July 27, 2002
The Daughter-in-Law Who Doesn't Talk Back

Dan Kohn finds a...


Dan Kohn's Blog

...inspiring WSJ story on automation improving women's lives in rural Mali.

Not only is the peanut butter better -- and Mrs. Doumbia's selling easier -- so is the quality of life in the 300 Mali villages that have the machine. Girls who were kept home to help with the domestic work from dawn to dusk are now going to school. Mothers and grandmothers who would have spent a lifetime pounding and grinding now have the free time to take literacy courses and start up small businesses, or to expand family farming plots and nurture a cash crop such as rice. They have dubbed the durable, uncomplaining machine "the daughter-in-law who doesn't speak."

This is the simplest, best description I've ever seen on explaining why productivity improvements (which can often be socially wrenching) are the only way to improve the standard of living...

WSJ.com - Mali's Makeshift 'Cuisinarts' Create Peanut Butter and New Possibilities

Mali's Makeshift 'Cuisinarts' Create
Peanut Butter and New Possibilities

By ROGER THUROW
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

SANANKORONI, Mali -- "Thump-thump-thump" is the trademark sound of the African bush. It is the dreary rhythm of village women pounding grains and nuts into breakfast, lunch and dinner with their heavy wooden pestles.

But in this village of simple mud-brick huts, the melody of daily life goes "chug-chug-chug."

[map]

"Isn't it wonderful?" marveled Biutou Doumbia, talking above the din of a diesel engine kicking into high gear. Balancing a baby on her back and cradling a large sack of peanuts in her arms, she approached a contraption that looks to have sprung from a Rube Goldberg blueprint -- a most unlikely weapon in this country's war on poverty.

After paying the equivalent of 25 cents for machine time, she emptied her 15 pounds of peanuts into a funnel leading to a grinder and blender connected to another funnel, and an ooze of thick peanut butter emerged from its spout. The job was finished in 10 minutes. All that was left for Mrs. Doumbia was to scoop the peanut butter into a dozen jars and sell it on the market. Then, she said with a laugh, she might take a nap. "Before, it would take a whole day to pound and grind the peanuts by hand, and the butter still wouldn't be as fine as this."

Not only is the peanut butter better -- and Mrs. Doumbia's selling easier -- so is the quality of life in the 300 Mali villages that have the machine. Girls who were kept home to help with the domestic work from dawn to dusk are now going to school. Mothers and grandmothers who would have spent a lifetime pounding and grinding now have the free time to take literacy courses and start up small businesses, or to expand family farming plots and nurture a cash crop such as rice.

They have dubbed the durable, uncomplaining machine "the daughter-in-law who doesn't speak."

[Mineta Keita]

"It's changing our lives," said Mineta Keita, the 46-year-old president of the Sanankoroni women's association, which manages the machine and the flourishing business that has sprouted around it. Before it arrived a year ago, only nine women in this village of 460 people were able to read and write. Since then, she said, more than 40 have attended literacy courses. The training to prepare the women to manage the machine usually takes four to six months, and it gives them the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic. Most then continue with other courses to get better and better.

Known blandly as the "multifunctional platform" in United Nations parlance, the contraption was invented in the mid-1990s by a Swiss development worker in Mali who believed that easing the domestic load of African women would unleash their entrepreneurial zeal. The machine, simple and sturdy, was tailored for rural Africa.

A 10-horsepower motor is the centerpiece, sitting on two metal rails about 9 or 10 feet long, anchored to the floor of a small mud-brick shed. Rubber belts connect the motor to various tools: funnels that channel grain and nuts into grinders, whirring blenders that husk rice, pistons that pump water, saws that cut wood, cables that recharge batteries. It is an industrial-sized Cuisinart.

"It's not just about milling and grinding," says Laurent Coche, a Frenchman who has been deploying the machine in Mali for the U.N. Development Program and is now introducing it to neighboring countries. "The biggest impact has been to empower women."

The UNDP insists that the women who use the machine also manage it. Once the women's association in a village can scrape together about 50% of the machine's $4,000 cost, the U.N. and other donors kick in the rest. The Mali government, one of the poorest in the world, would like to see one machine in every village, and it is funneling some of its savings from international debt relief into the project.

