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Fuelling food security

Women in Benin, West Africa, can earn more money and save valuable resources and time thanks to their work with three creative McGill Bioresource Engineering students.

In the summer of 2009, Stéphanie Dumais, Stéphanie Mayer and Audrey Yank travelled to Benin as part of an ongoing project, led by professor Michael Ngabi and colleagues from the Department of Bioresource Engineering, that aims to address the issue of food security in the region. Under the guidance of emeritus professor Robert Kok, the students spent three months working with local rice producers—who are traditionally female — to develop tools that would make their work more efficient, less time-intensive and more environmentally sustainable.

While people in Benin prefer parboiled rice for both its flavour and added nutritional value, producing it is a long and arduous process. This means that the women are unable to keep up with local demand, and a large portion of their rice is wasted.

The students realized that the way the traditional stove used for parboiling was constructed meant that more than half of the energy produced for the process was lost to the wind. Working with the women, they set about designing a new stove to solve the problem, making sure to use only materials – like clay and water – that are readily available in the region. They also designed a press that turns rice husks, an otherwise wasted resource, into a sustainable energy source for parboiling– an alternative to the firewood that’s in short supply. 

Besides ensuring that families have enough to eat, reduced waste means less need to import rice and more money for producers and the local economy. In other words, it benefits the entire community.

“The women told us what would and wouldn't work in their situation. We brought our engineering knowledge but they brought their experience. It taught us to really listen,” says Dumais.

Since the students left Benin, women in ten villages in the region have built stoves following their designs, and will soon build the rice-husk presses as well. Plans are now underway to further develop the designs.

“We had an impact on them, but they had more of an impact on us,” says Mayer of the Beninese women. “They changed the way that we look at engineering and how we can use our skills.”

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