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Farmers bank on solar dryers to reduce post harvest losses

National
 A solar dryer. The dryers improve food safety standards and ensure access to high value export markets. [File, Standard]

Kitui County is one of the leading producers of mangoes in Kenya, however, post-harvest losses (PHL) have prevented farmers from reaping maximum benefits.

Vine Fruits and Vegetables CEO Kennedy Kwithya said, from 2019 to 2020, they partnered with an exporter and collected 20 tonnes of mangoes in Kitui but discovered that for every 10 mangoes only 2 to 3 qualified for export.

Mr Kwithya noted that 7 to 8 mangoes had a high probability of being lost due to unreliable grade 2 markets during glut.

Alarmed by the huge post-harvest losses, Vine Fruits and Vegetables ventured into value addition and food safety standards training of cooperative societies and field extension officers within Kitui County. This was done in partnership with other experts and development partners.

Kwithya said between 2020 and 2021 they set up a collection centre in partnership with a local NGO where they installed a mobile solar-powered cold room with a capacity for 10 tonnes in Kitui.

He explained that they secured a contract with an agro processor to collect the mangoes from the centre and that season they managed to collect an estimated 50 tonnes of 1st and 2nd grade mangoes.

However, Kwithya said the farmers still experienced more than 60 per cent PHL at the farm level due to lack of capacity by the processor to absorb most fruits.

The Vine Fruits and Vegetables CEO revealed that after complaints from farmers in 2021 the Kitui county government in partnership with JKUAT and other development partners, including Icipe, embarked on a series of trainings on integrated pest management and value addition where more than 50 members from 12 cooperative societies were trained as trainer of trainers.

"Our farmers are still suffering from huge post-harvest losses even after all the efforts done by experts in building capacity due to the lack of available quality, low cost solar drying technologies and infrastructure to support good manufacturing practices," he said.

 Vine Fruits and Vegetables CEO Kennedy Kwithya (right). [File, Standard]

Kwithya who is also the chairperson for Mbitini Ward Farmers Sacco and Secretary for Mbitini Horticulture Cooperative Society Limited, revealed that after the training the development partners would support each cooperative society with at least two solar dryers.

He said the solar dryers were finally installed in February 2022 just as the season was coming to an end hence they could not be fully utilised for mango drying.

During the season 2021 to 2022, Mbitini Cooperative management decided to work with an agro processor to collect mangoes directly from the farmers to minimise PHL.

"We did this successfully and they collected 110 tonnes from Mbitini. And we also realised the opportunity in value addition for our members," he said.

"Several cooperative societies were able to process some small quantities but most of them could not get market due to their poor quality contributed by poor harvesting and processing procedures, lack of good manufacturing practices and poor quality dryers," he adds.

Kwithya regretted that within one year most of the beds and domes of the dryers were tearing apart, rusting and could not withstand the climatic conditions of the region and therefore little or any processing took place during the season.

In 2022 Vine Fruits and Vegetables began discussions with African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and its partners Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (Kirdi) and United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) to develop a complete solution for drying.

"I am proud to say that we have been able to secure a hybrid solar dryer to be based in Kitui through this partnership by the end of July 2023," Kwithya said.

He believes that the Sh958,000 hybrid solar dryer will improve food safety standards and provide access to high-value export markets for small-scale farmer and small medium-scale enterprises.

"We call on all interested partners to contribute to the industrial revolution at the county level through value addition in agriculture where we are contributing 30 per cent to the GDP yet we are experiencing more than 60 per cent in food losses as it is the best way to increase opportunities for our innovative youth," Kwithya said.

Speaking during a workshop at Jacaranda Hotel, Nairobi, on June 7, Catherine Kilelu, Head of Program for the Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security at ACTS said agri-business for dried food products and the desire to reduce PHL in Sub-Saharan Africa by 50 per cent inspired the solar dryer innovation.

"If technology efficiency is high it's more profitable to farmers," said Dr Kilelu.

 Catherine Kilelu, Head of Program for the Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security at ACTS. [File, Standard]

She noted that PHL is also about carbon food print, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases that are generated by our actions.

"We saw an opportunity for reducing carbon emissions and producing innovative technology," she said.

Kilelu announced that ACTS, Kirdi and Unep are scaling-up the market for quality low-cost solar dryers to reduce PHL through Kenya- Opportunities For Inclusive Climate-action Enterprises Project.

The project is funded by the Institute of Food Technologists through the Seeding the Future Global Food System Challenge Growth Fund.

Kilelu said PHL is a real threat to food and nutrition security and sustainable livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa and FAO estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food, which translates to between 35 to 50 per cent of production does not make it from the farm to the table due to PHL.

In Kenya, an estimated 30-40 per cent of fruits and vegetables worth $140 million (Sh19.5 billion) are lost annually due to PHL.

She attributed the PHL to poor harvesting, drying and insufficient proper storage systems, limited processing and value addition coupled with limited information and knowledge, unstructured market systems among others.

Jackis Auka of Kirdi explained that open sun drying exposes products to dust and contamination unlike the solar dryer which dries products in controlled environment and inhibits the growth of bacteria and mold.

Auka noted that solar dryer technologies available include greenhouse dryers, tunnel solar dryers, inflatable solar dryers and hybrid solar biomass greenhouse dryer which incorporate use of biomass furnaces.

He explained that the hybrid solar biomass greenhouse dryer uses briquettes or other material to generate heat which is pumped into the drying chamber and completes drying of products after 9 hours while mangoes take 6 hours.

Auka noted that the average hybrid solar biomass greenhouse dryer costs Sh684,180 and has a life span of 10 years.

Currently, Kirdi is working on hybrid solar biomass greenhouse dryers to suit various ecological zones across the country after successfully constructing one for Kisumu.

ACTS in partnership with Kirdi and Unep seek to deploy 500 affordable quality solar dryers across Kenya over five years.

However, wide-scale adoption of the solar dryer by farmers and agro-processing small and medium enterprises in Sub-Saharan Africa remains limited due to a lack of knowledge and financial constraints.

The Kenya National Bureau of Standards is currently developing standards for solar dryers.

Dennis Okeyo of Kebs said they received a request from Unep on standards for solar dryers that is already being acted upon.

"A preliminary draft is in place, that will be shared to the stakeholders for their input. A technical committee meeting will then be called to deliberate on the content and come up with a committee draft," said Okeyo.

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