In a Land Where Tractors Don’t Work, Ethiopian Engineer has a Low-Tech Solution

When thinking of farming, one might visualize gigantic tractor combines. But not Dr. Melesse Temesgen, an Ethiopian engineer, he sees a big, strong animal—oxen.

“In Ethiopia, oxen are more in demand than tractors,” said Temesgen, an engineering wunderkind who invented the Aybar BBM, a crop and lifesaver in his country.

“We have a version for tractors, but frankly not many people use tractors. Much of the soil is not suitable for tractors. They become bogged down,” said Temesgen. “There’s little market for them.”

The BBM stands for Broad-based Furrow Maker, a decidedly low-tech, low-cost farm implement that is used to easily drain excess water from waterlogged fields.

In Ethiopia, a large area of highland soil is finely textured and exhibit poor drainage. Too much water suffocates the crop, leading to poorer yields or even crop failure.

Dr. Temesgen recently discussed his invention—for which he won a $25,000 award for social impact—at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague at the beginning of June.

The annual event drew 1,200 entrepreneurs, along with many potential investors. Temesgen attended the U.S. State Department and Dutch government-sponsored summit as a recipient of a Securing Water for Food (SWFF) grant.

“The BBM is the only known effective device capable of creating drainage furrows for excess water while building a broad bed for planting,” said Temesgen. He also has a newer type of plow for all types of soils.

Up to five million hectares of land in Ethiopia are not available for farming because of the excess water.

Up to five million hectares of land in Ethiopia are not available for farming because of the excess water. The BBM, whose easy-to-use design was inspired by 2,000-year-old technology, allows farmers to reclaim this abandoned land and improve food production.

However, the Ethiopian highlands have about 7.6 million hectares of vertisols, but due to lack of drainage, only about 25 percent is used. Hence, he had a ready market.

Temesgen’s company, Aybar Engineering PLC, has been manufacturing the farm implement for the last six years, but he has been inventing farm implements and working in the sector for the last 34 years.

“Farmers found my plow superior to previous versions,” he said. “The Aybar BBM has enabled farmers to farm more efficiently, raising crop yields per hectare from 1.5 tons to 3.5 tons per hectare.”

Temesgen has sold more than 100,000 BBMs at $16 per unit. The company’s profit is only $2 per unit once the factors of production cost and taxes are included. The new plow will have a better profit margin because of a larger volume of sales.

Temesgen said sales of the BBM had been boosted through stories being broadcast on Ethiopian television and radio stations. His innovation was selected as the best innovation in agriculture by the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Technology.

“The BBM has an added use in irrigation,” he added. “Not only does it prevent excess water from harming crops, but it utilizes that excess water, storing it for later use.”

The BBM is, in essence, a sophisticated plow. It has also made it possible to plant the main crop, wheat, earlier, said Temesgen. “This has allowed double cropping, thus giving extra yields.”

He said it was not uncommon for some farmers to store the excess water and use it later for animal drinking water and vegetable production.

“This way, farmers go from low yield, single crop per year to triple cropping,” he said.

Temesgen believes his field implements are bargains for the farmer. “But they often don’t realize this. They haven’t done the calculations. It’s a one-time purchase, and can be used for many years.”

Temesgen said the farmers like his Aybar BBM plow so much they have given it an Ethiopian nickname which translates into “where have you been these many years”.


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water