Farma Traore, a real daughter-in-law, remembers that it used to take "three whole days" to manually grind a 100-pound bag of corn. "It's unthinkable that we would even do that anymore," she says. The machine does the job in 15 minutes.

Her brother-in-law, Sekou Traore, leaned back in a chair outside his one-room house and smiled. "Our wives aren't so tired anymore," he said. "And their hands are smoother. We like that."

Mr. Traore and several of his brothers had just returned from the fields where they cultivate their crops by hand. One of their wives served up lunch: a big bowl of rice with spicy peanut sauce. Since the women don't spend all day wielding the pestles anymore, the men say, meals are rarely late and families are spending more time together. "We're eating on time," said Mr. Traore. "There's fewer arguments."

Still, the social changes take some getting used to. "Working for women isn't an easy thing. They talk too much and are bossy," said Lassine Traore, a 19-year-old relative who has been trained to maintain the machine. He warily glanced behind his back and tended to a balky fuel injector. "But I'm happy to have this job. It beats farming."

Inside the shed housing the machine, the women's new literacy skills were on display. Two big blackboards hanging on the walls presented a full accounting of the operation. One board gave a daily reckoning of when the machine was turned on and off, what tasks it performed, how much fuel was consumed and how much money was earned. The second board listed who worked, for how long and how much they were paid for their labors. The workers -- usually several women and the maintenance man -- share 30% of the day's revenues. On a particularly active day, the machine may take in $10 to $15.

In nine months of operation, through March of this year, the Sanankoroni machine took in about $1,600. Of that, the women's committee paid out about $500 in salaries to the workers who rotate on part-time shifts. The committee has also managed to build up bank savings in a city nearby of more than $200 and cash reserves of $180 to cover operating expenses. That is big money in a land where average annual per capita income is less than $300, and it is nurturing even bigger ambitions. "We would like to branch out into other businesses, like dyeing clothes and making soap," said Ms. Keita, the committee president. "And we would like to dig a well to get clean water."

This past spring, in the village of Mountougoula, just outside the capital of Bamako, the women raised additional money to connect a generator to the machine and rigged up a lighting network. For the first time ever, the village of 1,580 had lights, with 280 bulbs burning brightly from dusk to midnight.

"The dark is gone," said a wide-eyed Tieoule Dembele, the village secretary. As the lights came on one recent night, he finished a bottle of Coca-Cola at an outdoor bar and sauntered back to the one-room city hall to continue his paperwork. A bare bulb shone above his desk where once hung a kerosene lamp. "We do work for 16 villages in the area," he said, "and I can't get it all done during the day."

At the maternity clinic, where 200 babies are born each year, the midwife reports healthier births under the lights. Across the dirt road, the proprietor of the general store said nightly sales are up $25 since the bulb above his counter began burning.

The chug-chug-chug of the daughter-in-law who doesn't speak pierced the stillness of the night. Soleba Doumbia, the machine's mechanic in Mountougoula, closed the door of the shed and headed home to his own bulb. "Every night, I'm teaching my two daughters how to read," he said.

One day, he figures, he may be working for them.

Write to Roger Thurow at roger.thurow@wsj.com4

Posted by DeLong at July 27, 2002 07:38 AM | Trackback

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Comments

this is a most important article - technology advance with a safety-net can assuredly enhance lives in the poorest of countries - often special benefits will accrue to women - technology advance will be most advantageous when trade opportunites are most ample - we must support trade liberalization keeping in mind the need for our own safety-net protections - compassionate globalization is a must

randall

Posted by: randall on July 27, 2002 10:42 AM

Agreed. I too thought the story made an important point that everyone, given the means to make life easier and more comfortable, will do so.

I'm so tired of those anti-globalization types who drone on about the beauty of folkways and other traditions. As if someone would choose to churn butter the way grandma did when it's available at the supermarket.

Posted by: kit on July 27, 2002 02:37 PM

Agreed. I too thought the story made an important point that everyone, given the means to make life easier and more comfortable, will do so.

I'm so tired of those anti-globalization types who drone on about the beauty of folkways and other traditions. As if someone would choose to churn butter the way grandma did when it's available at the supermarket.

