Several heaps of overripe and rotting mangoes are piled up along the road on the way to Kambiti East in Murang’a County, one of the richest mango-production zones in Kenya.
The rotting smell speaks of the inconceivable wastage that goes on when mangoes are in season, not just in Kambiti East, but in all other rich fruit production areas.
But at Kambiti East Mango Growers, a farmers group in Murang’a, no morsel of fruit is lost.
Here, farmers have found a way of controlling fruit prices in and out of season and also curtailing wastage of mangoes in days of plenty.
Armed with a solar dryer in the dry Kambiti, the 15-member-group is drying mangoes and selling them as tastey crisps and powdered mango snacks.
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Fruits in season
So what inspired the brilliant idea?
“Most of us are veteran mango farmers and for years we suffered losses during seasons of plently. But now have seen the light,” Patrick Kitheka, the Kambiti East Mangoes chairman, tells Smart Harvest.
Before the idea came, Kitheka attended a one-day workshop by E Kenya Sacco, a multinational that trains mango farmers on value addition in 2013.
“We were told that we could make more money than what middlemen offered. I was impressed to learn that there was a way we could prevent wastage of fruits in season,” shares Kitheka.
After the training, Kitheka mobilised farmers in his area and after a lot of convincing, he brought together 50 farmers willing to try out the new value addition technique on mangoes.
To fuel the project, he rallied for support from the farmers and they leased out a half-acre piece of mango farmstead that now hosts the group’s makeshift office and workstation.
It is five years on, and the fruits of their labour are evident.
How does project work?
Roles are shared equally at the workstation by all members. The farmers bring the mangoes from their farms, weigh them in kilos, wash them, peel them, chop them into slices and arrange them in the dryers. The final stage is packing the crisps and flour into labeled sachets ready for sale.
There are a number of equipment to aid in the process. First, there is a weighing machine hung on a mango tree near the entrance of the iron structure. Here, farmers bring their mangoes which are weighed and figures recorded.
The project employs a communist model of sharing wealth, which means profit is shared in a equitable manner irregardless of the mangoes that each member brings.
“We encourage all farmers to bring equal number of kilos because all the work is done by us. We try to avoid situations where a farmer brings more kilos and overworks the rest,” Kitheka says.
During weighing, the mangoes are also sorted out for quality. Overripe fruits and those tainted by the fruit fly are disposed of.
At the entrance of the structure, there is a small pool of treated water where the group members dip their feet to disinfect them.
Good quality mangoes are then washed in chlorinated water for disinfection and then passed to two people in charge of peeling.
The next step is slicing the peeled mangoes into Grade I and Grade II sizes. Grade one is the slice made from the bigger side of the mango while grade II is from the smaller side. The remaining flesh is peeled off, dried and milled to a powdered snack.
Next, the slices are dipped into a mixture of water and citric acid for preservation.
“This way, they can stay for even a year without getting contaminated. The acid also ensures that the crisps retain their yellow colour for a long time,” Kitheka says. One teaspoon of citric acid is added to five litres of water to make the mixture.
The crisps are then arranged on trays, placed on drying racks and wheeled to the solar dryer where they take five hours to dry.
When Smart Harvest visits the farm, 30 trays of mango crisps are neatly arranged on racks, drying.
The solar dryer is a system of a white solar tent, a solar collector which is simply a black paper foil covering the whole floor and the drying chamber which is a system of trays arranged on racks.
One starts sweating profusely the moment they enter the poly-house, framed structure. So intense is the heat, Kitheka says it can dry every drop of liquid in a person within hours.
“You can’t stay here for long. We just bring the racks in here and leave as quickly as possible. One time, one of our staff members collapsed due to the heat and had to receive first aid,” Kitheka says.
He explains that the purpose of the black paper is to absorb light and turn it into heat energy. It also absorbs heat and stores it for a long time. The white ceiling on the other hand traps the heat inside the heating chamber so that it continues heating the fruits even when conditions outside are humid.
Heated air is conducted to the drying racks and passed over the mango crisps that are arranged on the trays. The heat gradually absorbs all the water in the element being dried. Kambiti East Mangoes also procured a steam dryer that dries mangoes in a shorter time.
The group however relies heavily on the solar dryer that is cheaper and uses only natural heat — sunlight, which is abundant in the area. The group also dries and sells bananas, pineapples, cassava, pumpkins, tomatoes, moringa and green vegetables.