By Deborah B. Hamilton, Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation
Pearl millet, one of the most extensively cultivated cereals in the world and a key staple crop in the African Sahel, is particularly important to the food security of smallholder farmers in arid regions. With over 230,000 millet farmers in Senegal, over 3.9 million millet farmers in West Africa, and over 95 percent of these farmers using the ancient mortar and pestle to thresh millet, the demand and need for an improved technology are immense.
However, up to 10 to 20 percent of this critical crop is lost in postharvest as smallholders largely rely on rudimentary hand tools for threshing, winnowing, and milling pearl millet into edible flour. In addition, these tasks fall primarily to women who bear the brunt of this physically demanding and ultimately inefficient process.
With few effective tools available for smallholders to reduce the labor needed to process the grain, Compatible Technology International (CTI), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, developed Outils de Céréales, a mechanical, hand-operated tool package that processes pearl millet from seed heads into clean, unbroken grain in minutes. Outils de Céréales includes a manually operated stripper, thresher, winnower, and grinder. The thresher alone allows women to process one kilogram of grain in three minutes, less than half the time and twice the efficiency as threshing manually. It also captures more than 90 percent of the grain, significantly reducing food waste.
Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation invested almost $400,000 in a commercialization grant to help CTI make its product more accessible and affordable for Senegal’s smallholder farmers. With program support, CTI began working in partnership with SISMAR, a Senegalese manufacturer with a regional marketing presence that has a strong brand and reputation for quality, with the goal to reduce the sales price 35 percent by eliminating the shipping, customs, and logistics costs incurred by external manufacturing. The commercialization grant also allows CTI and SISMAR to test market the more affordable product; by end-activity, over 1,000 communities and cooperatives affecting 16,200 individuals will have purchased them, and provided feedback. The true transformative impact of the package will be post pilot phase, however, when SISMAR will have ramped up its manufacturing to meet exponentially increasing demand. As the market for this product increases, it has the potential to reach a majority of Senegal’s smallholders with even greater potential for expansion throughout West Africa.
Story and pictures by Peter Saling, Director of Programs
Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA)
In 2008, Jacqueline Dekoe started her business, Jacqueline’s Production, in Monrovia with five coconuts, a cup of sugar and the equivalent of US $1. Before going into business, Jacqueline had fled to Togo during the Liberian civil war. There, while a refugee student, she noticed food sellers adding value to produce such as cassava, plantains and breadfruit, and selling their products at local markets. This sparked Jacqueline’s interest in food processing and inspired her to start her own business selling snack foods after returning to her homeland.
Jacqueline singlehandedly managed the production, marketing and delivery of her snacks. The members of her community quickly became hooked. She could not meet the growing demand. Jacqueline tried to get a bank loan to fund her expansion, but without a business plan for her company, the banks were unwilling to lend.
In stepped the Investing for Business Expansion (IBEX) Program. IBEX is funded by USAID and assists business owners in accessing funds made available through banks that are supported by USAID’s Development Credit Authority (DCA). The DCA frees local credit mechanisms by providing a partial guarantee to loans. Since its founding in 1999 through 2013, the DCA has facilitated USD 3.1 billion of credit in 71 countries. It has experienced a default rate of only 1.85%, thus costing relatively little to US taxpayers.
In Liberia, the four-year IBEX program is implemented by the non-profit International Executive Service Corps (IESC), through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA). The program has three components. First, it provides technical support and capacity building for small and medium (SME) sized businesses, such as Jacqueline’s, in the agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure, construction, general merchandise, transportation and hospitality chain sectors.
Secondly, it provides technical support and capacity building for its partner banks, IB Bank and EcoBank-Liberia, to facilitate lending to SMEs and encourage lending to qualified small business using the DCA guarantee. IBEX allows partner banks to become more comfortable lending to the SME sectors through training bank staff and through borrower preparedness exercises, e.g business plans, and screening. Meanwhile the DCA guaranty helps lower their risk for lending to borrowers in relevant sectors through a 50% risk-share of any net loss on their loans.
Finally, IBEX works with the Government of Liberia and private business development services (BDS) providers, such as accountants, to develop public and private resources to provide these same services, linking businesses to banks, in order to ensure sustainability once IBEX ends.
In Jacqueline’s case, IBEX’s Enterprise Development Specialists helped her to prepare a business plan. This led to her business receiving a USD 35,000 loan. She used the money to purchase a truck and several processing machines that helped her increase her output and lower her production costs. Today, Jacqueline’s Production employs nine workers and is worth US $80,000. Jacqueline’s coconut and plantain chips are now found in local shops and supermarkets throughout the country. The business serves as an example for other Liberians interested in becoming entrepreneurs.
