Hunger fighters in the Caribbean

Engineering students create equipment to process breadfruit in Haiti

More than half of Haiti's children under 5 are underweight. Mothers are feeding their children dirt to fill their bellies, reports Feed My Starving Children, a Twin Cities-based Christian hunger-relief organization.

"The goal of our project is to feed 170,000 school children per day in Haiti," said Dr. Camille George, who took students to the Caribbean last spring to test equipment to make a plentiful but wasted fruit into a hunger fighter.

George, assistant professor of engineering at St. Thomas, has a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. She is the mother of four. George learned of a Haitian woman's request to preserve breadfruit. If dried and ground, breadfruit could be used as flour. The flour could be produced by women farming-cooperatives, used for Haiti's food needs and exported, helping to improve the economy.

Haiti, about the size of Maryland, takes up the western third of the island of Hispaniola. It has been plagued by political violence for most of its history. More than three-fourths of its 7 million people live in poverty. Following controversy over legislative elections in 2000, international donors, including the United States, suspended almost all aid to Haiti. More than two-thirds of the labor force do not have formal jobs. And people are hungry.

Breadfruit, a melon-sized fruit with a solid core and interior the consistency of butternut squash, tastes more like a bitter potato than a fruit. It is usually eaten baked or fried. Although plentiful, it must be eaten within a day of harvesting or it rots.

The question was: How could breadfruit be dried in less than one day so that it could be ground into flour and have a shelf life of one year instead of one day?

George (who sometimes playfully refers to herself as "Curious George"), intrigued by the question, last fall asked for student volunteers to help solve it. Eight senior engineering design students were placed on two teams: one to create a manual breadfruit shredder and another to design a solar-powered dehydrator.

Assistant professor of French Ashley Shams offered translation assistance in Haiti, where the official languages are French and Creole. Shams recruited four of her Advanced Oral and Written French class students, who began meeting with the engineering class two months before the trip.

Two communication studies students joined the crew to document the importance of courses like this that meld learning with service.

Breakfast granola to feed 170,000 children

Armed with agricultural-processing research about Haiti and information provided by Compatible Technology International and the Committee on Development of the Methodist Church of Haiti, the St. Thomas engineering students began their research.

CTI, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization, designs technology for developing countries. CTI compiled 20 recipes using breadfruit flour and decided that the best way to introduce the flour would be as breakfast granola for school children. Minnesota's General Mills has donated an extruder machine that can make the breadfruit flour into puffs. Add to that red beans and molasses, both available in Haiti, and a vitamin supplement from Miami, and the result is breakfast granola that can provide a substantial amount of a child's nutritional needs.

CTI provided desired specifications for the shredder and dehydrator, such as cost limits, easy availability of materials and that they not need electricity, which is sporadic in Haiti.

Trip rerouted to St. Vincent

After months of research, calculations, testing and creating prototypes, the engineering students learned that their trip would be moved to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent because of civil unrest in Haiti.

George and Shams redirected the group to St. Vincent, where the university has connections from previous service trips. At 133 square miles, St. Vincent is the largest of the more than 30 islands that comprise the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, located just north of Venezuela. Like Haiti, St. Vincent is dependent on agriculture and has a mountainous terrain.

The group arrived in St. Vincent March 18 for nine days.

"Thank you for choosing St. Vincent," said Philmore Isaacs, chief agricultural officer on the island. "A significant amount of breadfruit is wasted during the mango season because it's not processed. Your group is a welcome addition to what we've been thinking. We are aiming to bring appropriate technology here. That's the way these islands are going to survive. Next time you come, you'll be tourists."

Shredder gets a 'yes'

Shredding team members Michelle Anderson, Bobby Fox, Ben Rick (who did not make the trip) and Adam Spah were confident that their shredder, which was on its sixth prototype, would be successful in St. Vincent. They were right.

A mobile unit, the shredder consists mainly of a feeder tube, cutting disk and hand crank. Vincentians gave favorable feedback when they tested it on various produce.

Agnetta Robertson, head of a women's farming co-op, said she could use the shredder instead of the hand grater she now uses to make sweet potato pudding.

Erica's Country Style, an FDA-approved food processor in Prospect, St. Vincent, dries and shreds hot red peppers for Italian restaurants in the United States. Proprietor Erica McIntosh liked the ease of the crank but noted that the shredder needed to be stainless steel to meet health codes.

"Erica's strong interest in the shredder was very comforting," Spah said. "Knowing that a business woman would use our design was very gratifying for me as an engineer."

Zee Sutherland, a proprietor in Georgetown who sells produce and baked goods, said he would like different-sized cutting blades to slice pineapple and carambola (a yellow fruit that looks like a star when sliced), which he dries to make candied fruit. He also suggested the shredder be motorized, but the team had designed the crank for Haitian female farmers in a country where electricity is not always available.

The shredding team visited hardware stores, a fabrication shop and a technical school, which confirmed that the shredder would be easy to replicate in St. Vincent.

"Testing the shredder in St. Vincent helped us identify design flaws," Bobby Fox said. "Direct customer contact was essential to the design process."

With their feedback, the shredding team designed a seventh prototype incorporating a stainless steel feeder tube; bronze bushings, which are easier to acquire than bearings; and a clevis pin to make the unit easier to clean.

Dehydrator yields unusual results

After settling into their accommodations at the rectory of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Mesopotamia, St. Vincent, the students spent their first full day setting up two dehydrator prototypes at Erica's Country Style. The French students worked alongside the engineering students attaching screens to PVC pipes to use as drying trays. Once shredded, the breadfruit was placed on dehydrator trays.

Drying team members – Jason Emiliusen, Thomas Mauritzen, Ross McGruder and Kara Torgerson – took turns recording data, such as air velocity, moisture content and heat flux measurements every 30 minutes.