Posted by: kit on July 27, 2002 02:38 PM

thanks, kit - there is endless potential in "community capitalism" for countries in southern africa - there are progressive leaders who are interested in fostering such projects - the developed countires need to determinedly reach out to such leaders and offer incentives for technological innovation - the human capital in southern africa can be a wonder with incentive training tools

randall

Posted by: randall on July 27, 2002 02:45 PM

Kit - the real problem is with all of those economists. You know, the ones who'd have read this article, and started a boring tirade about how the private sector could have done it better, and how this was government taxation taking money from economically optimal investments, and spending it on 'pork barrel', 'welfare', etc.

It's easy to call people names.

Posted by: Barry on July 28, 2002 05:44 AM

the centrality of women in this fine story should be well considered - the freer women are socially the more development potential i believe there will be in any sub-saharan african country - women generally bear the cruelest burdens of poverty - generally bind families together - offer wonderful potential when socially free - equal partners in marriage - free to organize - afforded capital stakes

remember that a fierce sadness for sub-saharan african women is that they are the majority of hiv/aids affected - in sub-saharan africa 9% of the poipulation between 15 and 49 years old are hiv/aids affected 15 million or the 26 million adults are women - 2.6 million affected are children below 15 - there are now 11 million aids orphans below 15 [orphans are children who have lost either both parents or a mother to aids]

development plans should always specifically consider roles of african women

randall

Posted by: randall on July 28, 2002 08:35 AM

Randall, where are the statistics from?

Posted by: Anne on July 28, 2002 08:52 AM

united nations aids studies [unaids]

Posted by: randall on July 28, 2002 09:08 AM

Brad,

Why not join in the discussion of African development? Other than J Sachs American economists have had written far too little on the subject and the disabling consequences of the Aids epidemic.

JD

Posted by: JD on July 28, 2002 11:10 AM

Hey hang on a second. This is a massive, massive straw man. You really can't go back and forth between small peanut grinders and "socially wrenching productivity improvements" like this. If you want to make a case for large-scale industrialisation of the Third World, or for World Bank development strategy circa 1970, go ahead and make it, but don't pretend that this story has anything to do with it.

Posted by: Daniel Davies on July 28, 2002 11:59 PM

Good point, Danial. This is a significant improvement in the lives of many people, but it is only secondarily disruptive, at most. The land is not being taken over by landlords, who are converting it to cash crop production. The people are not moving to cities.

Posted by: Barry on July 29, 2002 05:29 AM

But aren't these hundreds of small diesel engines contributing exhaust to pollution generally and global warming specifically?

I'm sure the mechanical conveyors, grinders, pumps, generators and all are great, but just as surely some portion of these same "application" devices could be driven by a woman on a stationary bicycle frame. Perhaps one worker on each machine... Or, a primitive wooden windmill of the type ubiquitously used to pump water to livestock in the U.S great plains. One still sees such from the highways -- abandoned, broken, still. What a loss. Our modern farms are spoiled by the subsidized prospect of electric power, pipelines, tanker trucks running over federal
highways -- can Third World nations possibly hope to leapfrog the local, self-sufficient farming
community and depend on fuels pumped, refined,
and transported by capitalists with no committment to these societies?
And consider running the generator for hours after dark -- just to provide reading light. Couldn't the fuel be more directly -- efficiently? -- burned in traditional oil lamps; this without the infrastructure expense of running power line throughout the community?

I mean, provide electricity and maybe some enterprising soul will plug in a radio, a television, a laptop -- infecting one more
isolated regions with a U.S.-centric "Disney" culture. Or maybe they'll power a refrigerator!
God knows EU (UK in particular) black marketeers
would be eager to dump their poisonous, CFC tainted older models on any Third World community that would pay even part of the freight costs.
Coca-cola, Budweiser, maybe at best Borden's -- all supplanting local beverages... We can without a doubt expect primitives would use fridge technology to chill Western imported medicines and vaccines -- depriving their children of the traditional folk/herbal remedies that have served such areas so long. And -- unintended consequences! -- if electrification allows refrigeration how much longer before CFCs from third world refrigerators start contributing to global warming, as well.

Start electrifying things and all kinds of hell breaks loose. Printing! That guy with a laptop might add a $20 inkjet and start printing off texts, lesson plans, menus, screeds critical of government policy, topographic maps showing where the sewer ditches could be dug... Who knows what
havoc printing would let loose?

