On a busy market day along the slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda, a group of Ugandan youth is demonstrating a new method of drying foodstuffs without sunshine, firewood or electricity.
They call their innovation the Sparky Thermal Dehydrator. In a demonstration, one of the young men in the group gets a medium-sized pumpkin, peels off the skin, and slices it into small pieces. He then feeds the pieces into the dehydrator.
After about two hours, he opens the door and to the surprise of onlookers, the pumpkin slices are totally dehydrated, ready to be stored for up to two years.
Thomas Nsubuga, Isma Kayiza, Betty Lunkuse, and Fredrick Chiluba are Mastercard Foundation Scholars. They won scholarships due to their academic talent, social consciousness, and leadership qualities. All four are pursuing undergraduate studies at Makerere University in Uganda.
They developed the idea for a dehydrator along with two other young men Edris Kirumira and Lawrence Okettayot after seeing how farmers suffered from food shortages due to inadequate storage facilities.
Isma Kayiza says, “We were thinking aloud, asking ourselves, how come the sun dries things but not a charcoal stove? The stove boils food and the sun dries, which meant a stove can also dry food, and we imagined how this could be done.”
After some research, including browsing the internet, they found that it was a matter of regulating heat to enable the charcoal stove to dry food.
Traditionally, farmers have used the sun to dry certain foods like maize, beans, cassava, and millet, but have not been able to preserve foods like potatoes, pumpkins, and vegetables. Given that in some parts of the country, there is little extended sunshine during harvest season, farmers prefer selling off almost all the harvest to avoid spoilage.
The Sparky Thermal Dehydrator allows the farmer to dry up to 20 kilogrammes of food in two hours without worrying about the weather, unlike relying only the sun, which can take more than three days to dry maize or beans.
Kayiza said, “It can work 24/7. The hygiene is improved using this method, because fresh fruits and foods are easily spoiled when dried in the sun, as they attract bacteria. Once we figured out how to develop the dehydrator, we built a model and we discovered that it can really work.”
He said when the MasterCard Foundation invited entries for the 2017 Resolution Social Venture Challenge, the group embraced the opportunity. Their innovation was among the eventual winners at the Mastercard Foundation Baobab Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Their project also reflected the ideals cherished by the Mastercard Foundation and the Resolution Project, who are collaborating on the Resolution Social Venture Challenge,, a fellowship that creates change that matters in their communities.
The Sparky team intends to produce 10 dehydrators, which will be rolled out to different villages in Mbale district, the project’s sample area. One machine will be shared among a group of five farmers and they will dry the foods in turns.
“The cost of producing one machine is around 300,000 Uganda shillings (around US$90), which is not affordable for a smallholder family. But in groups of five, they can contribute to and own one machine,” Kayiza said.
Already, many farmers have embraced the machine and are ready to start using it. Miriam Aaca, a neighbour for Sparky co-founder, Lawrence Okettayot comes from Teso region which borders Mbale.
She said, “The idea is so motivating. For us in the village, we have not been drying certain foods because they are perishable, so this is the best option to dry a variety of foods. It is good and I think with time, every household should have one. At times, food gets rotten during the rainy season and we lose a lot. If I have the machine, I will use it and also teach my kids to operate it.”