Story by Bobby David Gboyor
In May 2013, Africa Agribusiness Magazine’s (AAM) Washington-based journalist Bobby David Gboyor visited Sierra Leone and had the opportunity to tour the FINIC Industries Factory at Kissy, in Freetown. FINIC Industries is an agro-based national industrialization center that specializes in manufacturing of machinery and equipment used in processing a variety of agricultural products. The machinery includes Biomass Gasifiers, Cassava Grating Machines, Coffee and Rice Mills, Multi Juice Extraction Machines, Palm Fruit Threshers and Rice Destoners. FINIC has even manufactured its own Condom Vending Machines that are intended to be used at various entertainment centers around the country. The following is an exclusive interview with Mr. Foday Melvin Kamara, the quiet, unassuming but versatile Founder and Managing Director of FINIC Industries, SL Ltd.
AAM: Hello Mr. Kamara and welcome to Africa Agribusiness Magazine (AAM). Please give us a brief background of yourself.
Melvin Kamara – My name is Foday Melvin Kamara. I am the Managing Director of Fomel Industries and National Industrialization Center (FINIC). Fomel is the blending of two names, Foday and Melvin. These are my names that I blended to form the enterprise FINIC. I had my initial schooling here in Sierra Leone and continued my education in the Federal Republic of Germany where I did a further training in automobile engineering. When I completed my training, I came back to Sierra Leone and worked as a Training Manager at the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC). I headed a technical training school. I was tasked with the responsibility to train young people in the area of automobile engineering so as to have personnel that would take over the management of the fleet we had at the time. Before going to the SLRTC, I worked as a technical teacher at the Government Technical Institute at Kissy Dockyard. I am a person that is passionate about mechanical things, I really do have a passion for mechanics and this is what makes me happy.
AAM: Thank you, Mr. Kamara. As Founder and Managing Director of FINIC Industries in Sierra Leone, how did you conceive the idea of establishing an agro-based technology enterprise in your home country?
Melvin Kamara – When I was training manager at the SLRTC, I had the opportunity to interact and work with young people, the youths. And there I discovered how versatile young people are, how much talent they have, but they did not have the opportunity to put their talents into good use. Then I said to myself that we have to do something about it. I saw that after a period of training, we found youths engaged in doing things that were diametrically opposed to what they had learnt at training school. So I made a plan and contacted management to find an institution sponsored by diplomatic missions where the youths could go after training or graduation and explore their talents. The idea was not embraced but then as a trainer I thought it was a waste of money to just get people trained and let them go without engaging them into a productive activity so I decided to help in my own way. That is how I came to establish FINIC Industries. I started with six trainees. The first difficulty we had was where we could find the equipment. Money was a big problem for us. However, for me, I thought that money should not be the stumbling block to impede our progress. I said to them that if we have this talent, why don’t we use that talent to establish something where we could have a beginning? That’s how we came to build the vises. We went out and got scrap metals to build the vises. We build the engineer vise and I think we build over twenty of those vises.
AAM: Please go back to that point again. What did you build?
Melvin Kamara – We built the vises. A vise is a mechanical devise that we refer to as the “third hand of the engineer.” It is basically a devise that holds the job in place while the engineer works on it. It is a form of equipment. It holds the job into place while work is performed on it. For example, if we want to cut a piece of metal or do a filing, the vise is what we use to hold that job into place while we work on it. At that time it was sold for six hundred thousand Leones a piece. Our main aim was to just start somewhere so our logical point of departure was to build a devise to help us work on a piece of equipment. Our goal was to do something to minimize our endless importation of everything we need for our daily use in this country. We believe that if we have to import everything we need for our use into this country without a plan to start making things ourselves, then we are the enemies of ourselves by not making efforts to utilize our brains for the economic development of our country. And by relying solely on imports, we set in motion an “economic flight” by wasting our hard earned foreign exchange overseas and creating unemployment or underemployment in our own country. At all times we have had to depend on others for our own basic needs, so we thought it was time to begin to address the malaise of our perceived lack of creativity and ingenuity. As a result, we started this project sixteen years ago. Looking back on what we started with and what we now have, one can clearly see how much we have developed and how far we have come.
AAM: So you actually started this journey sixteen years ago?
