Mechanization perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be

Agricultural mechanization has led to labour efficiency and higher levels of production in many developed countries, but attempts to mechanically process njansang nuts in a Cameroonian village has met with mixed results.

Njansang extraction machine

Njansang extraction machine

Scientists testing a prototype kernel extraction machine found that while it reduced processing time by 30 per cent, initial adoption was low and more men and younger users took advantage of the machine despite njansang production being primarily the domain of women.

In an article in the African Journal of Agricultural Research scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre and Belgium’s University of Ghent detail their analysis of whether involving end-users in technology development from an early stage results in higher levels of adoption and improved post-harvesting efficiency.

“If mechanical processing saves people time and generates higher returns on labour, they can pursue other profitable ventures or be motivated to plant njansang trees on their farms,” outlines Charlie Mbosso, Socio Economist/Assistant Scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre and lead author of the article.

Ricinodendron heudelotii (known locally as njansang) is found across tropical West Africa. In Cameroon, it is rated the fourth most important indigenous tree species in terms of uses, management and economic value. Njansang kernels are an important source of income for rural women. They are used in flavouring dishes and for thickening soups and stews. In recent years, regional commercialization of njansang has increased considerably.

Njansang fruits

Njansang fruits

To extract the kernels is a time consuming and tedious task, taking from 2 to 6 months and generally carried out by women. First the fruits are collected – usually from trees in remaining natural forest or those retained on farms – then left to rot for 1 to 2 months. After this, the decaying fruit pulp around the nut is washed away and the nuts are boiled for 3 to 8 hours to soften them and enable cracks to appear in the shells. The kernels are then extracted from the hard shells using a knife, and finally they are dried.

As part of tree domestication and agroforestry development efforts in Cameroon, staff from the World Agroforestry Centre worked with a mechanical engineer to develop a prototype machine to mechanically extract kernels from their nuts. The machine was provided to the Fa’a Si Obe producer group in the small community of Epkwassong in Central Cameroon for testing and pilot use.

Njansang nuts with cracks

Njansang nuts with cracks

Over 4 years, researchers collected data on harvest and post-harvest techniques in the community, compared manual and mechanical extraction, and analysed usage of the machine.

According to Zac Tchoundjeu, Regional Coordinator for West and Central Africa with the World Agroforestry Centre and co-author of the study, the successful adoption of new technology relies on its accessibility and usability across age groups and gender. “It needs to perform well, save labour, increase profits, be appreciated by stakeholders and maintained on an ongoing basis by the community.”

In terms of performance, the extraction machine reduced extraction time by 18 minutes per kilogram of nuts (including the time taken to manually sort intact and broken kernels). Despite this, researchers recorded that only 22 out of 88 members of the producer group used the machine (25 per cent). Of these, half used it once and only 9.1 per cent more than 4 times.

Significantly, the researchers found that while women represent 72 per cent of njansang producers, 57.1 per cent of machine users were men.

Dried njansang kernels

Dried njansang kernels

“It may be that women were reluctant to take part in the experimental phase because it could involve taking a risk with their product,” explains Mbosso. “We need to be careful that men do not take over this activity as it would mean a loss of income to women in the community.”

“The low utilization can be explained by the higher number of broken kernels (23.3 per cent) than with manual extraction (3.23 per cent).” Broken kernels fetch lower prices at market and need to be sorted which is a laborious task.

In terms of age, 70 per cent of people who used the machine were aged between 41 and 50 years, and there was higher usage in the 31 to 40 year age group than in the over 60s.

Encouragingly, 72.7 per cent found the machine easy to use and 95 per cent said they would use it the following season if the rate of broken kernels were reduced.

In their article, the researchers evaluate the adoption of the machine against a learning selection model which assumes that successful technologies are those which manufacturers and users develop together. This co-development process is ongoing in Epkwassong with machine operators advising on ways to improve processing.

“Several studies have shown how through co-development, key stakeholders learn about the equipment and develop their own procedures and protocols which result in the technology being ‘meshed in’ with existing systems,” says Mbosso.

“It is our hope that mechanical extraction can be more widely adopted to bring greater benefits – especially to rural women – from an agroforestry species with high market value and demand.”

Download the full article:

Mbosso C, Degrande A, Tabougue P, Franzel S, Van Noordwijk M, Van Damme P, Tchoundjeu Z and Foundjem-Tita D (2013) No appropriate technology so far for Ricinodendron heudelotii (Baill. Pierre ex Pax) processing in Cameroon: Performance of mechanized kernel extraction. African Journal of Agricultural Research 8(46) pp. 5741-5751.

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Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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