I had to travel to Lilongwe today to arrange a PCR test in preparation for coming home on Sunday. The journey was slower than usual – there was the normal “video game” type driving, dodging goats, potholes and bikes with everything from a live pig to a double bed tied on the back. But today had another feature on the roads – large choirs walking behind a man carrying a huge wooden cross, as the people celebrate Easter. I was in no hurry and it was actually pretty impressive and humbling to see.

Today I’m catching up on paperwork and reports and one of these is a report for Sundanzer – an American company who are supporting us to run some trials sun drying tomatoes and other products. Sun drying has great potential to add value to our crops and extend shelf life for several months.

The long tunnel and the greenhouse in the foreground are our two prototype dryers

We have built two prototypes and it’s been good to work with students from Napier University on the design. The Tunnel dryer is up and running – the black part is a heat collector and, so far, we have peaked at 52 degrees which is a bit short of the 60 degrees we would like to get to. We use a solar fan to blow air through the heat collector and over the trays of fruit in the clear glazed part. We have had a few attempts at drying tomatoes with mixed success.  We have dried tomatoes which are good in terms of the colour of the finished product and the taste is great – very intense. But all of these took nearly 72 hours to dry and this has resulted in mould on some of the fruits. We are at the tail end of the rainy season and it has rained most nights, even though it’s hot and sunny through the day.  We think this is the problem – the ambient air is just too humid to permit good drying.  We had one success last week when the rain stayed away for a couple of days and the tomatoes were well dried; had great flavour and colour; and no mould.  This proves it will work during the long dry season (now till December) although June and July are cooler, so we’ll see what happens there.

The next part of our research is to investigate the market. We have a contact who wants to see if he can export in bulk to America for pizza toppings – it seems a long shot but we’ll see. We will have our own discussions with potential buyers here in Malawi and try to understand what they would like in terms of packaging, added flavourings etc. We have an open mind about whether we will do this in the long term ourselves – in many ways, our preference would be to help others set up a local business to do it.

Interestingly, we have sold two of the greenhouse type dryers to visitors who came to our office. I was surprised by this, given that we haven’t tested it, but they were both chillie farmers who want to dry their chillies in bulk. It will certainly work for that, so we know that we will have an ongoing market for dryers for that purpose which helps to build the technology sales side of our social enterprise.

By the way, check out the price of sun dried tomatoes the nest time you are at the supermarket – you will see why this is an interesting area of research!