Happy (Ethiopian) New Year!

We’ve just returned to Addis Ababa for Ethiopian New Year after some very successful user testing in the southern region of Ethiopia.  In just a few days, we’ve distributed eight Pepper Eaters to a variety of users, from a woman’s cooperative to a berbere (pepper) merchant.  Our feedback has been positive and consistent.  We were pleased to learn that people like the Pepper Eater and believe it to be easier and faster to use than the traditional large mortar and pestle, called a mukacha.  One consistent suggestion has been to increase the size of the Pepper Eater to be  “at least twice as large.” We’ve learned that women are used to processing at least 2-3 kilograms of peppers at a time with a mukacha!


User Testing in Enseno

Enseno: Our First Users

On our first day in Ziway, we met up with Bruk, an extremely energetic, intelligent, and well connected employee IDE Ethiopia.  Being a former truck driver, Bruk has extensive knowledge of each region of Ethiopia.  We traveled in his pickup to a village called Enseno, near the town of Tora, where we saw a bustling market.  We made our way along rows of men at sewing machines to an area where women tearing piles of dried berbere peppers into small flakes.  After demonstrating our product in the market, a local pepper merchant, named Mustafa invited us to his home.  Surrounded by curious children, some men and women of the village took turns processing peppers with the Pepper Eater.   We left two Pepper Eaters there with Mustafa, who will give it to the women he employs and give us feedback when we return next week.

Alaba:  The Pepper Capital of Ethiopia

According to Bruk, “If anybody’s going to take you seriously about peppers, you have to go to Alaba.”  Alaba, near the city of Awassa, is the heart of Ethiopia’s pepper trade.  So that same day, we hopped into Bruk’s truck and drove south to Alaba.  When we arrived at the open market at Alaba (the 2nd largest in Ethiopia), we could tell that Bruk was right!  There were more peppers than I had even seen in my entire life – mountains of it!  The merchant we spoke to there told us he brokers about 1000 kg of berbere per day.  We showed him our product and he promised to pass it around to the pepper processors who work for him.  As usual, our presence caused quite a stir, so we told the merchant when we would return and left.  As we arrived at our hotel that evening, the streets got steadily busier as the sky darkened, with children’s voices and chanting drifting through the cool evening air.  Primarily Muslim, people in Alaba were headed toward evening prayer for Ramadan.

A worker stuffs peppers into a 100kg sack!

A worker stuffs peppers into a 100kg sack!

The next day, Bruk brought us to the Government’s Rural Development Office in the woreda of Alaba.  We met the office staff and they took us to a local women’s cooperative.  These 15 women make efficient stoves out of cement and red ash to demonstrate and sell at the local market, and process peppers on an individual household basis.  They also grow their own peppers, planting them in May and harvesting them after the end of the rainy season in November.  The women took us to their pepper plots, where the plants stood small, green, and healthy; their white flowers in various stages of bloom.  When we showed them our Pepper Eater, they laughed and smiled.  They found the device easy to use, and thought that the sifter would be especially useful for keeping seeds for planting season.  Again, their main concern was size.  They observed that something bigger would allow them to complete the task at an even faster rate.  They told us they would probably share one Pepper Eater between several households rather than keep one per family.

Roggie: A Village on a Hill

The next day, we went with our driver Gaetu to Roggie village.  The road off the highway was rough, so we parked and made the 5 km trek up to our next destination on foot: a primary school built by HOPE Enterprises.  Berhanu, the school director, accompanied us there, where a cluster of plain buildings overlooked an amazing view of Shala Lake.  When we arrived, about 15 women were patiently waiting for us, seated on the ground talking softly.  They immediately stood up and greeted us warmly, hugging us and shaking our hands, saying “Akeemjerta”, a greeting in Orominya.  On a table they provided us, we demonstrated two Pepper Eaters.  The group of women were eager to try it!  After a bit, they gave us a few comments.  Like everyone else, they thought the Pepper Eater should be twice as large! They also liked the sifter, and thought that it was “simple to understand.”  When I asked if they liked our logo, one women told us that she thought it was a flower!  Upon closer inspection, I can see that it doesn’t actually look much like the local berbere pepper.

Pepper processors in Ziway take a break to try out the Pepper Eater

Pepper processors in Ziway take a break to try out the Pepper Eater

Back in Ziway

The same day, we drove back to the IDE office in Ziway where we met Danny, an IDE Field Officer.  He took us to a women’s co-op just north of Ziway.  There we met with about eight women sitting under the shade of a tree.  When we arrived, we realized we had left our peppers with the women at Roggie Village, and the peppers they had at this cooperative were already processed; no good for demonstrating.  Luckily, Danny knew of a place just down the road that sells berbere, so we went along with him to buy a few kilos.  We pulled over to the side of the road and walked past a couple of houses, where we found a field of tarps covered with drying berbere pulp!  Three women were working at individual mukachas, the first I had seen since arriving in Ethiopia.  Their hands and arms were covered halfway up to their elbows in red spiciness.  They told us they process about 100 kg per day as a group.  By chance, Sam and I had encountered a great opportunity.  Sam ran back to the car to retrieve a Pepper Eater to give to them.  One women liked it so much that she just kept grinding peppers for about five minutes straight, smiling the whole time.  Again, and this time it was very obvious, the Pepper Eater needed to be bigger.