Melvin Kamara – Yes, we started sixteen years ago in 1997. It was in that year that we established FINIC Industries in Sierra Leone.
AAM: How big is FINIC Industries in terms of numbers of employees, departments, sectors or branches around the country? What are your plans for expansion?
Melvin Kamara – We have a total of eighteen employees at the moment but we have a plan to hire more people as we grow. We also have what we call FINIC 1, FINIC 2, FINIC 3 and FINIC 4. These are not departments but, call them branches if you like, that we have established at various locations around the country. We started here in Freetown with FINIC 1 and then we expanded to FINIC 2 which is where we are presently seated, and we moved to the Koya Chiefdom in the Port-Loko District where we established FINIC 3. The FINIC 3 location is along the main highway between Waterloo and Masiaka, and here we established the Rural Technology Innovation Center (RTIC). The idea behind establishing this center was to have our technology tested there and also innovate into technologies that improve on the living standards of the people when it relates to their work or involvement in agriculture. We are convinced that if technology is to be sustained, it has to be owned by the people. So coming close to the people to design a piece of equipment with their input and giving it to them to use, it would help in enabling them to own the technology and at the same time it will help us to be providing them with spare parts at very close range. This is what gave us the motivation to establish the center. We have another branch in Bo and that is our FINIC 4. However, we are struggling at the moment to maintain real heavyweight presence in Bo District but we are still there trying to raise head above water.
AAM: What are the components of FINIC 1, 2, 3 and 4 in terms of machinery or the produce that are processed at the different branches or units? Is there a difference in terms of the output or is it one and the same thing?
Melvin Kamara – They are different in a way because FINIC 1 is where we started the production of the agro-processing equipment. And then we also have the showroom here at FINIC 1 where we showcase our machinery or put them on display. Now we have moved the production activities and concentrated those at FINIC 2. We still continue to maintain the showroom at FINIC 1 but, instead of using the location to manufacture equipment, we are now using it to produce processed food for would-be customers. For example, if we have customers who wish to process rice into powder for use as whatever form of cereal they like to have, we can now do that for them at FINIC 1. We can also process palm kennels into palm oil or fruits into fruit juice.
At FINIC 2, we do mainly production of equipment but we also have our demo house to showcase our work. The demonstration house is going to be a real house where we can put our machines into use. These are machines we use to produce various foodstuffs such as pap (a foodstuff that is widely consumed during the Ramadan period), powdered pepper, peanut butter and a wide range of products. The reason for the establishment of such a demo house is to give us an idea of what strength and weaknesses our machines have so it can help us to improve on the machines. And secondly, this is also a means for us to display our machines. It is very difficult to be producing machines in Sierra Leone and convince people that what you are producing is functional and durable to an acceptable standard, and the best way to do that is to showcase or demonstrate the equipment to prove that it works. This is what motivated us to establish this demo house at FINIC 2 where we are producing a wide range of food to showcase the equipment we have.
FINIC 3: We have always said it is better for us to make use of what we have until we get what we want. And if you look around in terms of what we have, you will see that we have a lot of palm trees and palm nuts in this country especially in the areas that we operate. In addition to that, we also have an abundant supply of elephant grass and the elephant grass becomes a menace for causing wild fires during the dry season. So FINIC 3 is a concept that we developed for researching into technologies with the aim of developing what we have, I mean the raw materials that are freely available to us in our country. For example, we are converting palm nuts into vegetable oil which we in turn process to get bio diesel. As a result, all our energy needs are met by the fuel that we produce. And then we are also researching into simple technologies that would help rural settings to engage in dignified labor. This is important because if we want to attract people to the agricultural sector, we have to find a way to reduce intensive manual labor by making available to them basic equipment that would mitigate the pain of manual labor. In other words we have to gradually mechanize the process of agriculture to get people more attracted to the sector.
At FINIC 4 also, we plan to establish a workshop there in Bo because we feel obligated that if we are supplying machines in the Bo District, we should have a presence there that would be close enough for us to adequately serve the people using our equipment when they need repairs that they are unable to handle on their own. This is the reason why we established FINIC 4 to serve the needs of the people. Although we are struggling at the moment to get it going the way we would like to do, yet we are there and serving the purpose as we intended. We are helping to service the machines used by our customers and we are also doing sales of the machines we produce at the workshop. So it serves both as a sales center and a place where our customers come for service when they have problems with their machines.
AAM: Tell us about the various machines that you have manufactured in your factory and explain the functionality of each machine.
