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Friday, June 16, 2006 


A worn out bicycle rides slowly along a dirt road towards the Masinda Cassava Cooperative Society, a small white building surrounded by rolling hills blanketed in cassava trees. The sun has barely risen, and roosters can be heard crowing in the distance. The rider, a boy in his late teens from one of the surrounding villages, balances two 40 kg bags of cassava root on the back of the bike as he navigates around the potholes that dot the road. The rider is met by two young workers, and they exchange casual greetings: 'Mwazudka bwanji?', 'Ah, Ndazudka bwino!'. As the two workers help the rider unload his goods, a half dozen other workers notice that a new shipment has arrived, pause their work building an extension to the plant, and gravitate towards the processing area.

One of the men yanks on the pull cord of a diesel engine, and a cassava grating machine roars into action, breaking the relative quiet of the morning. Another yells 'Madzi!' to get his coworker 50 yards away to start the water pumps. One man is washing the roots and dumping them into the grater's hopper, while another is using his hands to guide the roots towards the spinning grating wheel while getting sprayed with pulp from the machine. The grated root pulp is collected by another man and dumped into a sieve to separate the pulpy waste from the starchy matter. Everyone laughs as the water hose comes apart and soaks one of the workers. With containers balanced on their heads, women carry away the waste from the sieve, which is later dried in the sun and sold as livestock feed. The starchy water from the sieve collects in sedimentation channels, where it is left for a few hours while the starch collects at the bottom. When all of the roots have gone through the grater and the sieve, the women and some of the men clean up the water and pulp that has covered nearly everything and sight. After a brief break, the people move back to the other jobs that need to be done around the plant--there is always something that needs to fixed or improved. When a few hours have passed, the water is drained from the channels, and the white starch is left to dry for a few minutes before being collected and left to dry in the sun. On a busy day, another load of Cassava root will be brought in the afternoon and processed late into the night.

This is the daily routine at the cassava processing plant where I'm working during my placement with IITA. My job is to build and test some new processing equipment, and look for ways that the plant can be improved. Specifically, I'm working with the senior engineer to design a new cassava grating machine to replace the current one that is not durable enough and often needs to be repaired. I'll also be introducing and testing a pulverizing machine that will increase the starch extraction rate (more starch given the same amount of cassava root) and solar drying chambers that should speed up the drying process and leave cleaner, higher quality starch. For a student interested in science and engineering, it's a pretty great job: working on building new machines, and getting to do tests out in the field.

But is this what's right for increasing the capacity of the plant and the development of the area? Is introducing this new equipment the best way to spend the money? Are these purely technical improvements what the people around the Masinda plant need? These are the questions that have to asked before any action should be taken. In Nkhotakota, where the plant is located, cassava is the staple crop and you can see it being grown everywhere. The supply is there. Also, the market for cassava starch is improving. The demand is there. So it would be a worthwhile investment to try and improve the capacity of the plant. Technical improvements to the plant could improve the capacity, but will not be effective if the workers don't have the human capacity to properly use and maintain the equipment, or manage the increased plant throughput.

I've recently come back from a short preliminary assessment of the Masinda plant, where I learned about how the plant operated and did some quick tests of the new equipment. I saw a striking example of how the need for human capacity improvements can outweight the need for physical capacity improvements. The diesel engines on the machines, which operate under pretty stressful conditions, often breakdown. My coworker, the senior engineer, or another mechanic from town can sometimes come to fix the problem, but usually a breakdown results in anywhere from a few hours to a few days of downtime. Cassava root has to be processed with a day or two of being harvested, so there is no hope of just letting things pile up to be processed when things are running again. One of the workers is a born tinkerer. He has taught himself basic engine repair, and is called upon whenever there is an issue. The thought that jumped to my head was that this guy should be trained as a mechanic and given adequate tools so that the Masinda plant will always have someone around to fix the problems that arise. The problem is that he can't read. The organization would be hesitant to invest in sending him to a school because his chances of success would be practically nil. What about sending to work with a mechanic as an apprentice? I'm hoping that while I'm here we can find a way to address this and other issues, and try to build up the capacity at Masinda.

Hey there, I sent you a posting but it showed up with the other original ones from the beginning of your trip, check there for comments....the people there really do work hard dont they, lots of physical work and long days...must be pretty hot too for them to work and loud by the sound of how those machines work. Cant imagine what cassava tastes like, should try and describe it...take care

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