One of my first questions when I saw this groundnut shelling machine last week was, “Can you make it adjustable?”

I know why I asked this question. My friend and I had discussed this machine prior to our village visits. She said that the design was solid and people liked it, but she thought that it might be helpful to make the machine adjustable. This feature could allow the inside rotating piece to shift up and down, adjusting the space between the bottom of the sheller and the inside piece (note that the handle for rotating this piece is missing in the above picture but would be inserted into the empty hole in the middle). Immediately, we started thinking of a few possible designs. When I first saw the machine, my mind immediately jumped to asking about adjustability.

I was wrong to ask that question.

Making a machine adjustable is a Western mindset. We like our choices. We like our technologies to be compatible with every option out there. And we assume that all other people want the same flexibility.

We are wrong. Most people in Malawi shy away from more options. Adjustability scares them, as do other removable parts. These are just more parts that are confusing or can break or go missing. Hestings, the welder who designed this groundnut sheller, understood that and so he welded everything together. He made his sheller as idiot-proof as possible. He followed the basic engineering principle of KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

His groundnut sheller is taking off in his village and the surrounding areas. People like it, they want to buy it, and, more importantly, they understand it. Making it adjustable not only complicates things unnecessarily but also has no effect on performance – the groundnuts are shelled by rubbing against each other, not by being crushed between the bottom of the machine and the inside piece, thus making the distance inside insignificant as long as it is large enough not to break the nuts.

With my engineering background, I need to be more careful with how I phrase design questions. Most people here assume that any Western idea will result in a magical solution. But in this case – as is often the case – my Western mindset regarding adjustable features was inappropriate.

Just another reminder that local innovation and simplicity will always prevail.