Melvin Kamara – Let me start with the palm oil processing machine. Palm oil processing in Sierra Leone especially and in Africa generally is so labor-intensive that people who are engaged in the cultivation of oil palm are finding it very difficult to break even because of the drudgery associated with it. So we manufactured a machine, a mini plant that we call Palm Oil Processing Plant, with a capacity to produce 400 liters of palm oil per day; that is the equivalent of 2 barrels of 200 liters each. It is a mini plant comprising of four main components: one is the digester. The digester performs the function of crushing cooked, boiled or sterilized palm fruits, breaking the oil bearing cells so as to increase the chances of recovering oil from the fruits. The same digester does washing and separation of nuts from the sludge that contains the oil. Then we have the clarifier. The clarifier is equipment that removes oil from water, and that follows a process by which heat is being applied. We have the palm fruit thresher. The thresher is very important in this mini plant because threshing traditionally requires one to have an axe or a machete to cut the spikelet that holds the fruits together in order to separate the fruits from the bunch. With the thresher we can put 4 or 5 of these bunches of palm fruits into the machine and in less than two minutes, all the fruits would have been struck off and separated from the bunch. The bunch would flow from one end and then the fruits flow to the other end. Then we have the sterilizer. The sterilizer is where the boiling actually takes place. We call it sterilizer because it is during that process that all pathogens are killed, that is disease causing organisms are killed so that the palm oil would be sterile for human consumption. The main function of the sterilizer is boiling but there is a big difference between our own sterilizer and the one traditionally used by local farmers for palm oil production.
The traditional mechanism involves putting a lot of water into a barrel and then they fill the barrel with the palm fruits. It would take the whole night doing the boiling. What we have done with our sterilizer is to make use of steam. We constructed the sterilizer to have a cavity where water is boiled and turned into steam and this steam rises to facilitate the boiling of the fruits within a short time. This method is far better than the traditional method.
Let me now come to rice processing. Five years ago or prior to that, all rice mills in this country were imported; but today, we thank God we are now producing rice mills in Sierra Leone.
AAM: Are there any other competitors in the area of manufacturing rice mills in Sierra Leone?
Melvin Kamara – Yes, absolutely there are other competitors. However, these competitors are not indigenous companies. These are representatives of manufacturers mainly from China and other Asian countries generally. But the advantage we have is that we know our people and the technology has to be owned. If we know our people and we know what they want, then in designing machines, we would be better placed than the Asians who are not in touch with our people. This is the advantage we are utilizing to try and win over the market.
AAM: Are you saying that people are coming from Asia to set up their plants or factories in Sierra Leone and they are also involved in manufacturing these rice mills locally?
Melvin Kamara – No. Absolutely not! They are not involved in any manufacturing locally. They are bringing in prefabricated components and assembling them here. In fact in some cases they are not even doing any assembling at all. They are bringing in ready-made machines from abroad loaded in containers and then take them out and put them on display. In actual fact they are doing distribution for Chinese or Indian manufacturers and not assembling the machines here locally. So far we have two Chinese business people doing that. We also have other nationals of Lebanese origin engaged in the same business of bringing in the equipment and distributing them. But the unfortunate thing is that for some of them, they do not have a presence here by way of having a place where people can go and buy the spare parts for their machines. Also, they do not have any technicians that they could dispatch to areas where their machines are being used to do repairs on their machines when needed by their customers. That is a big difference from our own company, and the fact that we are an indigenous company owned, operated and managed by a Sierra Leonean.
AAM: So what more do you have on the rice mill?
Melvin Kamara – The rice meal is multi-modal in the sense that it does coffee as well. All what you need is to change the seeds from rice to coffee and it will get the job done. It works even better for coffee than for rice. We have the Rice Destoner. You know the rice locally produced here in Sierra Leone is contaminated with a lot of stones. This contamination takes place mainly during post harvesting activities when farmers are drying their rice products. The drying takes place on the bare floor on street corners and road sides or on mats and, farmers also use stones to scare creatures away from the rice. During this process, the rice is contaminated with a lot of stones. So the machine we have manufactured that we call Destoner is capable of removing every tiny bit of stone from the rice. The good thing about the Destoner is that it is not electrically operated so it does not need electrical power to run it. It has a simple gasoline engine that operates the machine which means it can be used anywhere in the country, even in the remote villages and it works very well.
I am moving now to cassava processing. We have designed a cassava grating machine. You know the cassava tubers have to be grated, that is crushed into small plates so as to facilitate the garification of the cassava.
