African farms benefit from 1820s Orcadian thresher

Leslie Foubister, from Toab, demonstrates a pedal-operated threshing machine. Picture: Tom O'Brien

Leslie Foubister, from Toab, demonstrates a pedal-operated threshing machine. Picture: Tom O'Brien

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A 19TH century agricultural oat-thresher from Orkney is to benefit rice farmers thousands of miles away in Africa.

Leslie Foubister, 79, painstakingly restored the ancient pedal-powered thresher, and displays it as part of an exhibition of old farming machinery at his home.

I am delighted to be playing a part in improving life in Africa

But the 1820s machine has now been used as a template for a project which will see 30 similar threshers created to aid farmers in the Republic of Malawi.

The Balmore Trust, based in Glasgow has been awarded a £60,000 Scottish Government grant to build the machines in the African country later this year.

As part of the initial stages of the project, a prototype threshing machine was made – an exact copy of Foubister’s thresher at his home in Toab, Orkney.

Foubister, who is retired from working in security, said: “I am delighted to be playing a part in improving life for people in Africa.

“I was surprised when I was first approached. They had heard I had such a machine. The ones they had seen previously were hand-powered and this one is pedal-powered, which makes it easier to use.

“A man came to make measurements and I thought that was the end of the story.

“But they are making copies of it and will be helping the farmers in Africa, which is a great thing to happen from such an old implement. I hope they take good advantage of it.”

The project came about after Paul Tofield, who runs an agricultural supplies firm called Autofield in Dumfies, met the chairman and founder of the Balmore Trust, John Richie, along with some visiting 
Malawi farmers through his church in Dumfries.

After speaking to the farmers, Tofield learned that they and their wives would place bundles of harvested rice on plastic sheets and beat them with flails. It occurred to him that the next stage would be threshing machines, as beating a handful of rice stalks against a stone or a log was immensely hard work and wasteful, with lots of spillage.

Tofield had visited Orkney regularly and he knew of threshing machines on display at local museums, but these were cranked by hand. However, he also knew of Foubister’s pedal-powered thresher and that seemed the most suitable way to go. He measured and photographed the inner workings and he and a small team then built an initial prototype, then an additional three.

He said: “We measured the machine up and realised that we could do something similar to what Leslie did, by making a new wooden frame to house the bits he had. We then modified the frame to suit components we could make ourselves and source locally.”

The prototypes have been shipped to Malawi and will be tested properly when the rice is harvested later this year.

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