January 26, 2010

Peanut dryers for Haitian farmers may save malnourished kids

A Haitian factory produces peanut paste to feed malnourished children, yet it throws away nearly 40 percent of its peanuts because they are contaminated. U.S student engineers have developed a cheap technology to help farmers prevent contamination. If their prototype succeeds, more peanut paste will reach the children who need it.

Malnutrition kills about 6% of Haiti’s children under the age of five, according to the United Nations report embedded below. And its effects on health and brain function may linger throughout the lives of its survivors. The aid group Meds and Food for Kids has produced the peanut-based emergency food since it was founded in 2003. The gooey, syrupy paste is called Medika Mamba, which means “peanut-butter medicine” in Creole. It is made of equal parts peanut butter, milk powder, sugar and vegetable oil fortified with vitamins and minerals. Clinics distribute it to dangerously malnourished children.

This video by the United Nations shows the production of the paste and outlines the problem of malnutrition in Haiti. It is also flagged on our YouTube channel.

A factory in Cap-Haïtien on Haiti’s northern coast produces Medika Mamba. It was unscathed by the earthquake, but demand has spiked since the devastation and the operation’s efficiency is poor. Workers toss about 40% of the peanuts that farmers deliver because a fungal contamination renders them toxic.

Peanut dryers: an engineering solution

To reduce peanut loss to fungus, Washington University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders is experimenting with designs for affordable peanut dryers for use on farmers’ fields. Removing the moisture from the peanuts makes them less vulnerable to the fungus. This week, the engineers posted their project as a challenge on Engineering for Change’s alpha site.

The group is planning to return to the Medika Mamba factory in March, their second visit since they began this project in 2008.

“One of the reasons we’re going down again is to get a better idea of the problem,” said Jamie Cummings, a mechanical engineering student at Washington University who heads the project. She suspects that farmers leave the harvested peanuts exposed to the rain on surfaces with poor drainage.

Her group has already abandoned its first dryer design, a system of black shelves and surfaces that absorbed sunlight to heat the peanuts through convection. They scrapped it because it cost too much ($400) and it worked no better than simply leaving the peanuts in the sun.

Now, they are returning with a new design that’s cheaper and more modular, so that farmers can add to it piece by piece. It is also untested. They plan to cover the peanuts with a dark material draped over a tent-like frame. “It will shelter the peanuts from rain but still allow them to heat up,” Cummings said. The cost, she estimates, would be about $10 per unit.

While testing their design in the field, the engineers will also observe Haitians farming techniques and interview the farmers to “make sure we’re not missing something in making these dryers,” Cummings said.

Making charcoal out of peanut shells

The group also plans to devise a system for converting peanut shells into charcoal. The Medika Mamba factory currently dumps its shells. If it could turn them into charcoal, it could distribute them or sell them to enterprising local micro-businesses. They made three short videos of a charcoal-making experiment, the second of which is embedded below. The first shows the shells burning the can, this shows how they smolder and the third shows the finished charcoal.

Since the earthquake, demand has sky-rocketed for Medika Mamba, and the student engineers feel the pressure. “I definitely think our work is more important and more urgent now,” Cummings said.

To donate to the EWB chapter, please visit their Web site. To donate to Meds and Food for Kids, please visit their site.

We posted pictures of the drier design and EWB engineers at work on our Flickr page.

We also flagged two news videos about Medika Mamba on our YouTube channel (including the first embedded above). They were made before the earthquake and they are even more relevant today.

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