A new technology to mill dried chilli peppers four times faster than flaking by hand and twice as fast as a large mortar & pestle has found its way into Kenya from neighbouring Ethiopia, allowing pepper farmers to save hours of labourious pepper processing and increase their returns from the world's most consumed spice - used by a quarter of the world's population.
The Pepper Eater was developed by Stanford University students for the more than 400,000 Ethiopian women who process peppers by hand, in a laborious procedure that turns fresh peppers into higher-value dried flakes, seeds, and powder. The tiring work leaves their hands covered in hot pepper oil and their eyes, noses, and throats burning from pepper dust in the air.
The small-scale pepper grinder consists of a pair of rollers made of interlocking disks. One of the rollers is driven by a hand crank and draws the dried peppers between the two rollers using small teeth on the larger disks.
A preliminary study in Ethiopia showed that after investing $25 to buy the Pepper Eater, a woman can process four times more peppers, increasing her annual income by $177 and realizing a seven-fold return on investment in one year. Pilot users also gained an additional 300 hours a year for other income-generating activities after the Pepper Eater cut the pepper processing time by 75 per cent.
Now vanguard Ethiopian traders are crossing to the border town of Moyale to sell the technology at $40 and the uptake in the area has been impressive. Though Kenya doesnt enjoy the same scale of pepper farming as Ethiopia, with only about 200,000 pepper farmers compared with more than a million in Ethiopia, according to Bridgenet Africa, areas like Moyale are actively engaged in pepper farming and trading.
From the village of Heilu in Moyale county, 30-year-old Gelila travels three hours by bus to the closest market to sell peppers alongside some 20 other traders processing whole dried red peppers. They spend each day tearing the whole peppers into small pieces, and then flakes, and separating the seeds by hand.
They have become used to teary eyes, but the long hours have been debilitating. Gelila, for example, wakes up at 5:00am to prepare her two sons for schools and escort them there in time to be at the bus stop by 7am. “It's a three hour ride, so I have to be here by 7am, so that I can be in the market at 10am, and then take the whole day working on the pepper. If I miss the bus by even 30 minutes my whole day is ruined and I wont get much returns,” said Gelila, who with the other women sells the processed peppers to local hotels, in the markets and to traders from surrounding districts.
However, now some 20 pepper traders have bought the Pepper Eater, which they are loaning to those who havent managed to purchase one, like Gelila. “We rent it in hours. You pay Sh200 per hour and I only need to use it two hours to clear more than 100 kilos of pepper, something that would take me a whole day,” said Gelila.
This step change in processing capacity comes at a time when the worldwide production of pepper has hit the 3 billion kg per year mark, with the majority coming from Africa and Asia, where pepper processing by hand is still very common.