The Eli Rice Seeder—A Transformative Rice Planting Technology

Background:  Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia (BB2C)

The nonprofit organization Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia, Inc.—BB2C, as it is called—was founded in 2007 to improve living conditions for impoverished farm workers in Cambodia.  It is a small but nimble NGO with limited resources but an active core of motivated, energetic engineers, workers, and staff willing to take substantial risks for the cause they embrace.  With a modest annual budget of about $120,000, they take pride in paraphrasing Winston Churchill when they refer to themselves by saying “seldom have so few done so much with so little,” and the observation is just.  While other organizations with budgets ten times that of BB2C make very little impact because of unnecessary spending and bureaucratic red tape, BB2C is directly involved in innovating new technologies as well as improving existing ones and getting these improvements and innovations into the hands of as many Cambodians as possible.  BB2C works with, listens to, and learns from the farmers and workers of Cambodia.  It invests in, employs, and partners with locals, harnessing their knowledge and skills to find practical solutions to challenging problems.  The results of these strategies and activities allow BB2C to assist farmers to move from subsistence to profitability, opening new and worthy horizons to them.

Target Population:  Impoverished Farm Workers in Cambodia

The majority of Cambodia’s population are farm workers, and rice is the crop they mainly cultivate for subsistence in rural areas removed from urban centers.  The target population of this Patents For Humanity application is impoverished farm workers in Cambodia.

Humanitarian Issue:  Inefficient, Unhealthy, and Wasteful Methods of Planting Rice

Rice is a labor-intensive crop.  Its various stages of production, from seeding in nurseries, transplanting seedlings individually by hand to rows in rice fields, then applying fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides (if necessary, and affordable), continual weeding, and harvesting by hand picking, all require many hands working long hours.  Following this inefficient regimen, the work poor farmers do tending small plots of land in the cultivation of rice is backbreaking manual labor.  For example, it takes nearly 320 working hours to plant one hectare, an area measuring about two and one-half acres.  Put another way, this comes to forty women (women do most of the transplanting from the nurseries to the fields) working an entire day just to plant one hectare.  The founder of BB2C herself once watched as the women on a farm she visited rose before four o’clock in the morning to go to market, worked the whole day through, and did not bed down until nine or ten o’clock at night.  She writes: “I thought only their backs took the beating from the physical labor of bending over all day but no, they remarked that also the muscles above their knees and their hands, especially their hands, were sore from being in the mud and water all day.”  The negative health effects on these women are tragic and entirely avoidable.

The women who were observed on this occasion were typical of poor farmers in rice-growing regions throughout the country.  They, like so many across the land, were unable to afford labor-saving mechanical devices that might lessen or lighten their work, and, at the same time, they faced a second serious, widespread, and growing problem.  This was, and continues to be, that opportunities for economic advancement in cities, especially the capital, Phnom Penh, attract the younger generations of rural farm folk and lure them from the land.  Urbanization in Cambodia runs at a rate of nearly 3 percent annually, so that while agriculture is still the main focus of economic life in the country, and farmers still form the majority of the population, rice farmers there have had to resort to traditional work habits to fill what has become a gaping labor hole.  This labor shortage has forced poor rice farmers to abandon the routine of individually planting seedlings in rows in their fields and to resort instead to the ancient and inefficient practice of planting seeds by broadcast sowing, that is, literally scattering seeds in their fields by hand.

Seed broadcasting is wasteful.  The cost of rice seed is a particularly heavy burden for farmers who commonly sow 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of rice seed per hectare each growing season.  To recoup their cash outlay they need abundant yields, but broadcasted seeds are not planted in rows, which makes weeding particularly difficult.  More than that, the seeds take root only at random, they are subject to animal predation, and are hostages to unpredictable weather events.  The inevitable result is low yields.  Yet still worse than these is a fungal disease known as blast, which is most common in broadcast-sown rice fields.  A particularly dangerous infection, it can result in complete crop failure.  Until recently, the sole alternative to broadcast sowing has been the drum seeder, a drum with holes in it that workers roll across the field to cause seeds to fall to the ground in rows, a slight improvement over random broadcasting, but in almost every other respect just as inefficient, just as wasteful.  It was considerations of this sort that persuaded BB2C to put engineers to the task of developing and building what has become the Eli Rice Seeder.

Patented Technology:  The Eli Rice Seeder

The Eli Rice Seeder is an innovative, low-cost mechanical device for planting rice.  The Eli Rice Seeder uses high pressure air to shoot rice seeds into the ground at evenly spaced intervals through a number of nozzles attached to a tube which is connected to a bin containing the rice seeds.  It sounds simple, but figuring out how to do this in a way that actually works, using materials available in Cambodia, was no small task.  BB2C’s inventors came up with a solution to the problem.  The Eli Rice Seeder uses air pressure and a series of ingenious tubes and baffles to embed rice seeds, on average, at three centimeters into the soil, mechanically planted along rows.  The Eli Rice Seeder can be carried by hand, mounted on a cart, or pulled by a two-wheel tractor, something which has become a staple in Cambodian agriculture over the past few years. 

BB2C seeks to improve the lives and prospects of poor Cambodian farmers, and especially of the women among them.  It is true that impoverished Cambodian rice farmers are reluctant to give up methods of planting that have provided them with food for centuries, yet over the past few years more and more of these hardworking people have seen the positive benefits of technology and the impact it has had on their lives.  The Eli Rice Seeder, designed to relieve much of the burden of their work, has been an important element in this change.  Ancillary to the immediate objective of freeing women from laboring long days on end in the fields are the associated ones of alleviating the physical pain the work entails, improving women’s health, opening up opportunities for them to pursue other avenues, to learn new skills or trades, and to spend more time with their families.  These effects are occurring as well.

