By Maria Kalaitzandonakes
DES MOINES, Iowa — It was mango harvesting time in Kamluli, Uganda, when the KinoSol team first tried out their new sun-powered dehydrator. The team hoped its technology would reduce food loss for subsistence farmers.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 40 percent of food losses occur at postharvest and processing levels in developing countries.
KinoSol, based in Ames, Iowa, conducted their first successful field trial of their dehydrator in Uganda in the summer of 2015 and performed another in El Salvador in February of 2016. Now KinoSol has units placed in 18 countries.
The organization prides itself on being simple. Putting together a KinoSol unit takes about 5 minutes to set up and weighs about 8 pounds. No tools are needed for assembly.
The unit has four round, metal slatted shelves to dry grains, fruits, insects, veggies — and most recently — fish in Cambodia. The outside sheathe is a thick Lexan plastic that retains heat from the sun, which dries the food inside using natural convection. No electricity is necessary.
“Obviously the speed of drying depends on what food is being dried and how strong the sun is,” Clayton Mooney, one of KinoSol’s founders, said. “A pepper and a mango, for example, will take different times to dry.”
The unit also has a storage space underneath to keep dried food safe from pests, and each KinoSol comes with Mylar bags that can be reused to store food, too. The storage bags preserve dehydrated food for between three to six months.
“We realized that (farmers) really needed a place to keep their foods out of moisture, light and away from pests,” he said.
The project started as an idea from an agriculture brainstorming session in Ames, between the four founders: Mooney, Elise Kendall, Ella Gehrke and Mikayla Sullivan. Then, Mooney and his father built their first prototype in his father’s wood shop.
“We started really simply,” Mooney said. “We knew it just needed to work. It just needed to make bananas into banana chips.”
The team nervously showed the product to faculty at Iowa State University in September 2014, Sullivan said.
“Everyone tried really hard to be supportive — but (the prototype) was pretty rough,” she said. “It is pretty crazy to think about how far we’ve come.”
KinoSol partners with U.S.-based organizations that are working in developing regions to carry out more field testing. The organizations are given between one and five free KinoSol units to take on their trip. The field agents send back data describing what foods were dried, how long it took to dry and, perhaps most importantly, whether there were any problems.
This information has been invaluable, Mooney said. For example, the testing group in El Salvador found locals didn’t understand why bananas and plantains did not maintain their yellow color after being dehydrated. They associated the color loss with nutrient loss. This feedback helped KinoSol plan educational materials to show families that the slow-sun dehydration process removed very little of the nutrients.
“The community we worked with in El Salvador was completely new to dehydration,” Sullivan said. “It was cool to see how excited they became when they could see the benefits. It really was a morale boost for all of us because it meant we could introduce the units in places that had never heard of dehydration before.”
Most of KinoSol’s partners use micro-loan systems, Mooney said, so that the participants have some “skin in the game.”
Kendall said the unit could also be used as a business, not just for family use.
“People can sell the food they dehydrate or store, which could open up a lot of paths for them,” she said.
In the coming years, Mooney said he thinks KinoSol will create region-specific units to accommodate changes based on climate differences and set up local production to reduce costs and ensure local jobs.
Today, KinoSol hopes to start production for dehydrators in the U.S. and Europe. The company’s Kickstarter campaign for the local units project will begin October 20th.
“We decided there was also a huge need for the units in our own backyards,” he said. “There is an insane amount of food waste occurring.”
Thirty-one percent of the U.S. food goes uneaten at the retail and consumer level, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s 133 billion pounds food.
The group hopes its new, easy-to-use, solar-powered tech can help to reduce food waste and food loss around the world.