Q&A TED Fellows

Born to innovate: Fellows Friday with Alex Odira Odundo

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Alex Odira Odundo

Armed with a good idea, some scrap metal, and plenty of determination, Alex Odira Odundo invented two low-cost machines that make it easy to process fibers from the drought-tolerant sisal plant – promoting stable incomes and improving lives in his subsistence farming community.

How did you come to invent the Sisal Decorticator and Sisal Twinner?

My work started very simply, as a young person who wanted to solve a problem. Where I live in western Kenya, sisal is a plant that we process for fiber whenever we need to make a little money. There is a market for sisal: a good percentage is used in Kenya for ropes and carpets, and another good part of it is exported. It grows everywhere, but it’s not a crop that’s planted in fields; it’s simply a hedge plant grown along fences, and is a fall-back source of income when our normal crops decline due to drought.

Nobody takes sisal seriously as a source of profit because it’s a tedious plant to process; accessing the fiber is highly labor intensive. First you need to cut the leaves, and then you need to cut them into several strips. These need to be dried, and then you have to pull the dried flesh off those leaves one by one using a rudimentary machine. Every leaf yields almost eight strips, and removing the flesh to get to the fiber takes almost all day using the traditional tools we had.

This work was too much for me. I thought, “Why can’t I make a machine where you just put sisal in, and then it does the work for you, rather than following all these processes?” My character is that I always want to find an easier way of doing things. That’s what makes me happy. This is why sometimes I call myself a born innovator, not a made one!

Sisal fiber.

Sisal fiber. Click to see larger size. Photo: Alex Odundo

Over the course of ten years, you made a variety of prototype sisal-processing machines until you came up with one that worked to your satisfaction. But what drove you to develop this machine when so few people took the plant seriously?

I realized that sisal is a crucial crop for survival. Without sisal, there’s nothing else to live on when everything else fails. And if people could live on income from processing hedge sisal during dry periods, selling it for money to buy food, what if we planted more so that we could profit from it? It became clear to me that we need to take it seriously.

This added urgency to my work. Besides continuing to develop the machine, I started talking to farmers about the importance of sisal, and trying to convince them to plant it as a crop. Unless I could convince them that my machine would help them process sisal easily and profitably, nobody would be willing to invest in the plant as a source of income – traditional sisal processing is too time-consuming to make it worthwhile as a regular business. I knew that making my machine would help people understand the importance of planting more sisal on their farms.

I later learned that sisal rope fetches much more money than the fiber itself. This realization forced me to develop another machine that would make rope out of the fiber – the Sisal Twinner. Making sisal into rope adds value of up to almost 180 percent – a very, very good incentive for promoting sisal amongst farmers.  The Sisal Decorticator takes around two months to pay for itself. The Sisal Twinner takes only one month to pay for itself.

What is the state of your food crops?
Our food crops are not doing as well anymore because of climate change, and the little that we harvest cannot take us through the year, because we only have one season annually. This forces the government to come in with food donations, which is not enough. People need more to survive. The government comes and gives maybe five kilos of maize and maybe two kilos of beans and maybe half a kilo of oil. How long will this last you? It’s very few days. What about the rest of the days; what will you survive on? Nothing. So instead of depending on the government or other aid, let’s plant and process sisal so that we can survive on our own.

Right now, most farmers in my region are not planting new sisal, but are depending on the few hedge plants they have, and these are finishing. Sisal has a lifespan of 10 years, after which the plant gives out suckers and the main plant dies. At the very least, we to plant need new sisal plants for the sake of survival. But my aim is to encourage each farmer who buys my machine to plant at least one acre of sisal crop, managed so that there is never a pause in harvest and production.

Sisal processing in the fields

Processing sisal onsite using the Sisal Decorticator. Click to see larger size. Photo: Alex Odundo

Where are you in your project now?
Right now I’m selling my machine to farmers who are willing to plant more sisal. I’ve sold around 20 machines. I still need to do a lot of marketing. Farmers need training, they need teaching, they need to be convinced. I need to do find a way to do a major campaign about sisal growing.

When a farmer buys a machine, I normally take the machine to him and demonstrate. Sometimes I tell him to call the community, and then I take the opportunity to tell everyone about sisal. Some communities who already have a farmer with a sisal machine call me back for further training or explanation. It’s easier once there is someone within the community who is associated with the project, proving that it works. So I sit them down and talk to them, tell them all the benefits of sisal, the machines and so on.

I don’t have help with this: right now, it’s just me. It’s sometimes so hectic, I don’t know what to do. But in the future, I want to train some boys to help me in the production of the machine, in repair, even marketing.

How have the people in your community responded to your ideas?

Sometime back they thought I was crazy, and that I was doing everything for my own benefit. And it was challenging because nobody, in fact, nobody in my own village embraced my idea. Even people in my family, who say, “Okay, it’s good, it’s good,” sometimes don’t come through when I need their support. I think they don’t really understand the importance of what I’m doing. So it’s very hard to promote this technology in my own area. It’s a very big challenge.

But I just want to see my people living a life that is enjoyable, a life that is not suffering. I want to see them getting good food. I want to see them leading a life that somebody would want to live for. You see? I don’t want them to regret where they were born. I want them to use their resources productively.

Sisal twine.

Twine made with the Sisal Twinner. Click to see larger size. Photo: Alex Odundo

What was your most moving experience as a Fellow at TED2012?

There were many things that moved me, but the speakers who really touched my heart were Bryan Stevenson’s talk about racial injustice and Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian Nobel Peace Price laureate, who spoke about protecting the rights of girls. They spoke of things that really effect our communities, that will really mold our future.

Coming to TED as a Fellow has helped me realize that I didn’t fully recognize that what I do is important for others in the world. You may start something very small, but in doing so, you can really affect other people’s lives without even realizing it. The part you play may be little in your mind, but you actually can change a lot of lives.

How will being a TED Fellow affect your work when you go home?

I’m going to do things differently: I see now that I’ve learned a lot, but I need to do much more than I’m doing. Before I came here, I took things just simply. But now I’ve realized people expect a lot from me. And there’s a lot I need to deliver.