A field full of drying berbere

A field full of drying berbere

Over the next week, women all around the Ziway and Awassa areas will be using our Pepper Eaters, and forming opinions about them that will enable us to significantly improve our design.  We’re excited to gather feedback when we return next week!

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11 Responses to Happy (Ethiopian) New Year!

  1. Erica Estrada says:

    question: have there been any questions/discussion on price? one thing i found when user testing d.light products was that users like to ask for more. gotta be brighter. gotta last longer. without a cost increase. is there any way to do some tests to find what the tradeoff point would be? can you rig two protos together somehow and introduce that as one piece? is still the response that it needs to be bigger? what if that means it’s twice as costly?

    • mkerins says:

      Thanks for your comment, Erica! For your first question, we’ve been discussing a target price of 100-200 Birr ($10- $20), which we believe to be achievable, and is surprisingly low to some users. One man said he imagined our current prototype would cost 1000 Birr ($100). To answer your second question, we’ve also seen an analogous device from Kenya, a corn grinder that is much larger and remains affordable because it’s made of different materials, such as eucalyptus posts for the frame. We’re not trying to get more for less, but we’re solving a capacity issue. Some women are processing 100 kg per day and need to be able to do more than a handful of peppers at a time, so we’re trying to provide that to them at a reasonable cost.

  2. Scott says:

    You guys rock, keep it up!

    Have you experimented with handles? Are women using it always on the ground or a table, or have some used it in their lap?

  3. lindsay says:

    I am curious. Why not mount the thing down. I notice in all of the pictures the women seem to hold it down with one hand and crank with the other. Doesn’t this make the device prone to slipping? Also, wouldn’t it make sense to add a hopper? Something the women could load up with larger quantities that could drop down into the device?
    At MIT, we worked on several of these kinds of devices, many powered by generator. But for poorer countries, manual operation is the only choice. It has been years since I worked on projects in Ethiopia and I’m glad to see nothing has changed! Keep up the good work.

    • samner says:

      Hi Lindsay,

      Thanks for the suggestions! We definitely agree with both of your suggestions 🙂 These were issues that came up with all of our users, and they will be priorities as we iterate our design.

  4. lindsay says:

    I forgot to add that Erica brough up a really good point. My experience with the Ethiopian and Kenyan women is that they never seemed satisified. We would use rather sophisticated technology to enhance a device and what they really wanted was a mechanized machine that would do the work for them. I think many were a bit spoiled by the teams of students that came before us.

  5. Siobhan Nolan says:

    This is so exciting!! Wow. Great work Sam and Megan!!

    Interesting about the 2x in size. I am not sure how we could test this but would the larger size make it more “mechanical” and thus more of a male oriented device? I have read several studies where this has happened (i.e. with water purification systems) .

    Regardless, you two are doing an amazing job. Thanks for keeping us posted with the blog!

  6. David Kerins says:

    This is Megan’s dad. I really enjoyed the stories and look forward to reading more. God Bless

  7. mom says:

    Dear Megan and Sam,
    You are having quite the adventure. I must comment that Megan needs to be in at least one of the pictures so that I can relax!
    Keep up the excellent work. You are both incredible human beings.

  8. alex says:

    I agree with Linday’s comment about the women not being satisified. They are smart enough to know that a team of students equals an easier time for them. Many have been visited by teams of students and they know enough not to stop complaining, because there is always more. To Megan, my father used to leave message on my blog too. He recently died and I always thought it cool that he left messages anyway. You are a lucky girl…mom and dad!

    • samner says:

      Hi Alex & Lindsay,

      Thank you for your comments. It’s great to know others are interested in our project!

      I understand what you are saying, but I would hesitate to say that the women we interviewed were spoiled, and they were definitely not just asking for more and more features. (In contrast, we did hear some men ask for an electric version, and also a solar powered version, both of which may fit your description).

      The user’s we interviewed, both merchants and women’s cooperatives, used our device for a week and compared it to their current methods. They are able to do 2-3 kilos at a time with a large mortar and pestle, and they were not seeing a significant gain in efficiency with our small-scale prototype. Both Megan and I saw this as a legitimate need to increase the capacity of the device, as one of our main goals is to help generate income for our user’s.

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