Made in Minnesota: Compatible Technology International

March 15, 2016 No Comments
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Helping the World’s Poor

by Molly Barrett

In Minnesota, the manufacturing sector is the backbone of our state’s economy. With so many manufacturing companies in our state that are at the forefront of modern technology, it’s hard to imagine a place like Pene & Fils, a family-run business that makes farming machinery and simple metalwork, from a modest neighborhood shop in Thies, Senegal.

Compatible Technology International (CTI), located in Saint Paul, Minn., is working with Pene & Fils to source materials and produce high quality grain threshing technologies for local farmers. CTI is a nonprofit organization that provides small farmers in developing countries with simple tools to process crops and helps local manufacturers supply them. Alexandra Spieldoch, CTI’s executive director, had just returned from a trip to Malawi when she sat down to discuss what CTI is doing to bring empowerment to farmers around the world.

CTI was founded in the Twin Cities in 1981, by a group of engineers and researchers from local food companies like General Mills. This group teamed up to use their ingenuity, hard work, and compassion to help the world’s poor. Today, the organization has five full-time staff members at its Saint Paul office, with four additional volunteers who come in to work on a daily basis.

“CTI is creating jobs and making it easier for poor farmers to process high quality food. This means families can improve their nutrition and raise their incomes,” Spieldoch said.

CTI’s Technologies
CTI currently is bringing three practical technologies to developing countries: a grinder, a hand-operated burr mill that can produce flour from grains and make a creamy paste from roasted nuts; a water chlorinator, which is an affordable, non-electrical water treatment device designed for gravity supply water systems; and a grain thresher, a three-in-one tool that strips, threshes, and winnows grain, enabling farmers to reduce their post-harvest losses and processing time.

CTI also has a set of technologies being developed for harvesting, stripping, and selling peanuts. Other early-stage prototypes include a pepper eater, which is a hand-operated device that shreds dried peppers into higher-value flakes while limiting contact with hot pepper dust and oil. CTI also has a hand-operated prototype for shredding starchy, caloric fruits and vegetables.

CTI implements these technologies through programs in Senegal in West Africa and Malawi in Eastern Africa. CTI also has a water chlorination program that has provided safe water to more than 350,000 people in Nicaragua. In those countries, farming, harvesting, and post-harvest activities still are done by hand, with a mortar and pestle, or with crude tools.

MadeInMN_HandGrinderA Human-Centered Approach
From the beginning, CTI has listened to local farmers to understand their concerns, their needs, and their culture. Since women do most of the post-harvest processing work, CTI prioritizes technology development that will make the most difference to improve their lives.  Once these needs have been identified, the staff and volunteers at CTI then move on to the engineering and prototyping process to make these tools a reality.

The tools that are created need to be desired, effective, and fully accepted into the communities where they will be used. CTI also strives to ensure that the tools and equipment are affordable, well-built, easy to use, and culturally appropriate.

“We develop very simple technologies with parts that you usually can find in the country where we are working. A lot of the design work is done right here in Saint Paul by staff and volunteer technical experts who come from manufacturing,
engineering, agronomy, and food science backgrounds,” Spieldoch said.

“We often will source our materials from Menards, from local junk yards… really, what we’re trying to do on this end is get the concepts and testing down and make sure that we have an understanding of how it could potentially work. From Minnesota, we source materials for prototypes and provide quality insurance for production samples,” Spieldoch said. “Meanwhile, we work with developing countries to manufacture the tools.”

Empowerment Through Technology
Getting tools into the hands of small farmers is challenging. African manufacturers struggle to provide customers with quality tools and to complete large orders in a timely fashion. CTI provides technical support and financial training to help these manufacturers realize their potential.

“These simple technologies give families a way to improve the quality and quantity of their food. This provides a powerful opportunity to reduce hunger in some of the poorest regions of the world,” Spieldoch said.

Looking toward the future, Spieldoch hopes to improve the lives of a million farmers and their families in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025. “Above all, CTI is committed to making a difference in people’s lives,” Spieldoch said. “We’re proud to make a difference with the help from generous people and corporations right here in Minnesota.”pm_endmarkred-e1320337243152

Molly Barrett is the editor and publications manager for the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2016 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Molly Barrett, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.


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