Pivot to Survive: Lessons of an Ethiopian Engineer

It is not a stretch to suggest Melesse Temesgen – an Ethiopian engineer who invents more efficient plows – is the John Deere of Ethiopia. We’re not talking huge combines, but simple plows.

Deere, of course, was the pioneer in America who first invented the polished steel plow in 1837, creating a market that eventually led to those monster John Deere farm machines. Deere sold those early plows for ten to twelve dollars (nearly three hundred dollars currently), and that’s not much different from Temesgen, who retails his handy work for as little as sixteen dollars.

History informs us that Deere, who started as a blacksmith, had to pivot along his business journey. After nearly going broke, he abandoned being a blacksmith and headed west.

Once there, just outside Chicago, he found it difficult to maneuver the cast iron tools of the early plows, stopping every few minutes to scrape the muck off the implement. It often required eight yokes of oxen to pull the plow through the heavy soil. Deere then spotted broken steel saw at a sawmill, and had an idea. Using his blacksmith tools, he shaped it into a plow and saw it worked much better than the cast-iron model. 

The market is there,” says Temesgen. “And I am connecting the dots.

Hence, a business was started that today is an empire. Temesgen’s business is far from an empire, but it’s making progress. He, like Deere, has had to pivot. 

It might seem strange in the modern world to see oxen still being used to till the land. However, in the wet soil of Ethiopia, oxen-pulled plows are the only practical way to farm. More oxen are sold than tractors. In this regard, as the saying goes, Temesgen has built a better mousetrap. 

He has been helped along in his business by the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, a combination of worldwide government funding agencies dedicated to producing more food with less water. He entered an extremely competitive grant challenge that carried with it the promise of funds and technical assistance provided by USAID, and the governments of Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa. 

Temesgen was one of about 40 innovators selected out of literally hundreds that held the promise of fulfilling the ambitious goal of increasing yields, saving water, and lifting up the lives of poor farmers and their families. He has run into a few difficult furrows to plow through along the way, but the inventive engineer has kept pace by pivoting with the advice of SWFF consultants and his own imagination.

“The SWFF advice proved on target, especially when it came to pivoting away from exclusive government channels,” said Temesgen. “I wish I had implemented what I am planning now then. This caused us to have losses in the first two years. We’re working to reverse that situation now.”

Temesgen explains that his newer invention, the Berken Maresha plow is doing much better than his earlier Aybar BBM model because it has a much wider market. “The Aybar BBM (Broad-Based Furrow Maker) is used only once per year, enabling farmers to share it,” he says. “The Berken is used for a long time and several times a year, serving only one farmer.” He said it was a difference between a 15 million-sized market compared to a four million market. While developing the earlier model, Temesgen had to go back to the drawing board many times to perfect it. 

“It hasn’t made me wealthy, but I did become an entrepreneur, and it has helped many farmers,” he says of the decidedly low-tech piece of equipment. 

“My plows do the job. They can easily drain excess water from waterlogged fields,” he says. 

In Ethiopia, much of the farmland is finely textured and exhibits poor drainage. Too much water suffocates the crop, leading to poorer yields or even crop failure. The BBM is the only known effective device capable of creating drainage furrows for excess water while building a broad bed for planting.  

For 2020, Temesgen says his business could face more ups and downs as he struggles to connect with farmers. However, his new strategy is to engage the unemployed rural youth to retail his products. “Apart from the Aybar BBM, we are going to promote about five products,” he says. “Once the linkage with farmers is created, our company is set for growth.

“The number of my inventions is increasing,” says Temesgen. “I filed three innovations for patents last year, and I am planning another three for this year.”

In a land where oxen work better than tractors, such as Ethiopia, Temesgen keeps churning out more and better plows. Without his inventions, up to five million hectares can’t be farmed in Ethiopia. 

“The market is there,” says Temesgen. “And I am connecting the dots.”



USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), 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