Jelle Van Loon breaks tools for a living.
At the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
outside Mexico City, which is known by the Spanish acronym CIMMYT, the shaggy-sideburned engineer strikes the ground with a V-shaped, waist-high planting tool.
Its metal tip pierces the soil. He closes the sides of the V and the planter deposits a seed and a small dose of fertilizer into the earth.
Lift. Strike. Repeat. Van Loon says for a typical developing-world farmer who plants and fertilizes a couple hectares of land by hand, this tool could save days of work.
And by delivering just the right amount of seed and fertilizer, it can save money, too.
There’s one problem. It broke.
Learn by breaking
“We put our strongest guy on it and we let him work it.” He was “over-enthusiastic,” Van Loon said, and broke the chain connecting the two sides of the V.
What’s more, the wood swelled in Mexico’s tropical downpours, and some of the parts rusted.
“Which is a good thing,” Van Loon said, because by seeing tools break in real-world conditions, his team knows what it needs to improve before this planter will work for farmers here.
Researchers around the world are working to build simple machines that will save small-scale farmers time, money and effort.
The challenge is to make those tools both affordable and durable for farmers who don’t have much money to invest.
Motorcycles and farm tools
Van Loon is well suited for the job. His background is in rural development, but in his spare time he tinkers with cars and motorcycles.
His latest project has been fixing up his Kawasaki 650 motorcycle.
“It’s making a lot of noise, waking people up in the morning here,” he said with a laugh. “It’s great for the potholes on Mexican roads.”
Applying his gearhead instincts to farm tools, he put a stronger chain on the hand planter and found wood that didn’t swell so much in the rain. He’s testing a new model.
The prototype cost about $200 to make, though the mass-produced product will cost significantly less.
But Van Loon said it would be a worthwhile investment.
“The acquiring cost is a little bit higher, maybe, at first, but the return on investment is higher because inputs [are] lower,” he said. Seed and fertilizer are expensive, Van Loon noted, and “if you can lower the amount of seed you use, this is what you’re going to feel in your pocket.”
Testing and tweaking
Under a corrugated metal roof at CIMMYT’s headquarters, Van Loon showed off a row of prototype hand tools, animal-drawn planters, and equipment pulled behind small engines.
They’re all being tested and tweaked to adapt them to different environments and types of farming, while keeping them affordable.
For example, an off-the-shelf toothbrush installed in one of the larger machines sweeps out the planting mechanism to ensure only one expensive seed is planted at a time.
Agronomist Bill Raun is also wrestling with a prototype hand planter at Oklahoma State University. He and his colleagues are trying to design a $50 tool that will reliably plant exactly one seed per strike, over and over, for a decade.
“We want a unit that will plant 100,000 seeds per hectare for 10 years. So, that’s a million seeds. So, we want 1 million cycles with no failure,” he explained.
They have not reached that level of reliability yet. “We’re getting there,” he said. “But it has been a challenge.”
When it’s ready, he’s working with a major farm machinery company to make the tool available to farmers around the developing world for about $10, with the rest of the cost subsidized by grants or other funding.
It’s being tested out in El Salvador, Guatemala, Zambia and Kenya.
Raun hopes another six months or so of testing will produce the reliable product he is looking for.