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Multi-Functional Platform in Senegal

By Negar Rachel Treister | United Nations Development Program | June 22, 2007

CREDIT: Rachel Makabi.

The machine would not work. Dionfolo Oualy and her ten-year-old daughter Kamissa had no choice but to put aside their other tasks and thrash at the chunks of millet with large wooden sticks. It was nearing 4 p.m. on a Friday in the mid-sized village of Bantantinty, Senegal—about 290 miles of potholed roads east of the capital, Dakar—where a team of students had traveled to examine access to energy services in rural Africa as part of a joint Columbia University–United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) workshop. There were afternoon prayers to be said and meals to be prepared, but the grinding would have to come first, adding to the women's already long workday.

Like most women in the villages of West Africa, where electricity and motorized machines are scarce, the Oualy women work from dawn until dusk on all the basic tasks necessary for survival. They wake up at 6 a.m. to say prayers, draw water from the well, and prepare breakfast. In the afternoon, they prepare flour and gather wood for the midday meal. In the early evening, they grind, clean, and work on harvesting. They finish at 10 p.m. and wake up early, only to begin the process once again. There is little time for rest or raising children, and even less time for school.

Things are different in the village when the machine works. Bantantinty is one of 40 villages in Senegal that have a diesel-run device called a Multi-Functional Platform, which quickly performs tasks that would otherwise take the women hours to complete. The machine, which is financed by the village, local government, and the UNDP, mechanically grinds millet, de-husks rice and maize, and de-shells nuts. Although some men use the platform for tasks such as welding, it is primarily used by women.

Even though the platform sometimes breaks down, nearly everyone in the village has generally seen a positive difference since the village acquired the machine four years ago. The residents reported that the machine not only saved time in grinding, but also resulted in a greater volume of grain, creating a surplus that could be sold. Others in the village said the platform has created new jobs, as people had to be trained to maintain and repair it. The village doctor reported that as a result of doing less manual labor, women were delivering their babies with fewer complications.

In a room adjacent to the platform, one woman demonstrated the village's new manual sewing machine, while others made soap—two new enterprises that the women have started with their newly acquired free time. As a result of such activities, women's incomes have grown considerably.

"Women have a vested interest in making this work, because they were the ones who would suffer before," said Odile Balizet, a coordinator for the Multi-Functional Platform program in the UNDP's Senegal office. According to Balizet, before the arrival of the platform, women made 5,000 CFA ($10 US) per year. Now, they are making twice that amount each month.

These are just a few examples of the slow but steady changes in the lives of rural women in villages with access to mechanical energy. In many of these villages, such energy services are spurring on the process of taking people out of poverty. Though access to energy services is not part of the United Nation's eight Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, it permeates all of them.

For the women of Bantantinty, the platform is creating a clear generational shift. Traditionally, young girls have had difficulty attending school because they were expected to help their mothers with the hard labor of grinding. But since the arrival of the platform, girls' school attendance has shot up in Bantantinty, giving them opportunities their mothers never had.

"I had to work a lot in my life. It is pretty obvious my daughter has an easier time," said 60-year old Noné Signate, a member of the platform's managing association.

Signate's husband, who was formerly the chief of the village, helped bring the platform to Bantantinty. Their daughter is the first girl in several generations to attend school. "I don't want my daughter to have a hard life, the way I had," Signate said. "This is why I am sending her to school."

Obtaining a platform requires a strong financial commitment from villages. Recipient villages have to pay between 20 and 60 percent of the $7,500 hardware costs of a machine. Even though this is a fraction of the total $17,000 cost of a platform, most of which is subsidized, it nevertheless makes some villages unwilling or reluctant to invest in the technology. In other cases, traditional cultural norms regarding gender roles can lead to opposition to the idea.

"A lot of times, when women complain about their workload, the men say 'That's your problem. I don't want to know about it,'" said Mamadou Fadé of Central Africa's development agency. Fadé has four years of experience with the platform in Mauritania, and is now applying his expertise in Senegal.

In villages that manage to overcome these concerns and request a platform, the UNDP conducts a three-month feasibility study to determine whether the village meets a population criteria for eligibility—villages have to have between 500 and 2000 residents—and to assess the willingness and ability of the village to pay for the platform.

Senegal plans to establish another 400 machines by 2010 and another 600 by 2015. This planned expansion comes on of the heels of similar, successful programs that have been underway in Mali for years.

Multi-Functional Platform, Senegal
Working on the Multi-Functional Platform. Photo by Rachel Makabi.
Nevertheless, there are several obstacles. At the top of the list is the rising price of oil. Villages like Bantantinty invested in their platforms in 2002, when the price of diesel available to them was 56 cents a liter. But the surge in oil prices over the past few years—caused by soaring demand in China, instability in the Middle East, and decreased refining capability in the United States following Hurricane Katrina—hit the isolated village of Bantantinty hard. Now, the villagers pay $1.12 a liter for their diesel fuel—double the amount they previously paid. This cost hurts the village's bottom line. As oil prices climbed, profits from platform-related enterprises fell by 90 percent.

In order to ease the financial burden caused by the surge in oil prices, the UNDP is looking into research and funding to integrate more biofuels into the platforms, according to UNDP energy analyst Jem Porcaro. "Instead of shooting for the moon and promising everything, we are looking at the real challenges and opportunities of using biofuels," Porcaro said.

There is also the difficulty of getting the platform to consistently perform its many functions. For example, the platform in Bantantinty should be able to charge batteries, in addition to grinding, de-shelling, and churning butter. But two years ago, the battery charger broke and has not worked since. Though people in the village are trained to fix some of the platform's more common problems, they cannot fix all of them. When the village needs to call on trained technicians, it can take days or weeks for one to journey to the site to fix the machine.

For villages like Bantantinty—which are isolated from electricity grids and have to rely on manual labor to draw water—there is also an urgent need to try to add water pumping or electricity services to the many existing tasks of the platform, a need whose feasibility is currently being analyzed.

"We have been waiting and asking for electricity for ten years now," Bantantinty village chief said. The chief had gathered with a group of about 50 people from the village, mostly women, to discuss the respective failures and successes of the platform. The village has a special meeting place for occasions such as this—the participants sat on smoothed wooden logs that served as benches, shaded overhead by a sprawling tree.

Bringing a mechanized water pump to the village would spare the women hours of drawing water from the well, and electricity would provide other health and social benefits. Without electricity, the village's clinic—which also serves two neighboring villages—isn't able to power a refrigerator for medications. For patients who come in at night, the clinic relies on candles and a few flashlights for illumination. Given the low population density of Senegal's rural areas, the country's main electric utility, Senelec, will not extend the electrical grid to places like Bantantinty any time soon, according to a Senelec representative. For now, Bantantinty must look elsewhere for its electricity needs.

Ultimately, improving the platform's functionality hinges on building the capacity of local entrepreneurs and ensuring community ownership. For his part, Porcaro sees a positive trend towards moving from small pilot programs to genuine policy integration: "It requires working hand in hand with governments and civil society to integrate energy considerations into national development strategies and policies."

This article was republished with kind permission from SIPA News. Additional reporting by Columbia University graduate students Jennifer Chang, Emily Firth, and Andres Franco.

Read More: Development, Energy, Gender, Poverty, Technology, Senegal, Africa

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