A Sunny Solution to the Problem of Food Waste
What’s it like to launch a social enterprise start-up during your senior year in college? Ask Mikayla Sullivan, a global resources major at Iowa State University who is part of a four-person team that has logged thousands of miles and as many hours working on a way to feed the one in nine people around the globe who suffer from chronic undernourishment.
“There are a lot of late nights,” she said, “and sometimes not a lot of sleep.”
This is not your average all-nighter; coffee helps, but so do international accolades. In November, the students won $35,000 in the Waislitz Global Citizen Award for the KinoSol, a food dehydrator that could provide a promising solution for the postharvest losses they saw traveling in places such as India, Ghana, and El Salvador.
“We already make enough food to feed everyone,” Sullivan said. “We wanted to focus on the food that’s already being produced.”
More than 40 percent of food loss in developing countries happens at the postharvest and processing stage—during drying, storage, processing, and in transportation—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. In many communities, the team has observed that there’s sufficient food but, without refrigeration or storage, no means to make it last.
“People could not consume it fast enough, especially fruits and vegetables. So much of it was going to waste,” Sullivan said.
Her team’s solution is both low-cost and low-tech, and when she says it’s solar-powered, she doesn’t mean panels. The lightweight dehydrator looks a bit like a cupcake stand and functions like a mini greenhouse. Using the sun’s rays and air circulation in a process of natural convection, the collapsible design can dry fruits and vegetables in about six to eight hours. It can also dehydrate insects, beans, and grains, and features a storage compartment.
Right now, the KinoSol costs $250, though the team is hoping to bring that down, and it could be shared by a number of families. The team is collecting field data from NGOs, churches, and aid organization partners in Uganda, El Salvador, Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia, the U.S Virgin Islands, Brazil, South Africa, and Japan. It plans to have a fully functioning prototype by the beginning of 2017 based on survey responses and dehydration data sheets filled out with vital information: the communities where the units are being used, the kinds of foods being dehydrated, how efficient the unit was, and what those using the device would change. The goal is to help the KinoSol team identify any local adaptations that need to be made—such as increasing or decreasing airflow or modifying the size of the storage compartment.
“We understand climates and environments are so different around the world; it’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution,” Sullivan said. “We really want it to be region-specific and meet the needs the communities have.” Nor does the team want to thrust the technology on people who have no use for it.
“That’s important to us, that we’re working with organizations that are focused on sustainable development,” she said—improving communities by addressing their needs and following their lead. It had not occurred to the team, for example, that people could dry spices and flowers in the unit or that dehydrated insects would be so popular, Sullivan said.
While dried foods are common, they’re not widespread in every region where KinoSol is being tested, Sullivan said. That has meant adding an educational component in places such as South America, to emphasize the nutritional benefits for children, in particular, when they consume more fruits and vegetables.
Development of the units was going so well, friends and family of team KinoSol asked about a dehydrator of their own. Stateside, we have our own food waste problems, though they look slightly different. More than 40 percent of food loss in industrialized countries occurs at the retail and consumer level. The 222 million tons we toss annually is nearly equivalent to the total net food production of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the FAO.
Now in its third iteration, the consumer model looks more like a toaster oven and will also work with the sun’s rays. The team imagines it could be hung from a window or porch, or placed on a roof or porch. The Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for research and development for that model ended Nov. 18 and will allow KinoSol to optimize the dehydrator for domestic use.
“Our units that we’ve designed for developing countries function extremely well along the equator, but there you have 12 hours of sunshine pretty much all year round,” Sullivan said. “In the U.S., in Iowa, we still have those cold days and less direct sun, so that’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out.”
Hence the late night and little sleep—though Sullivan is happy to invest in a project that could provide not only a postgraduation livelihood for her but also a change in the way developing nations are able to preserve the food people labor hard to sow, cultivate, and harvest.
“I think what we’ve all kind of realized is that what we’re working on could have a really big impact,” she said. “At least we’re hopeful that it will.”