Caroline Condon: Farmers in Mali, Manufacturing in China, and Other Tales from an Engineer in Social Benefit
Caroline Condon graduated from Olin College of Engineering in 2013. In college, she took a capstone class called Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE). She joined Engineers without Borders Canada after graduation. They connected her with Voto Mobile in Ghana. For the last two years she has lived and worked in Bamako, the capital of Mali, at a company called MyAgro. I interviewed her over video chat, where she used her office Wifi on a quiet weekday.
What do you work on?
The company that I work for sells seeds and fertilizer to smallholder farmers.
I work on agricultural tools. Our core products are seeds and fertilizer, but we’re also developing a tools portfolio, that I run.
What’s an example of a tool in your portfolio?
One of the tools is a planting machine, it’s called a “semoir”, which means “thing that plants” in French.
It’s got a slanted disc that scoops up the seeds and drops them out one at a time. And then, it has fertilizer that’s stored in a separate box. It puts a little bit of fertilizer next to every single seed (“microdosing”). It’s a lot more effective than spreading fertilizer all over the field.
How does the pricing work for a social benefit product?
We’re selling them at cost, at about $300 USD, to a population whose income is $1–1.50 per day. I would say that this product’s customer is the richer set of our clients– who are still, on a global scale, poor.
It’s by far the most expensive of our products. We’re focusing on reducing our manufacturing cost now, to make it accessible to everyone.
The demand is high at this price. But even if we filled the demand, there would still be a large chunk of farmers not using a semoir and microdosing . Our ultimate goal is to sell our semoir at the same price as non-microdosing planters.
Farmers work hard. they deserve good tools. It’s my privilege to be able to try to build those.
What’s an interesting project you worked on?
They sent me on a trip to China, to do the quality control visit at the factory. Our goal was to get a better idea of what parts are expensive, so that we could design them out.
They knew we had concerns about the cost. But sometimes they’d come back with suggestions that would make zero sense if you’d seen the machine in action. For example, they asked if we could make the holes bigger in the seed scoop. Then they could use a cheaper drill. But if they’re bigger, more seeds will fall into them. Their fundamental property is how large they are. They didn’t get it.
We found a plot near their building, and planted some soybeans with one of the tests, so they could see it in action.
A lot of why I went to China was relationship building. I brought a bunch of pictures of our farmers using it, which made them excited. That’s something I should have realized ahead of time– we had never sent them any video or anything.
They didn’t realize who was buying these machines from us. They thought we were selling them to the UN or something, who was giving them away for free. They hadn’t realized, oh, you’re selling them to farmers? No wonder you care so much about price!
How did you start working in social benefit?
Right after graduation, I moved to Ghana with the Canadian Engineers Without Borders.
In the development world, there’s been a lot of movement in the last couple of years to use phones. Voto Mobile’s first partner was a maternal health organization in northern Ghana. When women came into the clinic for prenatal care, they could sign up for text messages of health advice.
But they did a bunch of interviews, and they found out that 80% of the women couldn’t read the messages. The local language in this area is hard to write; you can’t get the right characters on a phone. So the texts were in English. Some women were having their kids read them when they got home from school.
Voto started by creating a platform for voice recordings rather than texts.
Why did you move to Mali?
I was not doing technical work, because I have no computer background. I decided I didn’t want to be away from engineering for so long. I was looking online, on Idealist.
MyAgro, where I work now, had this shipment of semoirs coming in on a boat from China. They had no one to put them together. So I came to do that. I had no connection with them, didn’t know any thing about Mali, didn’t speak any French. But I ended up staying.
Can you tell me about living in Mali?
Living here feels ordinary, at this point.
Bamaco is the safest city I’ve ever lived in, anywhere in the world. It’s very laid back, petty crime is very uncommon. Walking through the markets, no one has ever tried to pickpocket me.
People sit out on the streets until very, very late at night. That’s where a lot of common life takes place. They play checkers, and they make tea. So I could walk home at midnight from a bar, and pass all my neighbors.
Mali is great. It’s been a real privilege to me to be able to move around and live in different places. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance.