Tree to table: Solar food dehydrators help connect farmers to global market

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, company is empowering rural farmers around the globe to use zero-waste techniques to produce and market dried fruit.

The global pandemic has brought to light the fragility of many supply chains. Product shortages in grocery stores, food processing slowdowns, and e-commerce businesses scrambling to meet surging demand all illustrate supply chain choke points. This week, I’m highlighting Midwest tech businesses that are helping to solve these problems. 

The innovation: Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Agricycle Global designs, produces, and sells low-barrier solar dehydrators to farmers across the globe. The company teaches farmers how to use zero-waste techniques to grow, harvest, and dehydrate fruit, and then helps with logistics, shipping, and packaging to market the fruit in the United States as a fair trade consumer packaged good.

The problem: Fruit is naturally abundant and overproduced in many rural areas globally, but the farmers lack technology and infrastructure to effectively market the   food. This ultimately leads to food waste instead of using the fruits as a resource. “Drying fruits isn’t the problem. The problem is there’s no market access and a way to make money off of these fruits,” said Claire Friona, Agricycle co-founder and portfolio manager.

The impact: The company currently has a network of 35,000 farmers in Africa and the Caribbean. Farmers deal directly with Agricycle and receive upfront payment instead of dealing with a series of third-party middlemen who charge various fees. “We’re working with farmers who have no market access and no technology access. We’re bridging that gap and bringing them into a supply chain they’ve been excluded from,” Friona said. Consumers can scan a QR code on the package to learn about the specific farmers that produced their fruit.

The backstory: The business began as a school project at the Milwaukee School of Engineering to design passive solar dehydrators that do not use electricity — sun naturally causes heat to rise through these stacked trays to dry the fruit, so no fans or heating elements are necessary. Agricycle has been in the works for about four years, and it just launched its first product, Jali Fruit Co., in March.

What’s next: The original plan was to bring dried fruits to market in U.S. retail stores, but Agricycle has shifted to an e-commerce model because of the pandemic. The company is working on two other sustainably-sourced consumer products: charcoal made from coconut shells and a line of gluten-free fruit flours. At first, they thought about postponing those products’ launches because of the pandemic, but the situation actually has created an opportunity. “What are things people are doing at home? They grill and bake. We realized it has given us some exciting opportunities we might not otherwise have had,” Friona said.

Do you know other Midwest tech businesses transforming supply chains? Let me know so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email or connect on Twitter @centereddottech to share ideas.

Today’s tech headlines:

  • As governments look to stimulate and rebuild economies in the wake of the pandemic, the World Economic Forum is urging governments to invest in technology and innovation that decarbonizes shipping. (World Economic Forum)
  • University of Michigan startup Refraction AI is seeing a surge in use of delivery robots it launched late last year. Demand is up during the pandemic as restaurants seek contactless deliveries; the robots also have UV sterilizing lights inside the food storage compartment. (WDIV)
  • A Wisconsin National Guard pilot developed technology that could prevent helicopter crashes. The training device is a visor that wraps around a pilot’s face and teaches pilots to maintain control of their aircraft when they encounter dangerous weather. (WMTV)

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