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From Northeastern Lab Bench to Field Test in Africa

A North­eastern Uni­ver­sity team will travel to Cameroon this fall to test a device designed by stu­dents to help poor farmers pre­serve their food using solar power — an endeavor that they hope will ulti­mately result in new oppor­tu­ni­ties for entre­pre­neur­ship and healthier living in the western African country.

Starting in Sep­tember, senior Delaney Ban­nister, who is majoring in inter­na­tional affairs and com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies, and Roland Fomundam, a recent grad­uate from the School of Tech­no­log­ical Entre­pre­neur­ship, will spend three months on loca­tion testing the food-​​drying device with a group of farmers. If it works, the simple machine will help farmers increase their pro­duc­tivity and profits.

The pro­to­type was cre­ated ear­lier this year by four engi­neering stu­dents, for their senior cap­stone project. Their goal was to create an inex­pen­sive, reli­able tool for drying foods — a common food-​​preservation prac­tice in devel­oping nations — by fash­ioning a home­made struc­ture built with left­over wood, alu­minum and glass.
Now, those grad­u­ates are working with Delaney and Fomundam to create three new ver­sions of the pro­to­type that will work best for farmers in Cameroon.

“It has only been tested here at North­eastern, which is a totally dif­ferent envi­ron­ment,” Fomundam says. “So we’re going to take it out into the field, seeing how it is actu­ally implemented.”

The project is part of JolaVen­ture, a firm founded by Fomundam that pro­poses to use modern tech­nology to help poor farmers grow, har­vest and market their prod­ucts more suc­cess­fully. JolaVen­ture cur­rently works with more than 100 farmers in Cameroon on a number of food-​​preservation mea­sures. Fomundam’s busi­ness plan for JolaVen­ture won two top awards in Northeastern’s Husky Inno­va­tion Chal­lenge com­pe­ti­tion last December.

As much as 40 per­cent of food in devel­oping nations spoils before it can be eaten or sold, Fomundam said. Safe, healthy preser­va­tion is hard to come by, espe­cially without reli­able sources of elec­trical power.

The solar-​​powered food dryer, which is mod­ular and easily trans­portable, will ben­efit a small group of fam­i­lies to begin with. Those who get the oppor­tu­nity to use it will see a major change in their lives, said William Tita, a lec­turer in entre­pre­neur­ship and inno­va­tion who is advising the stu­dents. He is also a Cameroon native.

“At some point, after it’s per­fected, we’ll try to make it a wide­spread solu­tion,” Tita said. “But right now, for even sev­eral fam­i­lies, it can solve their prob­lems and allow them to take advan­tage of dried foods.”

Tita said that the food dryer would also enable farmers to sell once-​​seasonal crops year-​​round, boosting their income and ensuring the avail­ability of healthy foods out­side of the har­vest season.

Engi­neering stu­dents Brian Arena, Nicholas Daggett, Andrew Gawla and Joshua Gomes cre­ated the pro­to­type. Their cap­stone advisor was Mohammed Taslim, pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering.

By Matt Collette

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