AAM: Mr. Kamara, that word “garification.” Was that a word you coined yourself? Because frankly speaking this is the first time I have heard that word. It appears to be something like a coinage, is that so?
Melvin Kamara – Well, sort of. You know if one is in this business for as long as I have been, one tends to be creative with certain usages. Garification simply means the process of converting cassava into gari which is now the second staple food in Sierra Leone after rice. So to garify the cassava we need to turn the tubers into flakes and then we press the flakes through the water to remove the starch and then we begin the garification process by applying heat. We have been able to design a machine that does the grating with the capacity to grate two tons of flakes per hour and the machine is made of purely stainless steel. Stainless steel is expensive but when it has to do with hygiene, it is the best option for us. We have also designed the hydraulic press which has the capacity to do 200 kilograms of cassava flakes in one hour. This means that a batch of cassava flakes is 200 kilos and for every one hour, the hydraulic press will remove water from one batch. We also have the roasting plant as a component of the cassava processing machine. The roasting plant has a central revolving unit which ensures that each portion of the bowl that holds the cassava flakes is torched and stirred, and in the process the cassava flakes would be evenly heated to facilitate the garification process.
We have a machine for palm nut cracking. Palm nut cracking traditionally is a very labor intensive work. For example, 180 kilograms of palm nuts would require seven working days for somebody to sit down and crack those nuts one after the other. We saw this as a need that we should address to alleviate the pains of nut cracking by farmers. As engineers and technicians, we designed a machine for palm nut cracking that can do the work that a farmer does at nut cracking for seven days in only four minutes, and it has the capacity to crack two tons of palm nuts per hour. This machine is really very effective. We have also developed a system which had been in use before although not well established, and that is the separation process. The separator is a mechanism that separates the nut shells from the kennels. We have not yet made a mechanical separator but we have so far adopted the clay back method using scientific principles of density. Density of water if not mixed would be higher than the density of the kennel. So, if you just put the kennel into the water, it will sink; but if you mix the water with clay, you make the density of the water and the kennel to be the same. And then when you pour the kennels and shells into that mixture, the shells which are heavier will sink to the bottom and leave the kennels to float to the top so that we are able to scoop out the kennels using a basket. We have propagated this method in many villages in the Koya Chiefdom where we have a presence.
AAM: Do you have a method of processing these kennels into some form of oil such as nut oil?
Melvin Kamara – Yes, we use the “wet method” to process palm kennel into palm kennel oil. There is also the “dry method” which functions like an expeller. We put the palm kennel into the expeller and it presses the oil out and expels the cake on the other side. However, the expeller is very difficult to manufacture simply because the kennels are not friendly to metal. There are usually some shells mixed with the kennels and these are very abrasive to metal so we find it very difficult to manufacture one that can be durable. As a result, we prefer to use the “wet method.” With the wet method, we use the hammer mill to crush the kennels into powder and we put the powder in a mixture of water and bring to boil. After 30 or 40 minutes of boiling in intense heat, the oil will float and then we take the oil out and discard the chaff which is the byproduct. So in sum, we have the palm nut cracker which cracks the palm nuts, and we have the separator which separates the nuts from the shells, and after separating then we do the oil processing which requires us to do crushing of the kennels with the hammer mill which is a separate machine. And thereafter, we bring the crushed kennels to boil and then the oil will float. We are using two sets of machinery here. The palm oil processing mini plant is different from the machine we use to process palm kennel oil.
AAM: We are still on machinery, so do you have any others?
Melvin Kamara – Yes we do. I was talking earlier on about the processing of foodstuff. For example, in the processing of palm kennel oil, we need to dry the kennels after separating using the clay back method. We have to dry them sufficiently enough to make the oil bearing shells to be ruptured through the application of heat. This is what helps us to recover more oil from the kennels, so that at least we are able to recover 40% of oil to the weight of the kennel. To be able to get that level of oil, we need to dry the kennels sufficiently. This drying was a real problem for us. However, at FINIC 3, our Rural Technology Innovation Center, we realized that a lot of heat was being wasted by the generator that we used to power the hammer mills. What we did was to use a combining system. We tapped the exhaust waste through a heat exchanger system which exchanges heat with forced air or cool air, and by the time the cool air leaves the heat exchanger, it would have been heated and then it goes into the cabin containing the kennels where the drying process takes place. This means that we are effectively using the generator to improvise a method of drying the kennels. That technology is what we are using at FINIC 3.
