Reducing post-harvest losses: a priority for Africa

Post-harvest loss and its consequences for development is a widely recognised challenge. So what are the solutions already underway to ensure that food produced reaches the end user?

Farmers in Uganda are using the ‘Sparky Dryer’ to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables from 2 days to 2 years © James Oatway
Farmers in Uganda are using the ‘Sparky Dryer’ to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables from 2 days to 2 years © James Oatway

Thursday, 29 March 2018

To meet the increasing food demands of a burgeoning population in Uganda, farmers are using a low-tech, low-cost thermo-dehydrator of fruits and vegetables called the Sparky Dryer.

In Uganda, production and consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased over the past decade thanks to prevailing good prices and continued healthy eating campaigns in the country. However, fruit and vegetables are perishable products with a limited shelf life, and many smallholder farmers are continuing to make a loss on their production due to a lack of post-harvest storage and processing facilities. Such limitations have demotivated farmers and growth in the horticulture sector has slowed.

Post-harvest technologies and innovations that can reduce losses during the drying and processing of fruits and vegetables are therefore in high demand, particularly for Uganda, which hosts the highest number of refugees in the continent. Helping to meet this demand is the Sparky Dryer, a small, low-tech thermo-dehydrator that can be used to increase produce shelf life from 2 days to 2 years. The Sparky Dryer consists of a heating chamber within which a gas fire is fixed, and from which heat is transferred to a separate drying chamber where produce is sliced and positioned to dry. Through the process of dehydration, the produce is preserved and shelf life increased. “One of the reasons we came up with the Sparky Dryer technology is because Uganda produces a lot of food, yet there are still reports of there not being enough. They [farmers] harvest surplus quantities but due to poor storage technologies, a lot of food goes to waste after consumption,” says Lawrence Okettayot, engineering graduate and innovator of the Sparky Dryer.

Farmer friendly

The Sparky Dryer is designed to be affordable, portable and easy to use, with the aim of increasing food security and income for local communities. It runs on garden waste and burns with zero-carbon emissions to dehydrate the farmer’s chosen produce, be it mangoes, guavas, pineapples or even cereals such as maize and sorghum. “Because in Uganda, 80% of the population don’t have access to electricity, they can put anything from their garden, like leaves, sticks, anything that is not of use at the minute, and the catalytic converter converts the toxins into good gases,” says Okettayot. The dryers, at prices that start at €65, can dehydrate 10 kg of mango in 2 hours and run on just 2 kg of biofuel. The technology provides a faster means of dehydrating fruits and vegetables to open air sun drying, which can take days, during which the produce can start to spoil and lose value. Electric-powered dehydrators are available, however at €120-245, they are unaffordable for the majority of smallholders.

According to Okettayot, this innovation is also key to enabling farmers to add value to their produce and thereby access more lucrative markets in Uganda. Unaware of the market for dry products, many farmers have not tapped into the opportunities for increasing product shelf life and end up selling their produce for less than projected prices. “Given the demand of fruits and vegetables, many entrepreneurs have now started drying fruits and selling in stores, but our rural farmers still can’t do it themselves,” says Okettayot.

Preserving nutrition

For many processing technologies, there is the concern that nutritional value will be lost along the value chain process, however, Okettayot explains that the Sparky Dryer preserves nutrients within the produce. “When you dehydrate the fruits, like bananas, the nutrients are stored because the drier just removes the water content; this is different from processing foods by boiling them, where the nutrients do go to waste,” adds Okettayot. “We have more processed food with more additives on the shelves in a bid to help food last longer. We intend to focus on the production of non-additive, natural food products from dried fruits and vegetables bought from the farmers who use the Sparky Dryer. We will then package them for both local and international markets.” 

Three models are now available on the market to meet the needs of large scale commercial enterprises, as well as small and medium enterprises and smallholder farmers. According to Okettayot, who has already received orders from various farmer associations in Uganda, “We have just started our work but so far have reached about 46 farmer groups and close to 450 farmers. This has been in the northern and eastern parts of Uganda so far, but we expect to roll it out beyond.”

Grace Musimami

Other dossiers

Facts and Figures

Farmers in Uganda are using the ‘Sparky Dryer’ to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables from 2 days to 2 years © James Oatway

SOURCE: Rockerfeller Foundation, 2016 & PYXERA Global, 2017

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.