Sunflower threshing solution comes to innovator in a dream

Originally published on March 3, 2017.

As chair of Tumanini, a farming group, Leonard Nzunda, is a respected leader in his village. Still, he was surprised when he was asked to represent his community and create an innovation to help ease the workload of the women farmers in his community.  

Leonard was invited to a three-day training sponsored by Innovations in Gender Equity (IGE), a five-year program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development. During the training, an IGE facilitator worked with the group to identify agricultural challenges affecting the women in their villages. This was the easy part. Leonard only had to think of his wife.

Leonard and his wife grow sunflowers. Like most families in Tanzania, his wife does most of the labor in harvesting the sunflowers. And, the traditional way of harvesting sunflower nuts is hard, tedious work. Leonard recalls trying to get his kids to help his wife with the threshing – beating one sunflower ear at a time, by hand – and they ran off after a few minutes, bored.    

Because the work is so difficult, few local farmers grow sunflowers, even though the oil is a staple in village kitchens. Leonard knew that if he could create an innovation to ease this hard work, it would make a real difference in the lives of his wife and the other village women too.  

Leonard knew the problem he wanted to work on, but wasn’t sure he could find a solution. “The facilitator told us we would discover that each of had talents that we didn’t know we had,” and pushed us to find a true innovation. The group worked in vain until midnight when they decided to break and get some sleep. And then, to Leonard’s surprise, the solution came to him in a dream. What about a machine that would thresh several sunflower ears at a time?  

In the morning, he shared his idea with the group. With the facilitator, they created drawings and eventually models of how the machine might work. Once the idea was designed, they received IGE funding to buy supplies and build a prototype. Their first version was made of wood, but they soon realized a metal machine – made by a local welder – was the way to go. 

Once they had a prototype, they entered their innovation in an IGE-hosted competition – and they won! Winning meant they got additional funding, and the opportunity to test their innovation in two farming communities. 

Asha Julius is one of the 25 farmers who got to use the new thresher. Using traditional threshing, it would take her three hours to get 20 kilograms of sunflower nuts. But, with the IGE-sponsored innovation, it now takes just 10-20 minutes. Using the threshing machine gives her more time and energy for other household activities, like cooking for her children. And, now that sunflowers are easier to harvest, more farmers are interested in this crop – for food and additional income too.

So far, 464 people have seen a demonstration of the new sunflower thresher.  Leonard is excited to share this innovation with others, and plans to build and sell threshing machines to other farmer groups and villages. He has already shared his innovation at agricultural and equipment exhibitions, and estimates they can make a profit of $50 USD per machine.

And, Leonard is not done innovating. He’s shared his story, including a trip to Dar es Salaam - a first - with his children, and tells them, “If you want to have experiences like I have had, you need to think, you need to dream, you need to imagine the future, and you need to do something with your ideas.”

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