Located outside Addis Ababa, dairy farmers start their day by filling large containers with fresh milk before transporting it to a local processing facility. By milking cows early in the morning, farmers can ensure their product is as fresh as possible before it gets processed into yogurt or cheese. For the farmers located farther away milk pick-ups and deliveries are less frequent, leaving the milk to sit at warmer temperatures longer, creating spoilage and quality issues. To address this problem, Partners in Food Solutions, TechnoServe and USAID partnered with University of St. Thomas engineering students to design an off-grid cooling system that would keep milk at an optimal temperature and extend its quality.
Erika Thiem, supply chain director for the dairy platform at General Mills, helped with the project. After coming off a global work assignment with Häagen-Dazs that took Erika to different markets around the world, she realized how much she missed learning about other cultures and making global connections. “This project intersected my experience working with dairy, global regulations, and understanding the realities of dairy farming,” said Erika. “For small dairy farmers in Ethiopia, milk has a tremendous value. By reducing spoilage and extending the milk’s quality, farmers can increase their earnings. In this case, farmers could almost double their returns.”
Designing a cooling system for remote dairy farmers comes with unique challenges. Simon Hailu, a food processing specialist at TechnoServe Ethiopia, helped facilitate the project from the field. He said, “The system needed to use a dependable and inexpensive energy source since power supplies are unreliable in the area. Additionally, the solution needed to be easy to clean and disinfect, and be affordable to develop in Ethiopia.”
Throughout the 2019-2020 school year, students worked together to come up with innovative solutions that could solve the dairy farmers’ problem. From insulated containers to a portable ice maker to solar and diesel-generated power systems, the team explored various approaches that challenged their assumptions and widened their perspectives. “Being a part of these kinds of projects presents some of the greatest engineering challenges,” said University of St. Thomas Professor Greg Mowry. “This project challenged students because it tested their capabilities and out- of-the-box thinking when they didn’t have access to all of our systems like reliable electricity. I think this project changed us for the better, just as much as the project helped others and that is perhaps the most significant aspect of all.”
Due to COVID-19, the students involved in this project were unable to build a prototype of their off-grid cooling system. They did, however, finish the design for an insulated stainless steel container with an ice core that keeps milk cool for up to eight hours and connects to an off-grid energy source like a solar system. The team recommended having farmers split the cost of sourcing an ice machine to make it more affordable. PFS partner TechnoServe is currently exploring ways to build a prototype of the machine to show its benefits to local farmers. “If the recommended system works fine, we can demonstrate it to farmers and micro-finance the project through institutions and other stakeholders,” said Simon. “We’re closer than ever to helping remote dairy farmers in the region improve their milk quality and increase their access to markets through this innovative solution.”