Leaps to “what’s next” are not always high-tech. Consider the PICS bag.

“PICS” stands for the Purdue Improved Crop Storage bag, a two-dollar item, which is making a huge difference to people in Africa. Betsy Teutsch (@BetsyTeutsch) tells the story in short strokes in The Atlantic [link]. And it’s a great story!

Seems that West and Central African farming families growing African cowpeas (black-eyed peas) were having trouble storing and selling their harvest, which, as Teutsch explains, “are a wonder crop, loaded with agricultural, ecological, and nutritional benefit.” The problem was that bruchids (cowpea weevils) were destroying the crop before farmers could bring them to market at a good price. The lack of ability to store their harvests forced farmers to sell rapidly and at the same time. As with most markets, an overabundance of supply usually means a drop in the price of the product being sold.


Researchers at Purdue University created a project [link] funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [link]. As the Purdue website explains, The three-layer PICS bag, “developed at Purdue by entomology professor Larry Murdock, reduces loss of cowpea grain to insect infestation. If 50% of cowpea grain at the farm level were put into airtight storage (PICS bags are one type), overall annual income in the region would increase by $255 million.” The first phase of the project was so successful, Purdue is now into the second stage:

In a second phase, the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS2) project, researchers are investigating if PICS bags can control insect pests in stored maize (corn), sorghum, wheat, rice, peanut, common bean, hibiscus seed, mung bean, pigeon pea, and bambara groundnut. Researchers are also checking to see if seeds stored in PICS bags stay viable for planting, are less likely to mold, or less often contain fungal-produced toxins.

An additional focus of the PICS project has been to create new economic opportunities associated with PICS bag production and distribution. PICS project staff members are working with local manufacturers to produce PICS bags and with entrepreneurs to distribute them.

There are also videos on the Purdue PICS page.

How does a $2 bag invented to store cowpeas tie to nextsensing? I offer three lessons we can all learn from this:

First, persistent problems — especially those that strike at the heart of value creation — make great opportunities for innovation. Opportunities do not always come in fancy, glamorous wrappers; yet, the chance to make a real difference in the value-creation cycle is abundant, particularly if you are paying attention.

Second, sometimes solving small problems have big (and important) consequences. The low-cost PICS bag affects, first and foremost, people’s lives and livelihoods. Maximum utilisation of crops that provide food and nutrition is no small goal, especially on a continent with widespread starvation. Then, too, the economic boost to the region has proven to be enormous.

Third, high-tech is undoubtedly driving the world into the future, and I certainly am not discounting the important efforts of the many who are working on ultra-complicated problems. Nonetheless, sometimes “a better mousetrap” is all that is needed to solve the problems that are holding back you, your neighborhood, or your company.

I love black-eyed peas, and this story really grabbed me.

The unique combination of university-based science, philanthropy and determination is a reminder of what true collaboration looks like. As with so many of my favourite nextsensing stories, it all begins with someone asking “What if?” I am positive that thousands of people in Africa are better off today because someone at Purdue University (in this case [link], Professors Larry Murdock and James “Jess” Lowenberg-DeBoer) asked a simple question, “What if cowpeas could be stored more effectively?”

A simple question with a simple answer can sometimes lead to profound changes.