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Students seek solutions for food preservation

Design students from the Colorado School of Mines develop context-oriented technology to strengthen the post-harvest value chain in rural Mozambique


Mozambique’s farmers need solutions to some of their pressing problems. Engineering students need real-life challenges to test what they have learned from their design courses. By facilitating the connection between these two, iDE and a prestigious Colorado university are creating opportunities for both. 

It is very inspiring knowing that we as students have the power to improve the lives of those in need with our education.

-Alexander Samarchuk

Designing partnerships to design solutions

iDE Mozambique partnered with the Colorado School of Mines College of Engineering, Design, and Society (EDS) to sponsor a Capstone Design Project for several students entering their last two semesters. Over the course of the project, the student team of interdisciplinary engineers collaborated with iDE staff to find a way to reduce post-harvest loss in Mozambique markets. The partnership hoped to produce a new technology that improves the shelf life of produce or a value-added processing solution. Either of these would improve the economic footing of smallholder farmers and nutrition security in Mozambique.

In December 2018, Wolf Reichard, iDE’s design team member based in Mozambique, presented these goals via remote connect to the Capstone Project Expo at the School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. Based on all the presentations at the Expo, students in mechanical, environmental, and civil engineering selected which project they wanted to work on, with the school officials making sure that the composition of each team had the necessary experience to develop appropriate solutions.

It’s a true honor to be able to apply my education in such a meaningful way and on such a world-wide scope

-Tyler Cooney

The resulting team (pictured below) worked with a faculty advisor and a group of iDE Mozambique team members (Wolf, Lionel Zisengwe, Doreen Tekedese, and others) over 2019. The project began with a human-centered design “sprint” and problem definition to determine which crops were at the greatest risk of loss and what type of value-add processing solutions represent the largest market opportunity for smallholder farmers. The students and iDE staff were excited to explore the market in Mozambique, and get creative with potential solutions ranging from waste fed bio-digesters to solar powered micro canneries. 

Team members from left to right: Justin Dollar, Parker Bolstad, Alex Samarchuk, Tyler Cooney, Max Sweeney, Emily Bedinger, and Moira Laughlin.

The long path to discovery

The initial ideas brought to the project by the student team focused on drying food, but iDE asked them to consider other options as well. The team considered possible products dealing with transportation, like collapsible baskets to replace the ubiquitous wooden crates to enable trucks to move goods in both directions (rather than return empty). They also looked into short-term preservation techniques like a hand pump vacuum sealer that could keep vegetables and fruit fresher longer. Upon further discussions with iDE, none of these ideas had the potential or market support to be viable or transformative.

Two of the team members, Alex and Tyler, had the opportunity to actually go to Chimoio, Mozambique and meet with farmers and brainstorm additional solutions with iDE staff. A conversation with Llionel, iDE’s design lead,  led the team back to considering drying food. Lionel, originally from Zimbabwe, told the team how that country had a developed market around dried tomatoes and other fruit that did not exist in Mozambique. Doreen, iDE’s market facilitation lead, told the team that if they could develop a low-cost dryer, iDE would investigate how to market it to local farmers and fruit sellers. Based on this, the students spent the latter part of the year designing, building, and testing a Solar Dryer.

The Solar Dryer

The Solar Dryer designed and built by the Colorado School of Mines student team. 

The ramp (at the bottom left in the photo) is a solar collector that heats air between the clear plastic and the black plastic sheeting, which then flows upward through the structure, drying sliced fruit and vegetables on wire racks.

The minimal drying time for thinly sliced tomatoes is two days (at ~15-degrees Celsius), according to testing in Colorado. Performance is expected to improve in Mozambique, where hotter overall temperatures should reduce drying time, although increased humidity may be a factor.

The design has a minimal environmental impact, conserves produce, provides available of flavors year-round, and introduces new market possibilities for Mozambique farmers.

A significant improvement on the design identified by the students replaced the clear plastic on the solar collector with plexiglass.

Solar Dryer

The key to the student’s resulting design was using simple, local materials that were actually available in Chimoio: basic lumber and nails/screws, “chicken” wire, black plastic sheeting. The one piece of unavailable material in Chimoio—clear plastic sheeting or acrylic for the solar collector—could be sourced from businesses in Maputo. After building the prototype Solar Dryer, the team tested it in Colorado, determining that clear acrylic had a significant improvement over the clear plastic sheeting in creating hot air, a difference of nearly 10-degrees Celsius.

Building up a user base for their new technology

While creating and testing the prototype fulfilled the students’ Capstone project, iDE will take their design and test it in Chimoio. Further iteration on the design as well as socialization of the dried food concept with farmers and market sellers could help local growers deal with the challenge of preserving produce, enabling them to have more time to find buyers and improve food security in the local economy.  iDE Mozambique is in conversation with ExxonMobil Mozambique Limited about a project that will build supporting infrastructure in the market to support the Solar Dryer. This project will focus on stimulating business for FBAs as aggregators of goods and post-harvest service providers.

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