Introduce diesel engines and electricity into such places and you must give up any hope of directing progress.

Whereas, if you put that bicycle-frame into the picture -- like Gilligan pedaling for the Professor on that old T.V. show -- well THEN you'd make a cheap, locally sustainable, predictable, directable, controllable, limited, and ecologically correct contribution to Third
World progress.

I can hardly imagine why the villagers themselves don't seem to prefer this.


(Why, yes, I _am_ sometimes prone to sarcasm. Why do you ask?)

Posted by: Melcher on July 29, 2002 07:33 AM

The lack of concern for desperately poor African women and men as shown by such sarcasm is indeed shocking.

Posted by: Anne on July 29, 2002 08:31 AM

Melcher: I must confess that your sarcasm may have obscured any point you were trying to make. Either that, or you seem to have some axe to grind against the sustainable development community which is serious enough that you don't mind misrepresenting their position. Or would you be happy with someone characterising your own view as being that everyone in the Third World should have two SUVs and American-style air-conditioning?

Posted by: Daniel Davies on July 29, 2002 08:33 AM

Thank you Daniel Davies. I am considering your comments on large project development. Can we look best to South Africa for a partial model? Nelson Mandela looked to Singapore and Malaysia for development models, by the way. Of course Aids complicates everything.

Brad, Please do add some thoughts on the health crisis and how it may skew any development plan.

Posted by: Anne on July 29, 2002 08:41 AM

the hiv/aids epidemic generally worsens in the more southern countries - south africa has an adult infection rate of 20% [15 to 49 years old] - 55% of those affected are women

randall

Posted by: randall on July 29, 2002 08:57 AM

'Or would you be happy with someone characterising your own view as being that everyone in the Third World should have two SUVs and American-style air- conditioning?'

Why shouldn't everyone in the third world have two SUVs (fuel-cell powered, of course) and air-conditioning? :)

The air-conditioning, at least. The poor bastards.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on July 29, 2002 11:17 AM

" would you be happy with someone characterising your own view as being that everyone in the Third World should have two SUVs and American-style air-conditioning? "

Yes. That _is_ almost exactly my view.

Please perfect the comment by substituting "be allowed and encouraged to earn" rather than merely "have". I would not be happy to have my view characterized as supporting any connotation of SUV possesion-by-reason-of-theft/extortion/fraud/etc."

There may be products of comparable worth people might choose to purchase instead, of course. I have no problem with, frex, a wage-earner of the Third World choosing to purchase John Deere farm implements, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Cessna light aircraft ... whatever seems to each mostly likely to grow the crops, deliver the mail, and get the kids back and forth to school. But that's
a generation down the road. So to speak.

But I am confused by the converse view. Is that view that everyone in the First World should be permitted only one, but forbidden a 2nd, SUV?
Or that everyone in the First World should be
forbidden an SUV at all?

Posted by: Melcher on July 29, 2002 12:36 PM

Interesting comments. I see no reason why we are not to assume that Africans wish to live much as we in America live. We thus have an obligation to try to generate ever broader economic development programs that allow broader trade. We must also make special provisions to better assist Africans with immediate health needs. Aids is a quite epidemic. People do not fall ill along the roads. The suffering is truly fearsome however, and we must do far more to allievate it.

Posted by: on July 29, 2002 12:40 PM

>>Please perfect the comment by substituting "be allowed and encouraged to earn" rather than merely "have". <<

No, please keep the analogy to the position you were attempting to satirise exact by retaining "have". Otherwise, your position is just the fairly hypocritical one that rich and poor alike should be free to own Rolls-Royces but forbidden to sleep under bridges. People in the First World are allowed and encouraged to earn Learjets, but that doesn't mean that we are entitled to ridicule a development model under which not everyone has one.

I await with interest your development model under which it is remotely possible in terms of raw materials alone for everyone in the third world to enjoy anything approaching a first world lifestyle. We can argue about moral rights and wrongs later (or at least you can; I don't propose to join in), but let's get issues of fact squared away first.

Posted by: dsquared on July 29, 2002 12:54 PM

Sarcasm is a problem for me. I am not quite sure what is being said seriously and what is not. I think dsquared is saying small is fine when that is all there can be for a time. If so, I agree. A cement house in South Africa is over and over the end of a dream and the beginning of a new dream for electricity, running water, sewage....

