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Versatile engines power up rural African villages

Multifunction platforms (MFPs), engines powered by diesel or local vegetable oil, can do everything from turning on the lights to milling grain and powering tools.

By Sheldon YoderNourishing the Planet / June 7, 2012

Jamil Idriss charges 50 naira ($0.33) to recharge phone batteries by plugging them into a diesel generator in Lagos, Nigeria. Most of Nigeria is hampered by constant power outages, meaning his customers can't charge their own phones. Multifunction diesel generators are helping generate electricity and do other kinds of work all over Africa.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters/File

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In rural villages in East and West Africa, electrical connections are humming and light bulbs are shining for the first time in homes that only knew candlelight before.

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Although no power lines yet reach these villages, multifunction platforms (MFPs) are filling the energy void, powering not just lights but machines that lessen the drudgery of farmers' work.

What is a multifunction platform? Though the name sounds a bit daunting, the MFP is basically a stationary diesel engine that can be attached to about anything that rotates: grain-milling and husking machines, water pumps, and power tools. The MFPs are quiet, 6 to 8 horsepower, 750-lb Listeroid engines. Their basic construction and features have not changed significantly since their debut in the 1930s.

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The engines have more than proved their durability, efficiency, and hassle-free maintenance over the years. Their efficiency and raw power make them perfectly suited for continuous electrical generation and work.

With MFPs farmers can mill their own corn and wheat for food and sale, while earning income by processing the crops of neighboring farmers. Members of cooperatives can run mechanical tools, power rural electrical grids, and soon, it is hoped, irrigate crops with the machines

Organizations working with the platform have paid special attention to women users, hoping to free up several hours per day that can be devoted to other priority tasks.

The first MFPs were installed in Mali and Burkina Faso in 1994 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began to install MFPs in 1996, and the project is still ongoing, having expanded to include other countries in West Africa.

To acquire an MFP, a group of men and women from a village usually create a formal organization to request and purchase a generator. The cost is usually subsidized between 40 to 50 percent by the UNDP. Residents are given training and then placed in charge of installation, maintenance, and repair of the platforms.

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