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Increasing impact of post-harvest research & development

The unfortunate fiasco of the introduction of the NAPHIRE flash dryer, triggered mixed reactions during the conference. Unfortunately for NAPHIRE, it highlighted the troubled state of agricultural engineering research. There is recognition of the immense contributions made by agricultural engineers to the farming and food industries. But, according to Adrianus Rijk (ADB), who has worked in Asia since 1975, Asian governments have promoted mechanical drying numerous times and without exception these initiatives have failed. The failure of the flash dryer was a case in point. Rijk declares the reasons for the flash dryer failure are simple and he mentions them in his book. He charges that engineers and governments never accept or pretend not to know the realities of post-harvest.

Boru Douthwaite (UK) agrees that agricultural engineers and governments need to learn the lessons from these events. The key question is why aren't they. Boru finds the large numbers of unused machines originating from the public sector laboratories deeply disturbing. It provides evidence that public sector research is not having an impact and decisions by funding agencies are made accordingly. However Boru is motivated to probe deeper into the issue of non-commercial acceptance of technologies and machines that have been 'perfected but rejected'. For him the lessons are not all negative.

IRRI agricultural engineering research has had its share of "flops". According to Bill Chancellor IRRI engineering has worked on more than one hundred technology hardware projects over the past 3 decades, some with outstanding success stories like the axial flow thresher. Apparently these isolated successes have not been enough. Mark A Bell wanted to justify the existence of agricultural engineering at an IRRI convened international Think Tank. This e-mail conference's informal and candid dialogue has been beneficial.

The Think Tank concurred that public sector research has had too few successes in providing technologies in the rice post-production systems of Asia. They urged engineers who think that every problem requires a new piece of hardware to (1) adopt a systems approach to define the problems and establishing priorities; (2) learn to work with other disciplines, in particular the socio-economists, the plant breeders, and the agronomists, as required; (3) learn to consult the end users of the technologies; (4) develop complementary programs with manufacturers; and finally (5) realize that not all problems of the industry require a new or improved machine. For a complete report of the Think Tank's deliberations, write to Mark A Bell.

Priorities for Research and Development. The output of this conference can synthesize opinions and discussions and help identify the gaps in research for the rice post-production system.

1. System characterization. A systems study would reinforce the hypothesis that the best way to help the farmers produce more and better rice is to increase land and labour productivity. The farmers have very little to gain by processing and trading their own harvest. The profit margins of rice processing entrepreneurs are very slim. To obtain a return they must have the economic scale, the technology to increase milling yields and to produce good quality rice, and systems to reduce plant production costs. Just as farmers with small landholdings are the major rice producers of Asia, small scale rice processing entrepreneurs are the dominant processors of rice for the domestic and export markets. Both are the beneficiaries of public sector research. Recommended action items are:

1.1 Establish how farmers can benefit from higher levels of mechanization in the farm level post-harvest operations. Non-photoperiodic varieties, irrigation, turn-around time, and timeliness of operations all contribute to increased productivity. Mechanization is the key remedy where farm labour has diminished.

1.2 Establish optimum scales of plant capacity for rice processing entrepreneurs.

1.3 Establish the technology requirements of small scale rice processing entrepreneurs to improve their profitability. The mill is the heart of the system, and the drying plant leads to fuller utilization of the mill's capacity.

1.4 Use market research to help establish the preferences and demands of different economic classes of consumers. A rice production and processing system may not need to produce premium grade rice if the market prefers another type.

2. Technology development

2.1 Assist the local manufacturing industry with dryer designs that are modular for easy maintenance, and able to handle several grain varieties and grades.

2.2 Improve understanding of how to produce better quality milled rice.

2.3 Develop systems and procedures for quality control programs in the rice industry.

2.4 Increase utilization of rice hull as a source of thermal energy to reduce cost of processing.

2.5 Develop and promote bulk storage and handling systems for Asia to improve plant productivity and pest control.

2.6 Adapt pest control measures to the storage systems used in Asia.

2.7 Evaluate the processing characteristics of HYVs, for engineered designs.

2.8 Evaluate milling technologies for the HYVs.

2.9 Increase the level of instrumentation and automation in the processing plant operations to minimize the intervention of unskilled operators.

2.10 Develop computer decision support systems to guide plant managers and operators.

2.11 Develop small scale seed processing (drying, cleaning, grading) facilities for local communities.

3. Institutional Development

3.1 Provide opportunities for training and develop more researchers and extension engineers in the NARS.

3.2 Develop training programs for technicians.

3.3 Develop an industrial extension program for manufacturers. 3.4 Develop linkages between processors and farmers.

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