Posted by: on July 29, 2002 01:11 PM

When anyone speaks of the "lack of raw materials", I am instantly reminded of Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, where the lack of raw materials led the oundation to develop smaller and more efficient machinery.

Of course, cars today use much less gasoline than they did before the Oil crises - and much more efficiently. The same happens with computers, TV's and pretty much everything. That kind of reasoning is the basic mistake Malthus made... Technology, and our ability to use natural resources in better ways, are constantly evolving, they're not fixed.

Posted by: on July 30, 2002 05:02 AM

Well if we're just going to solve all the difficult problems by assuming that future technologies will bring us to a state of Utopian abundance, then why bother with development policy, or even with economic policy at all?

Please, let's stay in the real world here.

Posted by: Daniel Davies on July 30, 2002 06:20 AM

I'm not saying that we should ignore the problems, I'm saying that the focus should be changed.

Instead of calling on people of underdeveloped nations not to improve their standards of living, or calling on people of developed nations to renounce theirs (as if that was ever going to happen in a democracy), research should be encouraged in better ways of exploiting the resources we do have - just because oil is the main source of energy today, it doesn't mean that when it becomes scarce and more expensive we won't find an alternative such as solar or eolic energy.
Following your point of view, governments should have banned people from eating what they wanted, or force birth control, back when Malthus predicted that all the land in the planet would not be enough to feed all humans.
I happen to think that what you suggest is less realistic.

Posted by: on July 30, 2002 07:16 AM

Still waiting for more discussion of economic policy ideas for southern Africa.

Brad: Help....

Posted by: on July 30, 2002 09:50 AM

How does Africa continue to develop and deal more effectively with AIDS? There are times when African development is discussed by economists when it appears of no consequence that 25 million people are affected by AIDS. We need are consider development in light of AIDS.

Posted by: Anne on July 30, 2002 09:54 AM

Perhaps this article should be read in light of the previous blog entry about Argentina and realistic policy?

It is unrealistic to impose a model of capitalism developed in one highly unusual, geographically isolated part of the world to the underdeveloped states. Heck, it's unrealistic to expect the EU to adopt American market values, how much less likely is it to fly politically in the rest of the world? Instead, one might look at just what small, immediate improvements can directly raise standards of living.

My wife tells this story from time to time about her Thrid World Econ prof at Chico State, a Kenyan economist who loathed the World Bank in a serious way. He pointed out how much standards of living would have improved in Kenya if every woman in the country had been issued a foot-pedal sewing machine and how much less this would have cost than the massive infrastructure projects the World Bank actually funded. This example from Mali seems to me to be making the same case.

Instead of focusing on building export-driven manufacturing economies in every corner of the world, could one instead try to find out just what might improve the productivity of the local economy as is? I wonder if the worst off nations of the world aren't full of little opportunities for real and immediate productivity improvements that aren't being met for essentially silly reasons.

For example, I am unaware of any company still making pedal-driven sewing machines. My grandmother had one and they are miracles of engineering, but no one in their right mind in a country with universal electrification would ever buy such a thing. This nut grinder in Mali seems was developed by a creative aid worker, not Procter and Gamble. No giant manufacturing concern is going to make a cheap battery powered Cuisinart and sell it at African prices. Are we too advanced for our arts to be useful in nations where even the most basic infrastructure is missing?

Argentina is not Mali, but could finding out what is really keeping productivity down in people's day-to-day lives there lead to some analogous conclusion?

Posted by: Scott Martens on July 31, 2002 04:54 PM

scott,

i could not agree more - japan - singapore - malaysia - taiwan - korea - all used a combination of protected local markets and trade to develop

Posted by: randall on August 1, 2002 08:45 AM

>>Following your point of view, <<

I'm not aware of having expressed a view; I simply wanted to ensure, before doing so, that any discussion took place in the context of the admission that Africa cannot feasibly be brought to a First World standard of consumption within the next generation. As I said, getting questions of fact squared away.

Thus, I'm in favour of trying to do what can actually be done, while your policy prescription is to "encourage research". One of us here is a realist; I'm not sure it's you.

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 2, 2002 04:20 AM
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