STANFORD UNIVERSITY IS 3,400 MILES and a few thousand dollars in airfare from southwest Ethiopia. But the metaphoric distance between the two is immeasurable.

Grinding Peppers in Ethiopia
(Sam Hamner Photo)

One is an enclave of education and the privilege that comes with it. The other is a place where people spend their hours and days doing things outdoors by hand that Westerners do indoors in minutes with a machine (or better yet, they hire someone to do it for them).

But twice in the past few years, teams of engineers in a program at Stanford have developed affordable products that make the lives of Ethiopians – and especially the women who cook the family meal – much easier. The young designers did their work at Stanford’s Institute of Design (the “d-school”) in a course called Design for Extreme Affordability. Here’s a look at the work they’ve done.

The Pepper Eater. The 2009 Ethiopia team at Stanford first wanted to create something having to do with water technology. But when they traveled to Ethiopia in March 2009, they walked through a market and found a group of women grinding chili peppers, an ingredient used liberally in Ethiopian cuisine (and not just as the key spice in berbere). After working for a while, the women would sometimes crouch down in pain because of the pepper oil they got in their eyes.

The students talked with vegetable sellers, all of them coughing and sneezing from contact with the peppers. Even women back in their homes registered the effect of the peppers from having worked with them all day.

“It kind of hit us in the face,” says Sam Hamner, who was getting his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the time. “These peppers are really potent, and the women are doing it by hand.”

Using the Pepper Eater
(Sam Hamner Photo)

Hamner and his colleagues – Scott Sadlon, Megan Kerins and Siobhan Nolan – continued to talk with farmers, and they came home with a lot of information on irrigation and “a little bit of information on peppers,” Sadlon says. They talked it all over, and finally decided to pursue a way to make it easier for women to grind peppers.

The traditional method of grinding peppers begins by laying them out on tarp to dry in the sun. The people who grind the peppers can do it in two ways: by hand, crumbling them into flakes, and preserving the valuable seeds for other purposes (like making the ultra-fiery mitmita); or with a giant pestle, in a mortar large enough to bathe a child. The former process brings their hands into contact with so much pepper oil that it hurts; the latter process is very physically demanding.

“The women who do this are resilient,” Hamner says. “They just deal with it. From a western mentality, you would think that people would complain. But it’s really hard to get people in Ethiopia to complain about anything.”

So the team set out to create a device that would save time and pain. Each prototype they made – one with a small blade, one with stones in a jar – addressed an aspect of the task and helped them answer a design question. Finally, they came up with a successful prototype: a silver metal cube with rotating steel blades and a handle to crank them. They called their device The Pepper Eater, and using it requires minimal hand contact with the peppers because you can drop whole peppers into it. Through a combination of pressure and sheer, The Pepper Eater makes nice flakes and has a receptacle to catch the seeds.

In September 2009, they returned to Ethiopia with enough material to assemble 10 machines. They spent a week in the poor rural southwest, traveling to Zway, Alaba and Awassa, dropping off machines along the way, and teaching people how to use them. They returned to each town a few days later to learn what people thought.

The Pepper Eater at Work
(Sam Hamner Photo)

Hamner says that the women who prepared their peppers by hand agreed that the Pepper Eater made the job faster for them, and the team sold all of their prototypes to a cooperative of women who were delighted with the device. But the women who worked with a mortal and pestle found that the machine didn’t save any time, and so they didn’t like it, even thought it meant fewer calluses and no pepper oil on their hands. It just wasn’t more efficient, and they preferred to stay with the more physically demanding traditional way. “They were willing to deal with the discomfort of the manual process,” Hamner says. “We needed to give them something better for them to want to buy it.”

So the team tweaked the invention, and in 2012, Hamner and Sadlon returned to Ethiopia with a another version of their device. They visited pepper markets, interviewed a lot of people, and tested the Pepper Eater with farmers and government officials. The trip was a great success.

“Based on our field testing in March,” Hamner says, “it is now two times faster than the mortar and pestle. With this improve efficiency, the women we talked with preferred to use the Pepper Eater. Additionally, they told us that the Pepper Eater produced flakes of higher quality that would be easier to sell compared to the mortar and pestle.”

They’re now raising funds to create 10 to 20 units for a pilot program of extensive field testing. They’re working with Compatible Technology International, a Minneapolis-based non-profit that strives to alleviate hunger and poverty around the world. CTI’s Roger Wilson spent a month in Ethiopia recently working on the Pepper Eater project, where he talked with Ethiopian women about the device.

