How a coal-powered dryer is stopping Niger's tomatoes going to waste
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Every year, enormous quantities of tomatoes are thrown away in Niger. With supply often far outstripping demand, producers find themselves unable to offload their excess produce. Compounding the problem is the difficulty in storing fresh tomatoes. But a young Nigerien has now found a way to put the surplus vegetables to good use, by using a coal-fired dryer to turn them into powder.
Tomatoes are a staple in most Nigerien dishes. Although the vegetable is cultivated all year round, the first few months of the year are the most important for tomato farmers, according to Yacouba Alfari Bonkano, the 30-year-old agricultural engineer behind the innovation. Based in Niamey, his company 'YABE-production' employs four people, including two on a full-time basis, to produce tomato powder that can be used for everyday cooking.
"Our dryer lets us dry 500 kilos of tomatoes in 15 hours"
After onions, tomatoes are Niger's most important vegetables. Markets are flooded with them from January right through to June. It's a staple ingredient in many Nigerien recipes. But every year, more than a third of tomatoes go to waste because there's not enough demand.
In 2003, I came up with a coal-fired prototype dryer. The tests were convincing, so we built an even bigger machine. The tomatoes have to be cleaned, chopped up, then dried and salted before they're put on the grill inside the dryer. The solar panels charge a battery that spins the turbines, bringing air into the chamber where mineral coal is stored inside the dryer. That way, the hot coal is rekindled and gives off heat, drying out the tomatoes.
'We've dried 30 tonnes of tomatoes in five months'
We use mineral coal because there's lots of it in Niger [Editor's note: This type of coal is made from minerals and organic matter found in mines]. On top of that, it's more environmentally friendly than charcoal, which has become a synonym for deforestation.
The machine that we have been using for the last five months lets us dry 500 kilograms of tomatoes in 15 hours, something that would normally take a week with a solar, geothermic or gas-fired dryer. At the moment, our dryer works two or three times a week. That lets us dry a tonne and a half of tomatoes. But we can also dry other products.
"Our tomato powder can be stored for up to two years"
The tomatoes are then grinded down and made into powder. This can be stored for up to two years, whereas fresh tomatoes go rotten after a few days. We then put the powder into little plastic bags of around ten grams each. It's an artisanal process, so it takes a long time. We’re trying to make a machine that dries even more.
'It allows vegetable cooperatives to sell their produce all year round'
We work with two vegetable cooperatives run by women. We buy tomatoes from them all year round, at a price of around 7,500 CFA francs [Editor's note: Around 11 euros] for a box of 30 kilos. That means they don't have to sell their tomatoes at pitiful prices on the market. Sometimes, the market rate can be as low as 1,500 CFA francs [Editor's note: Around 2 euros] for a carton when there's too much supply and not enough demand. Moreover, the fact that they can offload their produce all year round allows them to get loans much more easily. This partnership makes them more self-sufficient financially.
'Our powder is organic: it's better than the tomato puree produced in China or Italy'
We also work in partnership with a local wholesaler to whom we sell our bags of powder for around 40 CFA francs each [Editor's note: 0.06 Euros]. He sells them on the Nigerien market. For consumers, our powder has the advantage of being organic and available all year at an affordable price. We use tomatoes that haven't been sprayed with chemicals, because often local producers don't have enough money to buy chemical products. So our powder is better than the tomato puree that comes from China or Italy, which people often buy when there's a lack of fresh tomatoes."
Yacouba Alfari Bonkano has already won several awards for his work. He was recently invited to showcase his innovation at the Paris COP 21 summit on climate change, as well as at the Youth Agribusiness, Leadership and Entrepreneurship Summit on Innovation (YALESI).
This project was spotted by our Observer Mikaïla Issa.