Case study on the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between the Tropical Starch Company in Ghana and Aston University, funded by Innovate UK.

About Tropical Starch

The Tropical Starch Company is the leading cassava processing company in Ghana. Cassava is Ghana’s staple crop, and the company makes three products: industrial cassava starch, used widely in textile production; fine-grade cassava flour (‘Gari’ ), used in confectionery and the food industry, and gari fortified with sweet potatoes. The company employs 35 local people and works with farmers in the area who supply the raw product.

The challenge that the KTP is addressing

A great deal of processing is required for a cassava crop - it needs to be thoroughly cleaned, mashed, sieved, dried and packaged. Drying the product is an important stage but the traditional technique of simply exposing trays of cassava to air is inefficient and leads to dirt, dust, sand and microbes getting into the product, as well as destroying heat sensitive nutrients such as vitamin C. Industrial alternatives, such as bin dryers, need electricity or fossil fuels to generate the heat required and can only dry one crop per production line. Tropical Starch has these dryers, but they are expensive to run. It’s also hard to regulate their temperatures, so sometimes the product gets overcooked or discoloured.

Tropical Starch wants to find a sustainable way to address these problems, by developing a solar-powered drying device of its own that is faster, temperature-controllable, uses less energy, and can process bigger volumes of raw cassava.

Why a KTP was the ideal route

The aim is to develop an integrated drying device involving several different technologies, in order to operate it off-grid. It will require expertise in several fields including modular design, desiccant drying techniques (where desiccant materials are used in a piece of industrial equipment to eliminate water) energy systems, post-harvest technology and food engineering.

Although some of these technologies are already developed, the way they will be integrated will be new. In particular, data needs to be collected to design and optimise the system, and this is best done with computer simulation modelling.

At present Tropical Starch doesn’t have these skills and will rely on Aston University’s expertise in this field to lead the work, as well as work by the University of Cape Coast, which is also involved in the KTP.

Aston University’s Dr Ahmed Rezk, who is leading the project, is an expert in thermal systems, and his mainstream research is in sustainable and zero-carbon heating and cooling technologies. He is also a specialist in solar energy modelling using TRNSYS – a software program used extensively in renewable energy engineering.

In addition, the KTP will result in this broad range of skills being embedded in Tropical Starch, so that it can continue to find creative solutions and develop new products in future.  

What the research will involve

The project is recruiting a KTP Associate to work at the company’s main site in Abura-Dunkwa, Ghana. This Associate will take charge of the development of the new device, supported by regular monthly meetings with the wider team, ensuring all design stages are effectively recorded, and that any new procedures are communicated to a range of users, from skilled technical staff to rural farmers.

Academic Lead Dr Tabbi Wilberforce Awotwe, who specialises in design optimisation of mechanical systems and energy storage modelling, will visit Ghana during the project and will assist the new Associate in designing, modelling and leading the process.

Once the system has been agreed, Tropical Starch will collaborate with a local fabrication partner, First Product Enterprise Limited, to construct and test the system and ultimately train local farmers to use the new food drying practices. It’s expected that the final dryer will use either sustainable or scrap local materials.

The potential benefits of the research

By finding a quicker, higher volume and more reliable method of drying its cassava, Tropical Starch will be able to satisfy the increasing demand for its products. Currently, they can only make five tons of finished products each week for its clients, yet one client alone has requested 20 tons per day.

Aston University has agreed to donate the intellectual property rights of the final product to Tropical Starch, meaning the company will be able to produce the driers and to sell it to other farmers. There are also plans to use the same dryers for other foods such as fruit and vegetables.

Tropical Starch’s long-term plan is to achieve stable production that both meets demand and addresses the high unemployment in the region. If its contributing farmers can benefit from the new driers too, the company hopes this will address the issue of young people leaving the countryside to move to the cities in search of work. Tropical Starch sees this as a ‘ripple effect’, passing the knowledge around the community for the benefit of all.

Lastly, environmentally-friendly methods of cooling and heating are urgently needed around the world for industrial and domestic environments. This project represents an opportunity for Aston University’s specialists to develop a sustainable technology for food drying with controlled humidity and temperature, which could be used in other settings.

What the partners say:

Augustine Fiifi Amoah, Supervisor, Tropical Starch:

“We already have the customers demanding it and so we are praying that we will be able to meet demand. If we could produce 20 tons a day we would be so happy. We have the market, we just need the product!”

Dr Ahmed Rezk, Academic Supervisor, Aston University: 

“The main goal of our research is to find more efficient and green ways of heating and cooling. They are two sides of the same problem, both requiring energy. If we devise a good heating method through this project, it could have implications for cooling methods in other countries as well.”

Dr Tabbi Wilberforce Awotwe,  Academic Lead, -ex-Aston University and now at Kings College London:

“I’m a Ghanaian myself and my vision for this project goes beyond delivering work packages. If we can get this done we will support many companies in this field, not just one, and address the issue of young people leaving the countryside in search of employment. The long-term impact on the community is the most important thing.”