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.

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