Inventing a low-cost solution to reduce moldy foods

‘DryCard’ takes the guesswork out of drying

DryCard with color strip with color scale and directions for use. Horticulture Innovation Lab product marked with USAID and UC Davis logos
The DryCard indicates whether dried foods are dry enough to store safely.

How do you see dryness? Solar drying is a simple way for smallholder farmers to preserve their harvest, but knowing when food is dry enough to store is complex. UC Davis researchers invented a low-cost, easy-to-use tool that farmers can use to measure food dryness, called the DryCardTM.

In developing countries, mold growth on dried foods is a pervasive problem, which can mean postharvest losses for farmers and unsafe foods for consumers. When mold grows it reduces the market value of dried foods, meaning less income for farmers. But moldy foods can also contain toxins that suppress the immune system, increase disease rates, and cause lifelong stunting in children.

Trip to market inspires a solution

Man with smartphone in crowded market, with woman selling fresh produce and bags of dried goods in Tanzania
Michael Reid takes a photo on the market visit in Tanzania with participants in a postharvest training course, which motivated the eventual design of the DryCard. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Angelos Deltsidis/UC Davis)

Improving the postharvest drying process for smallholder farmers is something UC Davis scientists Michael Reid and James Thompson think about often. As UC Cooperative Extension specialists, Reid and Thompson have a history of working together in California and around the world on postharvest technologies, including a design for a more efficient solar dryer.

Last summer Reid led a Horticulture Innovation Lab workshop in Tanzania to provide training in postharvest handling of fruit and vegetable crops. The class visited the local market and tested the moisture content of some of the dried foods for sale. They found huge variation between the moisture contents of dried foods — over half were insufficiently dried and susceptible to mold.

It was then Reid realized the magnitude of the issue.

“The effects of mold are so pervasive they aren’t even really quantifiable,” Reid said. “Only a small percentage of farmers lose their entire harvest to mold. Usually they end up selling moldy foods at a lower price.”

The moldy foods make their way to consumers’ plates where they continue to have harmful effects. “There is a tremendous problem with stunting in developing countries. People commonly think of this problem as only a nutrition problem [related to insufficient diet], but moldy foods play a significant role,” he said.

two scientists kneeling beside a solar dryer at UC Davis, bagging up dried kale
Jim Thompson and Michael Reid, UC Cooperative Extension specialists and co-inventors, work on a drying experiment with kale at the Horticulture Innovation Lab’s Demonstration Center at UC Davis. The two designed the DryCard and the chimney solar dryer. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Brenda Dawson/UC Davis)

Developing a tool that costs pennies to make

Galvanized by his experience at the market in Tanzania, Reid teamed up with Thompson once again, this time to develop a simple and inexpensive product to measure food dryness.

They considered electronic moisture meters, but with prices ranging from $300-$1,000, plus the requisite electricity and expertise, meters seemed unsuitable for many smallholder farmers.

The two then considered cobalt chloride paper, used by the class in Tanzania. Cobalt chloride indicates dryness by changing color, but the lightweight papers got lost in the test jars, and when they were visible, they were difficult to compare to a separate color guide. To address this issue, Reid and Thompson paired a strip of cobalt chloride paper with a color guide on a laminated piece of paper the size of a business card. Repackaging the cobalt chloride paper with the color guide increases the usability of the strips and further lowers the cost to just pennies per card for farmers to use.

DryCard indicator changes color in a container of rice, with watch for reference
This 8-second gif shows a timelapse of a DryCard changing color with insufficiently dry rice. This clip is taken from a 5-minute video made by Michael Reid.

How to check dryness with the DryCard

To check that food is dry enough for safe storage, farmers can seal a DryCard and a sample of dried product in an airtight container. After 20-30 minutes, the card indicator changes color based on the relative humidity within the container and thus the product. The DryCard is based on the concept that relative humidity of air around a product reflects the moisture content of the product (“equilibrium relative humidity”). Matching the color of the indicator strip with the scale on the card tells a user whether the food is currently dry enough to prevent mold growth.