Effectiveness of the Eli Rice Seeder

The Eli Rice Seeder has gone a long way toward achieving the ends for which BB2C intended it.  It is efficient and economical and it effectively meets real needs of these unfortunate people.  It uses fewer rice seeds than do either broadcasting or drum seeding, saving as much as 250 kilograms of seeds per hectare.  This is a considerable cost saving for the typical Cambodian farmer because one kilogram of rice costs 75 to 80 cents.  Translated into dollars, the cost benefit of using the Eli Rice Seeder is up to $200 per hectare—a significant amount of money for subsistence farmers in Cambodia.  Broadcasting is faster than transplanting, but the time and labor-saving Eli Rice Seeder beats them both.  Even when it is pulled manually, a two-man team can haul it across a field and take no more than two hours to plant one hectare with rice.  The 18 nozzle Eli Rice Seeder reduces this time to 45 minutes, which is truly amazing considering the amount of time it used to take using the labor-intensive, traditional methods the Eli Rice Seeder is meant to replace.  Embedding seeds three centimeters underground protects them both from such animal pests as rats and birds, and from the many negative effects of external weather conditions.  As the plants emerge from the ground, the space around them admits of increased exposure to sunlight, assures less competition for nutrients from surrounding plants, and reduces the risk of blast disease.  Planted at intervals along rows, the rice is easily distinguished to enable weeding and so reduces the need for costly herbicides, thus maintaining soil quality while lessening the risk of producing poor quality rice.  Seeds planted using the Eli Rice Seeder are also drought resistant because soil contains more moisture deeper in the ground, where the seeds are planted.  During a recent drought in Cambodia, a field planted using the Eli Rice Seeder flourished, while an adjacent field planted using traditional methods failed.  In a number of tests carried out by the Australian government and Banteay Meanchey University comparing the effectiveness of the Eli Rice Seeder with broadcasting and the drum seeder, the Eli Rice Seeder consistently outperformed the other two methods in all ways:  (1) amount of seeds used; (2) time spent planting; (3) incidence of blast disease; (4) and tons of rice harvested.

Contribution of the Eli Rice Seeder to Cambodian Rice Farmers

The Eli Rice Seeder is entirely manufactured in Cambodia, by Cambodians using Cambodian tools and materials.  Three separate workshops each make different parts.  Added to this, BB2C has recently brought 3D printing to Cambodia to be used as an important part of the manufacturing process, and it takes great pride in having brought this cutting-edge technology to a third world country.  BB2C’s vision is to be at the forefront of technology for the rural poor, and to transfer that technology to the developing world.  When assembled, the device is sold at $940, making it a vastly less expensive machine than other mechanized equipment sold in Cambodia.  Since it is locally produced, it is also quicker and easier to get it from the manufacturer to the buyer, which, in the case of the poor farmers with whom BB2C is concerned, is ordinarily a group of twenty or thirty farmers who associate in agricultural cooperatives and pool their money together to purchase an Eli Rice Seeder, one of which can easily service the fields of all the members of the cooperative. 

Some farmers who own large agricultural machines have found it profitable to become service providers by renting their equipment to other, poorer farmers who are unable to purchase their own.  It has been recommended that a reasonable rental fee a service provider should charge for an Eli Rice Seeder is $30.00 per hectare.  This is the same cost as hiring labor to broadcast a field and significantly less expensive than transplanting.  Each renter, in consequence, gains the benefits of using the Eli Rice Seeder at a cost far below the value of those benefits.

BB2C has conducted over one hundred demonstrations over the past eighteen months to show people the benefits of using the Eli Rice Seeder.  Demonstrations have been held across the rice-growing areas of the country, including Battambang, Kampot, Takeo, Kep, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham.  In 2018, BB2C plans to double the number of demonstrations and increase its marketing outreach to all the rice-growing areas of Cambodia.  For every sale made, BB2C offers training and support to the farmer, service provider, or agricultural cooperative.  There is also a one-year warranty on each product which includes repairs, replacements, and technical support whenever needed. 

Impact of the Eli Rice Seeder on Cambodian Rice Farmers

This may be summarized from what has already been noted as follows:

  • Food Security: It has been demonstrated time and again that the Eli Rice Seeder leads to more reliable and consistent yields.  This is because many of the challenges that farmers face, both in and beyond their control, have been addressed with the Eli Rice Seeder.  Controllable problems such as pests and seed distribution in the field, and uncontrollable weather-related ones have all been either completely eradicated or severely lessened through the use of the Eli Rice Seeder.
  • Income Generation: The potential for increasing profits among farmers is enormous.  The use of the Eli Rice Seeder eliminates the need for almost all pesticides and herbicides, requires far fewer seeds, and produces better yields.  These combined mean that farmers earn a sufficient amount of money to allow them to pursue other activities and opportunities unattainable before, simply because of a lack of funds.
  • Sustainable farming: The negative effects of chemical pesticides and herbicides have long been known.  The Eli Rice Seeder does away with the need for most of these agents.  This maintains soil integrity such that future growing seasons will not be compromised by a worsening soil quality.  It also means that the rice that is grown will be a far healthier product.