We are extending that technology to the drying of other foodstuff, for example, the production of pap. Drying also is a problem for other foodstuffs especially in the raining season. During the rains the sun is unpredictable. The sun shines and in less than thirty minutes you see something totally different. So what we have done here is that we have built a small glasshouse and it is going to be powered by the same system although it will be different. This time we are making use of a small dedicated engine that will be powering the fan, and this fan will be forcing air through a heat exchanger which will cause hot air to be generated into the glasshouse. So if you put pap in the glass house for example, or other wet foodstuffs meant to be dried, the entire content would have been dried in less than 2 hours. This is another mechanism that we are using for drying. The use of the glass is deliberate because we want to use the equipment during the dry season also. Because the dry season here is very hot, and when we expose the glass to the hot burning sun, the scientific principle is the greenhouse effect whereby the sun would flash into the glasshouse and the hot gamma rays would be trapped and would remain there. This will keep the cabinet very hot for an extended period of time. This means that during the dry season, we have no need to use a machine or a generator for drying foodstuff because the sun would be enough to provide heat in the glasshouse and the glass will protect the foodstuff against dust or disease causing organisms.
Another machine we have manufactured is the Condom Vending Machine. I think we are the first in Africa to have designed and manufactured a condom vending machine. Sierra Leone should be awarded a prize for that venture.
AAM: So you mean one can put the local Sierra Leone currency, the Leone, into the Condom Vending Machine and it would vend a condom out?
Melvin Kamara – Yes, exactly; and the good thing is that the machine is not electrically operated but a purely mechanical system. It operates without the need for battery or other forms of power and so it is always functional, blackout or no blackout. You know buying a condom is stigmatizing so a lot of people still shy away from going to the stores to buy a condom. We were contacted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2002 and they asked us to design a machine that can sell condoms. Three months later we presented them with a prototype. That prototype was designed to dispense one condom at a time. They were very happy about it and they thought we should also be able to do a machine that would dispense a whole packet of condom at a time and they asked us to design such a machine. In two months we came out with the design that dispenses a packet containing 3 condoms. It works by inserting two coins of 100 Leones and press the lever and a packet of condom will pop out.
AAM: So where have you installed all these Condom Vending Machines?
Melvin Kamara – These machines were intended to be installed in guest houses, hotels and all entertainment centers frequented by young people. We had a project with the HIV and AIDS Secretariat for these machines to be installed in all those entertainment centers in the country. However, the project did not go well with the type of management the Secretariat then had, but we are planning to revitalize the project because they now have a new management system. We also plan to work with CARE Sierra Leone because they are also engaged in the campaign to reduce sexually transmitted diseases in the country. We have written to them and we are waiting for their response on that. So at the moment the machines have not yet been deployed to those centers where we intended to use them.
We have the Fruit Juice Extraction Machine. In Sierra Leone in a given season, we have plenty of mangoes that we cannot really add value to because they just grow fast and most is wasted. So we thought we should design an extraction machine and we successfully produced one which can extract juice from 1 ton of mangoes in 1 hour. And the machine does not only do mangoes, but it does pineapples too. And the beauty is that we do not have to peal the pineapples or the mangoes. For the pineapples we just chop off the crown and the stalk, cut into slices and then throw them into the machine and it will extract the juice from the pineapples and expel the chaff at one end and the juice at the other end. We believe this machine will revolutionize fruit processing in Sierra Leone. At the moment, fruit juice in this country is mainly imported because people do not have a means of extracting the juice from the fruit in a hygienic way. And added to that also, we produced a pasteurizer. A pasteurizer is a machine that fights pathogens, disease
causing organisms or germs in the juice before bottling it so as to make it safe, taste better and last longer.
AAM: Which of your machines or set of machines that is more popular or widely used by the farmers around the country?
Melvin Kamara – The cassava processing machine is very popular and the rice milling machine is also becoming popular. The simple reason is that these machines are very strong and durable. They may not look shiny, fashionable, elegant or aesthetic but the most important thing for the people is that they can perform well and they are durable. As for the aesthetics and for those who are concerned about looks, I would say to them that the beautiful ones are not yet born. However, with time, we are always striving to improve on our products and we have seen significant improvements in our machinery over the past sixteen years we have been involved in manufacturing.
AAM: What type of relationship does FINIC have with its customers in terms of technical advice or support, equipment maintenance and usage?
