3D printing to aid sub-Saharan African women with farming

women farmers mozambique

Women and agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo credit: Diksha41, Wikimedia Commons

We’re just at the beginning of 3D printing food. So far there’s been sugar sculptures, a NASA grant for space pizza, and of course meat. Obviously they all use processed foods so can be considered resource intensive. They’ll become more energy efficient over time, likely shifting from novel to commonplace. Still, no starving people will be fed with 3D printing just yet. At least not directly. A research partnership program between the NUI Galway PABC and Concern Worldwide called 3D4AgDev aims to use 3D printing to aid sub-Saharan African women with farming.

Most farmers of the region are women, and they have little access to basic farming equipment, much less labor-saving machinery. With less tools, more of the work must strenuously be done by hand. Awarded with a $100,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) Grand Challenges Exploration (GCE) Phase I grant, the Plant & AgriBiosciences Research Centre (PABC) in the National University of Ireland Galway has assembled a team to put 3D printing technology into the hands of women smallholder farmers. “The overall goal of the farmer participatory 3D4AgDev Program is to link the potential of User-Led Innovation with Rapid Prototyping (via 3D printing) to enable women smallholder farmers in Africa to design and develop their own labour-saving agricultural tools, tailor-made for their culture, soils and cropping systems.”

User-led innovation refers to incorporating the opinions, knowledge, and circumstances of end users into the designs of products that those people will be using. Sounds like common sense, but traditional manufacturing often has difficulty applying special customizations since it focuses on mass production to keep cost effective. The plan is to start in Tanzania; women farmers will be involved in the design of the tools they need and prototypes will be printed. A very few tools could be functional in plastic format, like small shovels and germination equipment. Most of farming is a bit more intensive though, so the prototypes will be taken to local blacksmiths to copy, likely with casting.

“Labour saving tools for women smallholders can have major impacts, including leading to higher yields, higher incomes, more time for other activities, and reductions in harmful child labour in rural areas. Through linking the women smallholder farmer groups to rapid-prototyping user innovation processes, there is significant potential to improve the status of rural women through fostering an enterprise-oriented “maker culture” for agri-tool innovations.” I have high hopes for 3D printing technologies lifting millions out of poverty and illness, and this project looks promising.