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Kenyan Farmers Reap Benefits from Calvin
April 27, 2005

Farmers in Kenya soon will benefit from a new, hand-crankable mill designed by a team of senior engineering students at Calvin College.

Team "Sow What?" spent this entire school year researching, planning, designing and building a small mill that farmers in Kenya, and other countries, can use to increase their productivity in harvesting amaranth, a broadleaf plant that grows to between two and eight feet tall and has a very high nutritional value.

The students - mechanical engineering students Brian Katerberg (Kettering, OH), Kristin De Groot (Tulare, CA), Dan Schrik (Brantford, ON) and Andy Vander Moren (Hanford, CA) - are working with volunteers from Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) on the project.

The amaranth seed is becoming a versatile cash crop in eastern Africa with the seeds of the plant sold as a health food in the United States. In fact, amaranth sells for three times as much as corn on the current market, making it a good source of income for underprivileged families.

The mills currently being used to thresh and winnow amaranth seed in Kenya are rundown and inefficient. The Calvin team designed a mill that is simple and efficient.

"We wanted to do something that was third-world oriented, something that was helping people rather than something that was fun for the moment without a purpose," says Katerberg, whose mission trips to Malaysia and Thailand have made him eager to use his engineering degree in third-world development.

The mill developed by the team is a small, hand-cranked model, which utilizes a fan to blow the chaff free of the amaranth seed. The team intentionally designed a small mill to make it easy to ship the machine through customs.

Bob Beute, the director of ministries for Hillcrest CRC, likes the student's design for its simplicity and effectiveness.

"I think the prototype machine is absolutely beautiful," he says. "When I see the size - it's lightweight - when I see that it threshes and cleans, it's just astounding what those students have done."

Beute says that Hillcrest volunteers have been working on an amaranth project in Kenya for four years now and formerly bought used mills at antique stores and auctions before refurbishing them for use by amaranth growers. But those old models didn't winnow the amaranth seed.

The hand-powered nature of the mill is an appropriate touch as well says Beute.

"Everything we do there has to be hand-powered" he says. "They have an absolute abundance of labor there."

Team "Sow What?" already has tested the prototype mill with amaranth grown by Hillcrest members.

The next step is to begin producing the mill and shipping it to Kenya. The plan is to send it as a kit along with pictorial instructions being tailored by the student design team to Kenyan reading abilities.

Beute notes that the list of countries who want the mills is growing and now includes amaranth projects in Uganda, Mexico and Belize.

Calvin professor Steve VanderLeest says the "Sow What?" project is a good example of what Calvin looks for in its students' senior design efforts.

"It's a good project in a number of ways," he says. "We like seeing students work with real-world groups because they have to work within constraints. Doing that forces them to be creative in ways they normally wouldn't when they design on paper. It is certainly one of the ways we like to see our teams use their engineering and put it in practice with their faith."

Other projects for 2004-2005 include an automatic deterrent system to help protect gardens from animals that raid them, a machine to remove air from a pre-assembled shock and then fill it with light-weight shock oil (for race car applications) and the designing of a building addition for Dutton Christian School.

NOTE TO MEDIA: Katzenberg, DeGroot, Shirk and Vander Moren will formally present the mill on May 7, 2005 at Calvin's 21st annual Senior Design Projects Night. An open house viewing of all the senior design projects will begin the event, followed by dinner and the student presentations.