Melvin Kamara – The relationship is very good. First of all, when we are designing the machine, we involve our would-be customers to have a say in the design. The machine is not only for it to function, but for it also to be user friendly. And so when we make it user friendly involving those that are going to be using it, it would be eventually owned by them. This is where we are relating very well to our users because we make them feel as being part of the process. So when we design these machines, we take them to different communities and allow the people to use them for a period of time. And each community will provide us with feedback as to the functionality of the machine and whether it is user friendly. From these tests we obtain a data and then finally manufacture a machine that the people are happy with and like to use. This is how we find our relationship with the people very strong. Secondly, we make spare parts available. Like I said before, customers who buy their machines from merchants who don’t have a presence in the community have problems getting spare parts and technical support. But for us, we have a presence and we have trained technicians. If something happens to a machine that they cannot take care of at the field level, they give us a call and we dispatch a technician immediately. We have a motorbike ready for that. If they need spare parts they come to us. Whatever spare parts they need we always have it to sell to them. That has cemented our relationship with our customers and this is where we are winning over our competitors from Asia.
AAM: You have indicated your intention to expand into biomass energy production in Sierra Leone. How did you conceive this idea?
Melvin Kamara – Yes, to make use of what we have to get what we want, we need to add value to what we have. Looking at what Sierra Leone has in terms of biomass, it is a lot. We have abundant supply of elephant grass all over Sierra Leone. And this elephant grass, instead of helping us, instead of us making good use of it, we allow it to destroy us. This dry season that we have just seen this year alone witnessed a lot of destruction and loss of life caused by fire that is propagated by dry elephant grass. I think that if we are talking about energy, we should not be limited to fossil oil alone. As a matter of fact fossil oil is causing us damage because it is causing changes in the climate that is creating a lot of problems for farmers. By fossil fuel of course I mean diesel, petrol, etc.
Elephant grass on the other hand is a major source of energy and it will not harm us if we make use of the heat it generates while it is burning. But if we allow it to burn widely, it destroys the farms, houses, forests and even lives. But if we can burn the elephant grass in a controlled fashion or using a controlled methodology, then it becomes beneficial because the energy it releases can be utilized. And then at the same time, if it releases any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it would be re-absolved again when the elephant grass grows. The elephant grass is burnt down, then it grows, and in the growing process it adsorbs the carbon dioxide and becomes carbon neutral. This concept is what brought us to what we call the Biomass Gasifier. The gasifier is a plant that controls burning of biomass in a fashion that would allow the explosive gases like hydrogen and methane to be extracted then channeled for either running an engine or to power a generator or for the drying of foodstuff. We are given the impetus for this project by the availability of elephant grass and we are supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). UNIDO sent me to India for one month to participate in a training program for the operation of the biomass gasifier. When I came back home, I shared the knowledge and experience with my managers and they said we too can take up the challenge. This is what led us to the construction of the Biomass Gasifier that we now have here. It is designed to be using elephant grass to produce energy.
This is how it works. We need to harvest the elephant grass, crush and briquette or pelletize them. The briquettes or pellets are put into the machine for the extraction of gases. The gasifier would also strongly help in the rural electrification drive of the country. If we are talking about increasing agricultural productivity, the first thing that should come to mind is energy. Energy should be the first thing to think about even before food security.
Energy security should at least precede food security otherwise we would be missing the point. So the biomass gasifier can provide an excellent opportunity for young people to use it for agricultural productivity. For example, in the production of vegetables like pepper, you need to use irrigation system if you are to do it all year round. We need energy for irrigation, so if the youths have a biomass gasifier where they can just go into the bush, cut some elephant grass, put it into the machine and the machine converts it to gas, the gas then is utilized by a generator and this helps to power a small scale irrigation system. This system will help us to increase agricultural productivity and would be very instrumental in the electrification of the rural communities.
AAM: Are you saying that the biomass gasifier is also a source of electricity? If so, what kind of power are we talking about? I mean what kind of kilowatts or electrical power that can be generated from a biomass gasifier?
Melvin Kamara – The one we have targeted has a 32 kilowatts power capacity, and that is able to give electricity to at least 400 households just for lighting. However, the biomass gasifier can be designed to generate as much as 1 megawatt of electricity. It all depends on size and the ability to have the equipment that would be able to extract and cool that magnitude of gas. But it is possible.
AAM: Give us some details of what entails the process of biomass gas production and its uses. I believe you have covered this to some extent but how does it compare to other sources of energy such as petrol, diesel or ethanol?
