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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)

I came to DukeEngage Togo thinking that I would be primarily working on creating a baobab nut shelling machine. Baobab nuts are a common food here that are high in protein and relatively easy to cultivate. Unfortunately, this type of nut has an incredibly hard shell. This is problematic because in order to crack the nuts and harvest the fruit inside, women must boil the nuts in a huge cauldron for two hours, wait for the nuts to cool overnight, and then crack them with their teeth which, over time, greatly chips and damages the teeth. Thus, the process is both greatly time consuming and physically damaging to the women. So, the idea was that we build some sort of shelling machine that would save the women’s time, teeth, and allow them produce more nuts to bring to market.

But a major hurdle has been that the Full Belly Project—the NGO that created the initial design for this machine—never responded to my many attempts to contact them about getting the mold to finish the machine. So, I arrived in Togo with the open source plans for the hand crank and the metal frame, but nothing in the way of molds for the essential concrete components that would actually crack the nuts open. Another stumbling block is that the design, while called “the Universal Nut Sheller”, really isn’t at all universal. It was designed by the NGO specifically for peanuts. But, since the google searches I did beforehand showed no evidence of baobab nut cracking machines in existence, we decided that we might be able to modify this machine to work.

Problem is, with no baobab nuts at my disposal in the US, we had no idea if this machine would work on this specific nut. I’ve since learned that Baobab nuts are small and hard, have little to no gap between the shell and the nut, and are impossible to shell by hand. Peanut shells, however, are relatively brittle and separate from the nut, and as anyone who’s been to a baseball game can attest, they’re pretty easy to shell by hand.

So, after arriving and settling into my routine in Kuwde, I stared working on this problem. Over the past 4 weeks, I drove all over northern Togo with Paketam—one of Charlie’s assistants and a skilled mechanic—to track down all of the parts and get them welded together. First, we assembled the entire metal frame and crank as specified by the Full Belly Project plans, and we were even able to come up with a mold design that may work. But, casting the concrete ran into a few issues: Our outer mold set for too long so the concrete stuck and we still can’t get it out; the inner mold slid out easily, but because the molds were hand bent sheet metal, the dimensions were off and there are some gaps. But, despite all those issues, there have been some initial successes. The first handful of nuts that we tested had some partial shelling, meaning that the machine is at least somewhat working. Thus, the goal for the rest of my time here is to figure out how to turn this partial shelling into a complete one without damaging the nut inside.

But the nut-sheller isn’t the only project I’ve been working on. I scouted out the local elementary school for a solar panel installation, figuring out what parts of the roof get the best sunlight and making an estimate of the power demand. At the behest of Charlie, I looked into setting up a Wifi relay to get connection to the aforementioned school. The technology exists to bounce signal miles away, so with the help of Sam and Jackie, I scouted out the best location to build the relay. While neither of those builds will happen during my time here, I’m excited to be laying the foundation for future construction that will make a major difference for students one day.