Farmers stem food waste with low cost drying technologies

A growing demand for dried foods especially by a rising local market and exports has birthed a new revolution, with the demand which has risen by upto 30 percent seeing smallholder farmers increase income by upto 50 percent. The dried foods which increase the food’s shelf life has been commended for stemming food wastage.

In Murang’a, small holder farmers are using solar dryers to create a whole new and booming market. With the help of private food marketing company, Azuri Health Ltd, the farmers are now drying their fruit and vegetable crops to make high-value products, such as thinly sliced fruits, including mangoes, that are packaged and sold as snacks that are increasingly popular among urban shoppers.

Vegetables such as beans are pre-cooked and the dried product turned into a meal in just a few minutes, to make a ready food  ideal for busy families with little time for cooking. The modest dryer is a far cry from the mainstream dehydrator designed to dry to a high quality, but which is beyond the means of many of the farmers, at a cost of around Sh28,000 from local suppliers such as the Vibrant Health Organization.

Preserving fruit and vegetables has many advantages, including the big addition in value that it creates. For example, two raw banana fingers weighing an average 200 to 240 grams will sell for Sh50 to Sh60. But the same volume of bananas dried sell for Sh150 at local health stores.

The demand for dried vegetables and chillies has grown by 20 per cent over the last two years, says John Sitienei, Factory Manager of Mace Foods in Eldoret, which sources vegetables and chillies for drying from now 2500 local farmers. “In most cases we can’t fulfil the demand”.

Mace trains the farmers in farm management and finance and is working hard to draw in new farmers and attract bigger volumes of supplies - offering incentives like a kilogram of sugar to any farmer who delivers 15kgs of chilli.

The plant also buys indigenous vegetables like managu, saga (spider weed) and ndondo at an average price of Sh20 per kilogram, for export to the US for the African Diaspora, but its biggest demand is for chilli.

Across Nyanza and the Western regions, the most common chilli varieties are African Birds Eye (ABE) and Long Cayenne. Mace pays farmers Sh116 per kg for ABE chilli and Sh60 per kg for Long Cayenne.

According to a report done by USAID, an acre of well managed ABE can yield from 1000 to 3000 kilograms. ABE is ready for picking in two and half to three months, and picking can continue for up to 4 months.

The merit of farming chilli, said Sitienei, is that it doesn’t need much acreage to earn high returns, making it viable for farmers with a quarter or half and acre of land.

Of the chilli, 90 percent of the dried ABE is exported, with the Long Cayenne reserved for the local market.

For dried foods generally, it is the local market that is most difficult to crack, says Njoki Wainana Director of dried food company Kiburi Food Processors in Ruiru. “Dried foods are not in our culture.”

Kiburi buys mangoes and pineapples, which are among the best-selling dried foods, already dried from farmers. The drying is a value adding technique that ups farmers income by at least 50 percent, says Njoki, giving as an example the impact on banana prices. Two raw banana fingers can on average weigh from 200 to 240 grams. The cost of 200 grams of dried bananas is Sh150 at local health stores.

But the local market for dried foods is concentrated in upmarket areas like Muthaiga, Lavington or Westlands, where expatriate communities from Thailand, Philippines and Europe are used to buying dried foods.

Reaching this concentrated market, and a wider market of other food processors using dried foods as their own ingredients, is often easiest for small-holders through factories such as Kiburi and Mace, which also have direct links into the supermarkets.

But some are also adopting their own drying technology to create products that are long-lasting, opening the door to many different ways of selling. In Kenya, it is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of fruits and vegetables are wasted in farms and markets, because they perish before consumption. But dried fruits and vegetables last from 12 to 18 months and dried chilli for up to three years.

Drying requires special equipment as drying fruits and vegetables directly in the sun exposes them to ultra violet poisoning. “The market standards are quite high,” says Njoki, as is good hygiene to produce products attractive to the market.