Learning from Local Craftsmen

Former IDEO.org fellow Martin Schnitzer reflects on how the people you’re designing for will always lead you to the right answer

For once being jet-lagged and wide awake at 4:00 am played to our advantage. Upon arrival to Ethiopia, the fertilizer metering mechanism for the planter wasn’t performing well and we had to fix it before heading to the fields. So day two of our trip started early.

The large selection of tools we brought in our suitcases started to come in handy, with the hot glue gun quickly becoming our weapon of choice. Serious changes had to be made to our device, and our team had to get creative. We weren’t just gluing, but rather building entire parts out of hot glue, effectively transforming our tool into a 3D printer. By breakfast, things were looking much brighter. It would be the first test of our planter on Ethiopian soil, its “home turf,” and finally our metering was functioning properly.

An hour later we arrived at the test field. It had been irrigated for the last couple of days to mimic planting conditions, and the soil consisted of vertisol—the stickiest of all the soil types. After assembling the planter, my teammate and onetime NASA engineer Ravi Prakash picked up the handle and started pulling it down the field. The fertilizer units and metering were working great—one obstacle overcome! But suddenly, Ravi’s steps started getting smaller. Watching him was like seeing time slow down.

Barely 50 feet down the field, the wheels had picked up enough mud to make it nearly impossible to move any further. We knew the mud would be challenging but we didn’t think it would render the planter useless so quickly. Deflated, we felt like we were thrown back to the beginning of our challenge. Halfway across the world, and after so much work, we had no functional prototype.

Burlap was the answer to the teff planter's muddy wheels.

First things first, we began to rework our schedule. We knew that we needed to go back to the shop and prototype new wheels, and we needed to do it quickly. So we returned to the shop in Melkasa, part of an agricultural research center, where we had worked during our first trip to Ethiopia months before. The next couple of days were intense and energetic. Looking back at them, they were some of the most inspiring of the entire project. The guys in the shop were supportive, bringing some great skills and knowledge to our challenge, and helped immensely as we rebuilt the wheels from scratch.

For our new wheels, we tested different widths and a number of variations for spikes. But the critical idea came from Salamon, one of the local metal workers. He pulled us aside and said we should try to wrap the wheels in burlap. Burlap? He offered no rationale, but we were desperate enough to try it. Turns out, the burlap worked incredibly well, outperforming all other prototypes.

Wrapping the wheels in burlap isn’t an idea we could have ever come up with in a brainstorm, and burlap certainly isn’t on any list of new high-tech materials. However, using burlap came from keeping an open mind to trying new solutions. It came from talking to people who understand the conditions best and by sharing the excitement of this project with others to gain inspiration from a number of places. That’s what human centered design is about! That’s why I don’t consider my job just a job, but rather a way to fully engage with the world.

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