A team of Brigham Young University student engineers designed an innovative and cost-effective apparatus that enables poor East African women to turn abundant coconuts into valuable coconut oil.
While coconut oil production is relatively prevalent in East Africa, the manufacturing process can be complicated and costly. The BYU team's challenge was to use their engineering skills to create equipment that economically-limited Africans could purchase individually through microcredit.
A field test in Boza, Tanzania, represented the culmination of nearly a year's worth of problem solving. The students designed an oven to dry the coconut meat and a press to squeeze out the oil.
"One of the best parts was seeing the excited expressions when they first saw the oil coming out of the press," said Shara Richards, a BYU team member from Rock Springs, Wyo.
The venture, one of 25 projects sponsored this year by the Capstone program in BYU's Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, was first conceived by the Pope Foundation, a Utah-based nonprofit aimed at economic development in Africa.
"We wanted to find a way to push the production of coconut oil down to the bottom of the economic pyramid, into the homes of rural families," said Troy Holmberg, executive director of the Pope Foundation. "The BYU students accomplished exactly what we had hoped they would-a low-cost, robust system to produce virgin coconut oil in a rural African setting."
Villagers can turn virgin coconut oil into a solid income by selling it locally or to exporters for uses in cooking or health and beauty. The students' invention would allow some local villagers to increase their stunted incomes by as much as tenfold.
After rustling up mosquito nets, malaria pills and large suitcases before departure, the students and their faculty coach enjoyed the culmination of hundreds of hours of effort: watching how their designs worked in a real-life setting.
"The objective of the trip was actually to test the people and see their reactions while using the press," Richards said. "Some of the villagers don't even read numbers, so written instructions were of no help. We had to show them how to use it, but after only a few practices they knew exactly what they were doing."
Despite months of planning and preparation, the group hit a snag when only days before departure, they found that airline luggage restrictions would prevent them from transporting an oven they had designed as part of the oil extraction process.
"We thought about designing a smaller oven and even considered just leaving it behind," said Benjamin Hillyard of Salt Lake City, who was also on the team. "We put our engineering heads together and came up with a plan to partially dismantle the oven to reduce it to the appropriate size."
The team redesigned some of the oven with parts they could transport, while also considering components that would be accessible in Eastern Africa.
"If you give them a part that they can't buy in Africa, and it breaks, they can't fix their tools," Richards said. "We successfully got everything we needed to Africa without losing anything. That was really a miracle."
After building a second oven, setting up the coconut presses, and practicing the process with natives, the group completed their field testing.
"The people there were so helpful and excited in assisting with the project," said Terri Bateman, a part-time BYU faculty member and the team's coach. "Both the villagers and the students worked really hard together."
Bateman oversaw the project, guiding the students through months of conceptual schematics, prototypes and ultimately the final press design.
"They came up with a lot of models and ideas, and then they did a ton of testing," Bateman said. "After all the testing they did, seeing everyone's face when we got the first batch of oil out of the press in Africa, was like the sum of everything coming together all at once."
According to the Pope Foundation, now that the BYU team has designed the tools, the next step is to pilot the coconut press microfranchise project. If the pilot is successful, they hope to have 100 women with presses by the end of the year and up to 3,000 women in five years.
"I knew this project would allow us to be a part of a tremendous change in the lives of the people that we aimed to help," said Hillyard. "I saw the gratitude in the eyes of the people as they realized the opportunities this project opened to drastically improve their lives."
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