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STORAGE

Storage project

SI-LOW

The issue of postharvest loss of grain in


sub-Saharan Africa is extremely significant,
both environmentally, economically, and
in terms of the welfare of the farmers who
grow it. Si-Low is a product designed to
counteract this by providing an affordable
way for smallholder farmers in the region to
effectively store their crops for long periods
of time. Si-Low aims to provide hermetic
storage of grain for farmers close to the
poverty line who currently cannot afford it.

Anthony Brown, Creator of Si-Low talks to Milling and Grain

I designed Si-Low for the RSA (Royal Society for the


encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) Student
Design Awards, an international design competition aiming to
promote design for social change. I was fortunate enough to win
the award, entitled Waste not, want not, which tasked entrants
with designing a way to reduce food waste.
As a result of winning this award and the fantastic feedback
and recognition that I gained from it, I am starting to turn SiLow from a design into an actual product and launching it in
sub-Saharan Africa. In this article I will explain the problem the
farmers are facing, how my design aims to solve this problem,
and what the future holds for the project.

Preventing postharvest loss in Sub-Saharan Africa

Postharvest loss is a significant issue, particularly in the


developing world. It can occur due to a variety of reasons, and
at different stages after the harvesting of a crop has taken place.
These stages include during the processing, the storage and the
74 | September 2016 - Milling and Grain

transporting of crops. The area I focussed on is the storage stage,


where large amounts of wastage occur due to spoiling caused by
improper storage conditions.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 37 percent of available food is lost in
handling and storage. Such wastage can usually be avoided using
techniques such as refrigeration and hermetic storage. However it
is techniques like this that are often not found in the developing
world because of their high cost. The developing world, and in
particular, Africa, represents a significant proportion of global
food production; Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounts for 23
percent of global food production.
The world relies on the crops grown in Africa and the rest of
the developing world, where a much larger proportion of the
population rely on farming to earn a living. It is therefore of vital
importance that such a key global food supply is as efficient as
possible, particularly in a world where a global food shortage is
becoming more significant with every year that passes. Cutting
postharvest losses in the developing world in the storage stage could
represent a substantial improvement in food supply levels, as well as
considerably improving the livelihoods and welfare of farmers.

Postharvest loss is very prevalent in grain production

Grain is a commodity, which is crucial to the economy of subSaharan Africa in particular, and the people that produce it. It is
very commonly grown in the region, with crops such as maize,
barley and wheat among the crops grown. Postharvest loss is
unfortunately very prevalent in the production of grain in the area.
For example, the percentage of maize crops lost to post-harvest
losses in Kenya and Tanzania reaches upwards of 25 percent.
In the developed world, the growing of grain is usually
undertaken on a large scale, often by large corporations and
businesses. As such, crops can be protected from postharvest
loss through investment in modern technologies. In sub-Saharan

The design uses HDPE plastic, rather than galvanised iron, because this allows for a mass production process called rotational moulding to be
used. Using rotational moulding means that producing large amounts of silos makes them far cheaper, whereas with one-off manufacturing the
cost is always the same no matter how many are made.

Africa, smallholder farmers very often grow grain, the farms


are small, and are usually owned by a single family. It is these
small plots of land which people in the rural parts of sub-Saharan
Africa depend on.
These people live off the land and are extremely vulnerable to
issues such as postharvest loss and famine. They live close to the
poverty line as a result, with very small amounts of short-term
capital available to them. What money they do have is spent on
school for their children, food, and other basics. It is because of
this that storage practices for harvested grain in the area are far
from ideal.

Farmers do not have the money to invest in improved storage


facilities, and so continue to use traditional methods that leave
grain vulnerable to spoilage caused by disease and pests. Grain
is either stored in poly-woven bags or in traditional wicker huts,
both of which are extremely vulnerable to pests, and do not
produce a sealed environment to isolate the grain.
To prevent losses farmers often sell all of their harvested grain
on local markets straight after harvest. This reduces waste but
represents a significant reduction in potential income because
the price of grain is far lower during harvest season, and so the
farmers are receiving far less for the crops that they grow.

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STORAGE

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If they were able to store their grain for longer they could sell
it at a much higher price and the income they receive from their
land would be far greater, a potentially huge change for large
families struggling to get by.

