Cross-cultural design puts
a new spin on human-factors engineering
By Jean Thilmany,
In a world with ergonomic keyboards and driver alerts, where electronic gadgets respond to a touch or a sweep of the fingers, the term “human factors” takes on a high cultural significance. But what about the vast part of the same world where technology has not progressed far beyond
the stage of Iron Age agriculture? There can be food on
the ground that people can’t use because they lack the
technology to prepare it.
In African countries like Mali and Niger, for instance,
pearl millet grows abundantly enough to feed the hungriest of the hungry. But Africans remain hungry because
they are surrounded by grain they can’t eat. Separating the seed from its husk—threshing it to make it
edible—is a huge challenge for villagers with no
access to mechanized devices.
Give African villagers access to simple threshing technologies and they could end hunger in
their communities, said Jeff Wilson, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
Agriculture Research Service in Tifton, Ga.
Wilson is an expert on pearl millet and how it might
best be used in the African nations where it grows.
Presently, to thresh pearl millet, women place the stalks
in hollowed-out logs and grind then with heavy sticks.
Or in a privileged case, a villager works the grain by driving the area’s one truck or tractor across it. In other places,
donkeys walk across the pearl millet to the same end.
While developing a simple threshing technology to
help this arduous process sounds easy enough, the challenge is huge, according to Wilson and to the group of
100 volunteer engineers, scientists, and technicians who
make up Compatible Technologies Inc., headquartered
in St. Paul.
CTI volunteers put their expertise to use to develop
mechanisms and simple technologies for use in develop-
ing countries. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.