needed to operate complex agricultural machinery effectively, safely and efficiently go far beyond an ability to steer a tractor through the field or down the road pulling a trailer. Furthermore, these skills are not developed in a two - week or even two month course at a training institute; they can only be developed in a supervised work experience environment which spans at least two agricultural seasons. Few African countries yet have training programmes that meet these criteria and the results can be seen in machinery graveyards and additional work for mechanics already in short supply.

Exchange of information can help to ensure that machines are developed not only to high common standards but that they are developed to do the jobs for which they are most appropriate. ARCEDEM, which has 250 African engineers trained in design and development, plays an important role in conducting engineering design and manufacturing training programmes but it has also introduced specialised courses for maintenance of machinery, project studies, production techniques, etc. It provides a unique opportunity for agricultural designers to work on design and produce new prototypes. It is also conscious that while individual nations have established their own research and development organisations there is a serious shortage of laboratory testing equipment for prototype development. This is an area where European countries can provide both financial and educational assistance.

Mechanisation policy

There will be no progress towards successful agricultural mechanisation unless policy - makers and governments in Africa give it priority. It is necessary on a national basis to assess all needs and prioritise those needs; to review existing networks for the distribution of equipment and spare parts; to examine existing training facilities, to strengthen those sectors that are weak and to institute training in sectors where it is lacking; finally, to analyse current import policies, their impact on local manufacture and to modify policies to encourage appropriate local design and manufacture.

Ideally, national Agricultural Mechanisation Committees should be set up to advise on national policies and to liaise through ACEMA with similar bodies in Africa and Europe. Meanwhile, European governments (possibly through the EC) could assist by helping to fund ACEMA and by encouraging European manufacturers to make available designs for equipment no longer in production. And both African and European partners in this endeavour must put much more emphasis on training and communication at all stages of the mechanisation process.

At a recent congress held in Brussels (13 - 17 February 1990) discussion centred on the challenges of appropriate mechanisation in Africa. The Congress was organised by the Belgian Federation of the Agricultural and Horticultural Equipment (UGEPO) and was funded by the Belgian Government, the Commission of the E.C. and by The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). A further congress which is to be held in June, also in Brussels, will have as its theme ‘Crop Intensification and the Environment in Africa’. This will also be supported by CTA and will include discussion on the role of mechanisation in crop intensification.

M. P.

The Euro - African Association of Agricultural Engineering Centres (ACEMA) which is based in YaoundCameroon, was established to develop cooperation between European and African centres in the field of agricultural engineering? to exchange information on research, testing and development of agricultural machinery and to provide advice to countries wishing to develop Agricultural Engineering Centres.

PO Box 1040 YaoundR>Cameroon
Tel: 22 33 54
Telex 8325 KN (Minagri)