Melvin Kamara – For ethanol, you will require a great deal of energy to process it because we need to crush the sugarcane for example, press it and apply a heating process to get the ethanol produced. But for the biomass gasifier, we use energy to do harvesting and crushing, but the raw material is readily available for free and we do not need to grow a sugarcane plantation before we can produce that form of energy. This is a big difference. The other important difference between biomass gasification and other forms of fuel is its carbon neutrality. When we burn elephant grass, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but it also reabsorbs it again by the same elephant grass when it grows. With regards to petrol and diesel, when once they release carbon into the atmosphere, they do not have the capacity to reabsorb the carbon. In that sense they are non-carbon neutral. Once released, the carbon goes into the environment and helps create environmental damage. For that reason alone we would prefer the biomass gas for our source of fuel even if it entails a higher cost of production. However, the good thing is that biomass gas is actually cheaper than the other forms of fuel we mentioned. At least every 15 kilograms of biomass or elephant grass would be equivalent to a gallon of diesel fuel, which is 4.5 liters. This means that it is better to use elephant grass in terms of cost than to use diesel or petrol. The biomass technology is a system that we can also install in vehicles and it would run the vehicles very well just like the fuel that is now widely used. As a country, we have to develop a method of using biomass technology for fuel production in order to address the energy problems we have in Sierra Leone. If there is fuel crisis in the world, we would be better off using our elephant grass for fuel than waiting for imported crude oil from overseas. As a matter of fact, we have appealed to the government to support us to develop this technology. We intend, before the end of this year, to start a rural transportation system that would be making use of three-wheel vehicles purely powered by elephant grass. The youths would go to a collection point, pay and collect a bag of briquetted or pelletized elephant grass which they will put into the tank and drive off. It would be that simple. Our hope is that this project will kick off in the not too distant future.
AAM: Given the fact that the majority of your customers live in low income farming communities, what plans does your company have to make its products more affordable?
Melvin Kamara – Affordability is really a very big problem for us. We have to try and strike a balance between affordability and the strength and durability of the machines we produce. Sometimes it is very difficult to get this balance because when we try to make the machines affordable, we would be tempted to use inferior material in its production and at the end of the day we have to take the blame for it. But if we make our machines sturdy and robust, we spend more money at the backend in cost of production and we have to consider appropriate pricing to recover that cost. So it is very difficult to strike the balance between the two. Take for example the stainless steel cassava grating machine. Stainless steel is very expensive but we prefer to use it to eliminate disease causing pathogens from our finished food products. If we use stainless steel to produce a cassava grating machine, the average Sierra Leonean would not afford it. So in order to strike a balance, we make use of galvanized steel plates. It is not stainless but it would take some time to become stained and that affects the durability of the machine. But any how the machine with the galvanized steel plates would be cheaper than the one made from stainless steel. This is how we try to strike a balance. However, it is very important that our machines are affordable to make them competitive with those imported from Asia.
AAM: Is there anything else you wish Africa Agribusiness Magazine and global venture capitalists interested in investing in the agricultural sector to know about the operations of FINIC Industries and your plans for expansion?
Melvin Kamara – I want the venture capitalists out there to know that this is a country with an abundant supply of biomass elephant grass. We all talk about diamonds and iron ore. When we talk about the economic development of Sierra Leone today, the first companies people will think about are African Minerals and London Mining. But it is also very refreshing to know that elephant grass can bring us a lot of money just as gold, diamond or iron ore. A ton of elephant grass can be sold for as much as $100 in Europe or America. So my message is that I want to team up with potential investors that would be ready to do this business with us. Harvesting of elephant grass, briquetting it and putting it in containers bound for energy production plants overseas is a huge business. It can be processed into many forms of energy for use in the homes for heating, for use by industries to power equipment such as boilers, and for many other uses and applications. I would like to have investors join with me in this business.
Here at home, biomass gas can be utilized very effectively for replacement of charcoal in our kitchens. Charcoal is causing huge environmental damage in this country. So if we can briquette elephant grass, it can also be used in our stove for cooking. So the biomass elephant grass business has a huge market not only for exporting, but also for local consumption here at home. We also like to welcome investors to come and invest in biomass gasification in Sierra Leone which we can use to engage in a wide range of agricultural activities such as irrigation, tilapia fish farming, cat fish farming and vegetable gardening for marketing to the United States and other countries in Europe. Rural transportation and electrification system is another huge potential. We have a plan to design three-wheel vehicles using biomass gas as its energy source to assist farmers to get their products to market centers around the country. These are the areas where we would like to team up with potential investors to help us expand and improve on the technology that we have.