GUIRA DE MELENA, Cuba (Reuters) - A solitary man trudges through a palm-lined corn field in the Cuban countryside, pulling behind him a rickety contraption that President Raul Castro would love.
The man, Yolando Perez Baez, is showing off his latest invention, a spindly, spider-like piece of equipment that sprays pesticide along six rows of crops, instead of the one row he could dose using his usual backpack fumigator.
With the backpack, Perez says he would have to walk five miles and take six hours to finish the field. The new equipment allows him to do it in one hour and walk less than a mile.
In other words, it fits right in with Castro’s quest to cut budget-draining food imports by making Cuban agriculture more efficient and productive.
More than five decades of revolution, and the necessity and isolation that have accompanied it, have made Cubans both skilled at improvisation and a little eccentric, none more so than Perez, 47.
Using parts scrounged from local trash dumps he jokingly calls his “warehouse,” Perez has pieced together primitive equipment to spray pesticides, start balky irrigation machinery and speed the harvest of potatoes.
He even wears a hat of his own creation that protects his face from the sun, but looks like a cross between a Chinese peasant hat and something a space alien would wear.
These are not high-tech creations, but, like much else in Cuba, simple and functional, rooted in common sense and the need to make do with what is available. They do not eliminate the back-breaking manual labor that dominates Cuban farm life, but reduce it.
His motor starter is a study in elegant simplicity and addresses a serious need in a country where major equipment tends to be antiquated and often in need of parts that are costly and hard to get.
“Eighty percent of the motors here, in this municipality at least, don’t have batteries, don’t have starters. It’s the first thing to break and you have to buy them in hard currency, which is very difficult,” Perez said.
So, Perez, an agronomist engineer who wears the stained work clothes of a man that spends a lot of time in the workshop, developed what looks like a small oil rig equipped with a heavy weight.
The weight, tied to a rope that is wrapped around the engine crankshaft, is lifted up by the rig and dropped. The fall pulls the rope and cranks the engine to life.
He has sold eight of the apparatuses for the equivalent of just over $100 each.
One of his customers, Jorge Suarez, praised the machine after it started a massive diesel engine for his irrigation system. As water poured out of a pipe into his cabbage field, he said, “If we don’t invent what we invent, then we would be in bad shape. Look, if this man doesn’t invent this, I don’t know (what we would do).”
Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but Perez said it was something slightly different.
“The main thing is to be faced with the problem,” he said.
Perez works at the “First of May” agricultural cooperative in Guira de Melena, which is about 35 miles west of Havana.
Under reforms by Castro, farmers are making good money, said coop president Jose Miguel Gonzalez said, but only spend it on new equipment when they are convinced it works. The jury was still out on Perez’ new fumigator, he said.
Not to worry, said Perez. He has other machines in the works, including a revolving sprinkler system, and, in the end, each invention is just another small step toward a better Cuba.
With “a little that I put here, and another little bit that another Cuban puts there, the economy grows,” he said. “The small things have to be noted because sometimes they appear insignificant, but together they are a lot.”
Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman