Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Seeking Innovations in Labor Savings for Farmers

March 14, 2013

Last September the foundation launched a Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) Topic on Labor Savings Innovations for Farmers, with a particular interest in finding solutions that could reach women, who often provide a disproportionate share of the labor on farms. This call was different than the Agriculture team’s first GCE call, which was quite focused upstream. Because this challenge is about the immense burden of physical labor on farmers, the solutions are largely low-tech and localized to context and crop, which means solutions are less reliant on cutting-edge science.

We got a great response, nearly 400 proposals from all around the world. We want to extend sincere thanks to all the applicants that took the time to consider the labor burden of farmers and put forward innovations that could transform their lives. The team evaluating your ideas thoroughly appreciated the dedication and creativity displayed in your proposals, and we are now launching a second Round on Labor Saving Innovations.

As you consider applying again or for the first time in this Round, we’d like to emphasize some principles and criteria we use to review proposals:

  • Know and design for the farmer. For those of us who travel frequently to Africa or South Asia, often the remnants of unsuccessful efforts to introduce labor saving machinery are evident. I often see broken or abandoned equipment failing to fulfill the promise intended by a donor or worse, failing the hopes of the farmer who purchased it. This implies the lack of success is grounded in another set of challenges; most fundamental being that there is a lack of understanding of the farmer’s needs in some way. Other reasons might be grounded in understanding local systems, like how to set up sustainable repair mechanisms. In short, we are looking for an appreciation of this context in your proposals, not simply a cutting edge mechanical idea.
  • It’s not all about tools and machines. This challenge is unique in that we are open to a range of solid proposals that tackle labor savings, including those that focus on behavior change around social issues or business models that make access to labor savings possible, rather than simply designing a new product. We didn’t get a very large number of these types of proposals and hope that in the next Round people will think about innovations in a broader way.
  • Local innovators and the power of co-design. We got a great number of proposals from organizations based in Africa and South Asia, which we were excited about and want to encourage again in this Round. We also got proposals from most other regions in the world, which is the tremendous power of GCE! A great innovator in Europe or South America who has never been to Africa or South Asia may have something that would be transformative in those locations; we certainly welcome applicants from all geographies. However, because this call is focused on the farm level it requires a more intimate knowledge of context which means having a local partner is a strength and something that gave us more confidence that the idea might be appropriate and responding to a known need in that area.
  • Saving Labor through Knowledge. We all know that knowledge is power and can certainly be a tool for labor saving. The challenge is actually disseminating appropriate knowledge to a large number of farmers. Figuring out how to achieve scale in reaching and teaching farmers with solid content is a something we would welcome in future proposals. Approaches to knowledge distribution should reach more than a small number of farmers, be sustainable over the long term, and demonstrate fairly immediate labor savings to fit the spirit of this GCE call.

We had some great proposals in the first Round, the winners of which will be announced in May, 2013. We look forward to seeing how these ideas rise to meet the very real challenge of lifting the labor burden from the shoulders of farmers in Africa and South Asia and we look forward to a fresh set of proposals in the coming months!

One great idea, two pages to fill out, that’s all it takes. What’s YOUR idea? Apply now.

 
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