From Northeastern lab bench to field test in Africa

Photo by Mike Mazzanti.

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.