Farmers are often priced out of effective storage

The technology does exist that could provide effective storage


in the region. Metal silos and PICS (Purdue Improved Cowpea
Storage) hermetic bags are designed for and target sub-Saharan
Africa, however the farmers who need them the most are usually
priced out of purchasing them. Those that can afford them
often do not have a high enough level of trust or understanding
to invest their hard-earned money in such long-term, unknown
technologies.
Many saw metal silos as a potential solution to this important
issue. These silos are designed to be handmade by local craftsmen
out of sheet metal, and are very simple to use. When set up
correctly they produce a hermetic seal which protects the grain
from spoilage. Local farmers were found to prefer metal silos
over PICS bags and similar products because of their durability.
They are effective at storing grain such as maize for up to three
years when used correctly, compared to the weeks that grain
currently lasts when stored traditionally. On paper they seem
like the ideal solution, however I found in my research that their
uptake is extremely low.
According to the Postharvest Loss Reduction Centre at the
University of Greenwich, in Kenya adoption is very limited, in
Tanzania adoption is still very low, and in Zimbabwe adoption
is very limited. The primary reason for the poor uptake is down
to cost; prices vary greatly due to variances in the size of silos
and the craftsmen who make them, but they usually cost upwards
of US$200.
Such prices represent a short-term investment that most
smallholder farmers in the region simply cannot afford or risk.
As a result the silos are not purchased, or indeed manufactured,
and the problem still exists. The reason for the high prices is
down to the way they are made. Hand-crafting one-off items is
always a costly endeavour, it was the reason behind the industrial
revolution, in which mass production drove down production
costs.
It was this discovery that sparked the initial idea for Si-Low.
If I could design a silo that could be mass manufactured and
still had the functional capabilities of the metal silo, then I could
potentially have a solution to a major problem. If farmers could
have an affordable way to effectively store their grain, then their
income could increase, crop wastage could be reduced and their
livelihoods could improve.

Developing a potential solution

It is from this research into the root cause of the issue that I was
able to develop a potential solution. I developed the design to
be as affordable as possible, whilst still performing the function
required of it by the farmers. The design uses HDPE plastic,
rather than galvanised iron, because this allows for a mass
production process called rotational moulding to be used.
Using rotational moulding means that producing large amounts of
silos makes them far cheaper, whereas with one-off manufacturing
the cost is always the same no matter how many are made. To
make the manufacturing cost as small as possible, I tasked myself
with designing the silo to have only one manufactured part. Doing
so would mean that only one mould needs to be purchased, cutting
costs considerably because mould tooling is the biggest contributor
to the cost of manufacturing plastic products.
76 | September 2016 - Milling and Grain

This proved to be a challenging task because of the


restrictions of rotational moulding, as well as the need for the
silo to be stackable during transportation to cut distribution
costs. I managed to design a novel solution to achieve this,
and so production and distribution costs were cut significantly.
The inlet and outlet of the Si-Low are designed to be sealed
using bought-in bore caps which simply screw onto the main
unit. The use of bought-in parts in this instance allowed for
my aim of one manufactured part to be realised. As a result
of the extensive design development I undertook at the
University of Nottingham for this project, I had designed a
mass-produced alternative to the metal silo. The design work
I undertook means that manufacturing costs are kept as low as
possible, and the ability for the parts to stack vastly reduces
the cost of transporting the units across sub-Saharan Africa.
Stacking means that far more units can be packed into a
particular space, such as the back of a lorry, and so fewer trips
and fewer lorries are required.
Functionally, Si-Low is designed to perform the same way as
metal silos, producing a hermetic seal, which isolates the grain
from the external environment, and protecting it from disease
and pests. The unit holds around 500kg of maize, a capacity
chosen because a local expert in Tanzania informed me that on
average, local farmers store around five 100kg bags of grain at
a time.
I conservatively estimated Si-Low at costing below US$40
per unit, with US$20 per unit being entirely possible. This
represents a huge cost saving over the options that are
currently available to the farmers, thus providing them with
a way to store their grain for a price that they can actually
afford.

Award winning design

Having won the RSA Student Design Award for Si-Low, I


received funding from Finnish company Fazer, who sponsored
the award, to help take the design further and turn Si-Low
from a design into a finished product that could help the lives
of thousands. There is, however, a long way to go before SiLow can be used by the farmers of sub-Saharan Africa. More
investment is required, as well as an extensive process of further
development and testing of the design to ensure it functions
exactly as expected.
The real challenge now begins, being a 22-year-old design
graduate I lack the experience to launch a product in Africa,
and so I am seeking the expertise of others in order to develop
a plan of how Si-Low can come to life. A plan is needed on
how to approach the task of producing and distributing the
product.
One approach may be to use industrial backing in order to
obtain the necessary funding, infrastructure and contacts needed
to launch Si-Low. Many organisations look to fund projects such
as this in order to facilitate positive social change and provide an
image boost for their company.
Working with a charity could also be beneficial, as they would
have the local knowledge and distribution networks required. My
aim is not to make money but to get the product off the ground
and to those who need it, using a charity could allow this to
happen.
The issue of postharvest loss of grain in sub-Saharan Africa is
real, and it affects the lives thousands of families. It is my hope
that this design could in some way help solve a problem that,
with modern scientific knowledge and advances, is so avoidable.
abbrown1994@gmail.com