University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign receives $4.7 million grant to improve cropping systems in Asia and Africa

September 17, 2015
Women in Africa use labor and water saving irrigation mechanization tools in vegetable production.

URBANA, Ill. — Smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa will soon have the ability to produce more food and nutrition on the same land base while protecting the natural resources required for its production. A new group, the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC), will help determine tools, technologies, and methods that best suit smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.

Jerry Glover, Sustainable Agricultural Systems Advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced today that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been chosen as the lead institution of the ASMC for the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab (SIIL). The 4-year, $4.7 million project will be funded by USAID as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

“Providing appropriate scale mechanization opportunities for smallholder farmers from land preparation to harvesting, threshing, and cleaning is critical for saving time and the drudgery of human labor, which in turn can help intensification of farming systems,” said Vara Prasad, director of SIIL at Kansas State University.

“We will focus on specific value chains in terms of crops — rice in Asia and maize in Africa — and we’re also looking at vegetables in Cambodia, and this will expand into Ethiopia as well,” said project lead Alan Hansen. “We will also look at ways to improve the use of animal power in Africa, working with Tillers International, an NGO that has over 15 years of experience in the development of animal-powered mechanization in Africa. In terms of technology, we are looking to create a multifunctional modular platform that will allow us to explore tillage, planting, cultivation and harvesting applications, minimize costs, and improve adoption,” he said. “For instance, a big issue with rice is planting. Most is transplanted — a very laborious process. So there is a lot of interest in direct seeding, which can accelerate that process.”

Hansen said there is a specific focus on easing the burden on women because they typically perform many of the labor-intensive farm tasks that have not been the focus of past mechanization efforts.

“There are many women involved in vegetable production," he said. “Can we design tools specifically for women to empower them to do the work?”

As work begins in each of these countries, Hansen said they will create innovation hubs at specific institutions that have already been identified. “These institutions have substantial capacity and expertise,” he said, “and will enable us to network with the rural communities, smallholders and entrepreneurs, NGOs, and faculty and students within the universities themselves. Over time, these hubs will be used to develop resources, provide training, and set up workshops to develop the local manufacturing of implements.”

Hansen said that in four years these innovation hubs should be self-sustainable.

“Our goal is to intensify production of food in a sustainable way,” he said. "That means increased productivity, yield, quality, and improved health, while accounting for the effect on the environment and the use of limited resources and energy.”

Hansen emphasized that this work has been and will continue to be a team effort involving members from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Michigan State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and Kansas State University.

“All the team members have unique backgrounds and experience that have already been leveraged to help define the scope and direction of this ASMC program,” Hansen said “All are actively involved in teaching, research, and outreach in developing countries that will complement the efforts envisioned for this program. We look forward to working with USAID and Feed the Future in reducing global poverty and hunger by accelerating growth in the agricultural sector with the aid of mechanization.”

Faculty from the University of Illinois’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) are members of the Illinois team and include K.C. Ting, professor and department head of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE); Alan Hansen, project lead and professor in ABE; Prasanta Kalita, professor in ABE and director of the Archer Daniels Midland Institute (ADMI) for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss; and Alex Winter-Nelson, a professor in Agricultural and Consumer Economics and director of the ACES Office of International Programs. ADMI will provide extra support for the project, justified by the scope of the program, including the development of technologies for in-field use that can lead to reduced postharvest losses as well as its current activities with partners in Bangladesh and Ethiopia in collaboration with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss at Kansas State University.

About Feed the Future: Feed the Future is the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. With a focus on smallholder farmers, particularly women, Feed the Future supports partner countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur economic growth and trade that increases incomes and reduces hunger, poverty, and undernutrition. For more information, visit

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