The Mighty Mitad. When Dave Evans and his Stanford design team – Emilie Fetscher, Jeannie Rosenthal and Abby Schlatter – began work on a project for Ethiopia in March 2008, they had a few ideas, but they left Ethiopia without a solid working project. When they got home and began to process it all, they found eight photos of cracked or broken clay mitads. They hadn’t asked anything about them, and it never came up in conversation, because “it was the status quo that these pieces of clay were very fragile,” Evans says.

The mitad is essential to every Ethiopian kitchen, and the traditional country mitad is a simple piece of equipment: a circle of clay, up to 24 inches in diameter, that a woman heats over hot coals. She pours the fermented injera batter onto it, covers it for a minute or two, and soon she has injera to place under the evening meal.

The Mighty Mitad in use in Ethiopia
Dave Evans Photo (click for link)

But mitads don’t last very long: They break every few months, often at the slightest jostle or unavoidable provocation (like the family’s cow or goat stepping on it). For families who live on a dollar a day, replacing an essential item that costs about $4 isn’t easy. Some families have to replace their mitad four times a year, and if they can’t afford it, they’ll borrow a neighbor’s until they can.

So Evans and his team saw an opportunity. If they could find a way to make a mitad more durable, they could allow Ethiopian families to save money and frustration.

They first studied the clay-making process, and then tried to create a mitad reinforced with steel. Neither option got them too far. Soon they wondered what might happen if they compressed the clay by clamping a steel band around it, a feat of engineering, when used in a more complex way, that creates bridges. They tested their theories using hose clamps around clay discs three inches in diameter, and it worked.

But would it work on a huge clay mitad, which they couldn’t get in California? “It was one thing to test something in the vacuum of the university,” Evans says, “but it was another thing to take it out into the culture.”

This meant another trip to Ethiopia, which Evans took solo for a month in the fall of 2008. “The tests went better than we could have hoped for,” says Evans. “And the people loved it. We had people coming by the office for weeks asking where they could buy it.” The group’s film of their trip to Ethiopia documents their work and shows some reactions to their invention. Another playful film by the group shows the remarkable durability of their invention.

An Ethiopian woman uses the Mighty Mitad
Emilie Fetscher photo (click for link)

In Ethiopia, Evans lived in the southwestern city of Awassa and worked with Fekadu Haile, a native of the area and a self-made businessman whose company, Dama Enterprises, manufactures furniture, and who was looking for a project that would allow him to “give back profitably” to the poorer people of his community.

Fekadu and his wife hosted Evans for the month he spent in Awassa, and by late 2009, Dama had sold more than 2,000 steel bands and had turned a profit on the team’s invention, which Fetscher dubbed The Mighty Mitad – or simply The Mighty, as its satisfied customers in Ethiopia now call it.

The Mighty Mitad costs as little as $3 to make, less then the cost of a new mitad. If every household in the country owed one, the inventors estimate, Ethiopians would save $200 million and a billion pounds of clay annually. The money they save might also allow them to afford stoves that burn wood more efficiently. Ethiopia is deforesting itself to fuel its traditional country stoves, and “people burn everything they have for fuel. Around 6 p.m.,” Evans says, “the whole country becomes smoky.”

Solar Cooking and Stove Technologies. The Mighty Mitad and the Pepper Eater won’t clear the air over Ethiopia. But cleaner cooking devices will, and there are several projects around the world working to create them. Half of the world uses an open fire to cook, and two million people die a year because of it. That’s more than the combined death tool of malaria and tuberculosis.

The Arba Minch Solar Cooking Project is one of the older initiatives in Ethiopia. Based in Germany, it’s worked for more than a decade to bring efficient solar cookers to Ethiopia. The group’s product looks like a bit like a satellite dish.

Solar Cookers International seeks to bring solar cooking to impoverished and threatened communities around the world, and Ethiopia is one of its project. Here a video that shows what they do.

Joshua’s Way is a Christian charity that works with a Mennonite group to bring solar cooking technologies to poor families in Ethiopia.

Foundation Solar Cooking in the Netherlands also makes solar cookers and has posted a video showing the device in action.

Sunny Simons, a company owned by Leon Simons of the Netherlands, has created an economical solar cooker that allows Ethiopians to make injera, a task that has escaped other solar cooking methods. He talked about his invention recently at a conference at Utrecht University.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

See the Mighty Mitad in action.

See the Pepper Eater in action.

Here’s a look at some stove technology in Ethiopia.