The dehydrators performed according to CTI's specifications: They protected the product from the environment, reduced breadfruit moisture content from 70 percent to 10 percent and could be loaded by one person in 20 minutes.

However, test results revealed uneven drying and unwanted condensation within the canopy. "Before we went there, we thought it would be 140 degrees in the dehydrator. The bottom got that hot but the upper shelves didn't," George said.

One CTI specification turned out to be a red herring: "Ignore the effects of wind." Even with moderate breezes, the shredded breadfruit dried in three hours when it was spread on screens on the grass. The breeze dried it faster than the upper shelves in the model.

"I'm confident in my group's abilities," Torgerson said. "We exhausted every idea we had. We did a lot of different testing on site. Engineering is an iterative (repetitive) process till you get to your goal."

"The drying team did a very important quantitative study showing that the most important mechanism is the air velocity," George explained. "The question was, is it better to increase the temperature to get water out of fruit or increase the air flow to move the moisture out? If you have a windless day or a cloudy day, you would need this device."

Vincentians McIntosh and Sutherland were interested in the dehydrator to protect produce from rain, pests and dust.

"The creativity, curiosity, intelligence and adaptability of Erica, Zee and others who dry produce was immediately evident in talking with them," McGruder said. "This showed most in their valuable suggestions for improving our dehydrator design and also their enthusiasm to take what we had and modify it for their specific needs."

Upon returning from the trip, the drying team made many design modifications to save costs and promote better airflow within the unit.

What about the French students?

Sophomores Emily Brady, Erica Lyons, Kelly McCarthy and Bethany Nagan had hoped to use their language skills as interpreters between engineering students and Haitians. When the trip was rerouted to St. Vincent, where English is spoken, the French students were disappointed but still wanted to make the trip.

"We went there to serve as cultural liaisons and create visual aids for the equipment in French, Haitian Creole and English," Shams said. "We were pleasantly surprised to discover a French influence (France ruled St. Vincent in the 18th century)."

Her students met with three classes of junior high girls at St. Joseph's Convent in Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent. The school of 450 girls has 25 teachers, all of whom are from St. Vincent except their French teacher, who is from Germany.

St. Joseph's is an active environment. Doors on either side of classrooms remain open, allowing in traffic and nature noises. Conversations on the other side of collapsible wooden walls and rain on the metal roof made it difficult to hear the French conversations.

After initial reluctance, the girls shyly asked questions in French of the college students. They wanted to know their favorite sports and favorite actors. (Vincentians watch many American television shows.)

Shams' students also conversed in adult classes at Alliance Francaise, an international French language and resource center, in Kingstown.

"I learned more about the French language on this trip. I really enjoyed our informal talks with our teacher," Lyons said.

Once back in the states, they created French instruction manuals of how to assemble and clean the shredder and dryer. Shams noted that two phrases that were hard to translate were force feeder and feeding tube. Since many people in Haiti are illiterate, they added CAD (Computer-Aided Design) drawings to the instructions.

They also helped the communication students with their filming needs such as holding a boom microphone or a light reflector during shooting.

"We wouldn't have met the people we met if we just went as a French class," McCarthy said.

Editing 11 hours down to eight minutes

When they left St. Vincent, juniors Louis Ravanel and Carrie Rittenhouse, the two students from Tim Scully's videography class, had 11 hours of video. They spent more than three months paring that to an eight-minute documentary.

"Our film is really different from our original proposal," said Ravanel, producer of the student cable television show, "Campus Scope." "We were going to start the film with different vignettes of St. Vincent, but there were only two of us and we couldn't get to all the locations."

"This project was really hard," Rittenhouse said. "We did too much in St. Vincent. I learned that preproduction, like writing the script and what shots we need, is very important. The week in St. Vincent was harder than the whole semester."

Unlike the engineering and French students, who traveled with their teachers and had some definite destinations, Ravanel and Rittenhouse had to improvise. They followed the other students to their locations to shoot some video, but they also wanted more local culture in their documentary.

"My favorite part of the trip was making connections," Rittenhouse said. "It was really fun meeting people."

They struck up conversations with people selling produce at the Kingstown market and persuaded a farmer, Susie, to allow them to interview her on tape. They also interviewed a breadfruit picker and a chef.

They found Vincentians friendly for the most part. "Most people were reluctant at first to talk to us, but once they learned of our project, they were really supportive," said Ravanel, a native of France. "I learned communication skills on the trip. When some people insulted us and accused us of trying to make money by filming them, I was grabbing bits of knowledge from other classes such as a nonviolence class I had at St. Thomas to respond to them."

"This film is not just for a grade, but for an actual client," Rittenhouse said. "That's a lot of pressure. The film will be shown at student orientation and in International Education to show different options for traveling abroad."

"Knowing people will use our film is gratifying and I feel more respected as a filmmaker," Ravanel smiled.

Haiti will get the Tommie Shredder

As French student Nagan said, "Working with the engineering students added an extra dynamic to the trip. It's one thing to go somewhere as a tourist and another to go somewhere with a purpose." This was not a spring break vacation for the St. Thomas students; their hands were busy tinkering with equipment, their minds were actively problem solving, and their view of the world was expanding.

One result of the trip is the Tommie Shredder, as it is now known, which will be trademarked. The building instructions and drawings will be available free on St. Thomas and CTI Web sites.

George and Karl Mueller, an engineering staff member, made five shredders this summer, three of which will go to Agnetta Robertson, Erica McIntosh and Zee Sutherland in St. Vincent. They will be asked to use the shredder for a year and give their feedback.

Haiti is still of prime concern to George, who is determined to bring the instructions, drawings and a shredder to the Committee on Development in Haiti in January, no matter what the risks. "I made a promise and I'm going to keep it," she emphasized.