Leading the way to better baobab processing

Varshini Chellapilla
April 10, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The traffic was loud, the city was vibrant and the food was spicy.

Welcome to Nairobi, Kenya.

During spring break, Jess Hunter, Michaella Caruso, Annemarie Phandinh and Patrick Duda, four Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) minor students, traveled to Nairobi to deliver their capstone project to a contact who is developing a business manufacturing baobab fruit powders and oils.

As part of the curriculum for ENGR 496, an independent study course, students work on creative projects that fall outside the scope of regular coursework. Incorporating design and research, these projects vary from the development of a moringa harvesting machine to processing small-scale seed presses in Senegal.

“The project is an opportunity for the students to work together as a team and face some pretty stiff challenges," said Mike Erdman, the Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development. “The students have real-life pressures put on them that you normally wouldn't expect from a college-level project. You have people whose livelihoods are depending on it. Going on the trip is an opportunity to see another part of the world. Many of the students at Penn State have never left Pennsylvania or the United States. It's an eye-opening experience to see how a good part of the world lives and works.”

Last semester, 10 students from the ELD minor designed and built a baobab processor for Amisha Patel, a businesswoman in Nairobi. Patel is the founder of Elekea, an environmental consulting firm, and a flagship brand called O’Bao that sells baobab oil and fruit powder in Kenya.

“A neat thing about the whole project is that since it’s an engineering development minor class, it’s made up of students from all different sorts of engineering majors working on the same project,” Duda, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in engineering leadership development, said. “I got to work with nuclear engineers, electrical engineers and people studying engineering science. We got to collectively put everything together based on what we know. It was really cool to work in interdisciplinary teams.”

Duda had previously taken ENGR 408: Leadership Principles, a prerequisite class that introduced the theories and principles of engineering and business leadership for technical careers. In that class, Duda worked on a business plan for the current baobab processor, thus providing him with earlier knowledge about Patel’s requirements and necessities for a baobab processing machine. 

The baobab tree is indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and is known as the “tree of life.” Mentioned in countless African folklore and remedies, the tree is a succulent and absorbs water in its trunk, providing nutritious and delicious fruit during the dry summers in mainland Africa. A baobab can live up to a thousand years and almost every part of the tree is functional. The powder that surrounds the seeds in the fruit contains vitamin C and potassium, which help support the immune system and provide more energy to the human body. The oil of the tree, extracted from the seeds of the fruit, is used in cosmetics to moisturize skin and hair. Even the husks surrounding the fruit are used as a source of renewable energy.

When talking to Farmbiz Africa, Kenya’s premier farming website, Patel described the baobab fruit as a “superfood” when referring to its underrated nutritional value.

The ELD program began to work with Patel four years ago when Patel reached out to Erdman after watching a video of students and faculty members processing pulp from fruits while trying to create the powder from the machine. She wanted a machine that would help her process baobab pulp into fine-grained powder.

Erdman describes the earliest version of the machine as "basic." Keeping ELD informed about the machine, Patel’s news encouraged the program to work on updated versions of the machine. The earlier processor Patel employed used a woven stainless-steel mesh that proved to be a weakness in the design. The latest update, instead, uses a mesh of a perforated stainless-steel welded tube for durability. Along with increasing the durability, the latest team worked on other fixes for the machine such as reduction of the overall weight, improvements in the rate of powder production, the reproducibility of parts, and provision of a more professional assembly of the machine.

The team designed and built four copies of the processing machine in the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory at the University Park campus, with help from the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. In March, one of the machines was flown to Nairobi where it was assembled and tested at Patel’s new facility. According to reports from Erdman, the machine worked better than the team had planned. The team found that uniform particles of powder were produced, airborne dust was significantly reduced and the operation of the processor involved very little vibration.

While the whole team worked collectively towards building the machine, their different majors allowed them to take charge of certain aspects of the project. Phandinh, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in engineering leadership development, focused on the assembly and testing of the machine.

“Getting to hear [Patel] say that the machine was great and that it would help her business was just perfect,” Phandinh said. “In the end, helping a local business was a very valuable learning experience that you can't get from just staying on campus or in class.”

Later on in the trip, the students had the opportunity to meet with Kathrin Meinhold, a research staff member and part of the life sciences department at Germany's Hochschule Rhein-Waal, and Willis Owino, an associate professor in the department of food science and technology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, to discuss various topics, such as the potential for collaboration. Conversations focused on virtual courses, baobab processors and Penn State’s work on growing and processing moringa, which is also known as the "drumstick tree." While the team had been in contact with Meinhold and Owino during the development of the machine, this was their first time meeting in person.

“Over the course of the project, the team developed a strong relationship with each other,” Erdman said. “They were happy and proud of what they had accomplished. [The machine] worked very well and they got a lot of strong and appreciative feedback from our contacts in Nairobi. There's something about producing a product that's of value to people who really need it and then delivering it and seeing the joy on their faces when they witness the end product.”

  • Four Penn State students stand in front of elephants in Nairobi

    While in Kenya, Hunter, Duda, Phandinh and Caruso were able to experience the local culture of Nairobi.

    IMAGE: Mike Erdman
Last Updated May 03, 2018