The DryCard is reusable as long as it is stored safely away from water.

Thompson pointed out that anyone can use the DryCard to assess the moisture content of a variety of foods.

“The DryCard requires zero calibration and can be reused many times for any kind of food you want to keep free of mold,” Thompson said. “Everything is on the card. The cobalt chloride strip is attached so it’s easy to keep track of, and the color guide is right there.”

DryCard as part of the dry chain for food safety

Drying foods for storage is important for farmers because it provides them with additional income and food security beyond the harvest season. The Horticulture Innovation Lab works with several innovations along the “dry chain” (similar to the cold chain) including the UC Davis chimney solar dryer and drying beads. The DryCard is a valuable addition to the dry chain, providing a way for farmers and others to easily measure food dryness.

DryCards in 4 languages on dried vegetables
DryCards are available in English, Swahili, Spanish and French (also in Bangla and Urdu, not shown) as samples from the Horticulture Innovation Lab.

Getting DryCards into farmers’ hands

The Horticulture Innovation Lab team is currently working with organizations in Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Bangladesh, and Guinea to test the DryCard with farmers and others who handle dried foods along the supply chain. Reid and Thompson envision local opportunities for entrepreneurs in developing countries to manufacture and market DryCards, to help make this tool more widely available for farmers to use.

DryCards are currently available as samples in English, Swahili, Bangla, Urdu, Spanish, and French. See http://drycard.ucdavis.edu for additional details.

The Horticulture Innovation Lab is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.

Photo at top: Tomatoes dried in the chimney solar dryer, during an experiment led by Reid and Thompson at the Horticulture Innovation Lab Demonstration Center at UC Davis.

More information:

New call for Trellis Fund grant proposals

The Horticulture Innovation Lab invites organizations in developing countries to compete for new Trellis Fund grants up to $4,000 each for 6-month projects, to extend horticultural information to local farmers and stakeholders along fruit or vegetable value chains.

Project proposals may address horticultural crop production, irrigation, plant nutrition, pest management, postharvest practices or marketing issues in relation to fruits and vegetables. Once projects are selected, the Trellis Fund will connect organizations with U.S. graduate students who have related agricultural expertise for project support.

Both new organizations and previously awarded organizations are encouraged to apply. Organizations based in these countries are eligible to apply:

  • In Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean: Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras
  • In Asia: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, and Tajikistan

Continue reading New call for Trellis Fund grant proposals

Students selected for projects in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Nepal, Cambodia

Editor’s note: After this announcement, one change was made to student assignments. Karin Albornoz, a doctoral student at UC Davis studying postharvest biology, is now supporting the project in Uganda led by Ndibwami Integrated Rescue Project on enhancing postharvest handling. Ethan Nielsen of UF was deemed ineligible based on his expected graduation date, which was previously overlooked. These changes are reflected below.

The Horticulture Innovation Lab team has selected nine graduate students to support Trellis Fund projects in Africa and Asia in 2017.

Through their work on the Trellis Fund projects, the graduate students will apply their agricultural expertise to support local organizations as they work together to help smallholder farmers better grow fruits and vegetables.

The selected students are studying agricultural sciences in master’s and doctoral programs at the University of California, Davis; University of Florida; University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; and North Carolina State University. Continue reading Students selected for projects in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Nepal, Cambodia

Highlighting horticultural success in 2016

The Horticulture Innovation Lab’s newest annual report is fresh off the presses, documenting the program’s accomplishments from October 2015 – October 2016 (FY 2016) as part of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative.

publication cover with Feed the Future logo for Horticulture Innovation Lab's annual report FY 2016
Read more about the Horticulture Innovation Lab in its 2015-2016 Annual Report (PDF).

Together with our research partners at universities, government agencies and NGOs, we took important steps this year in improving livelihoods of farmers and their communities through horticulture.

We welcome you to read about the knowledge and impact the Horticulture Innovation Lab generated this year on behalf of small-scale farmers in horticulture. Highlights include:  Continue reading Highlighting horticultural success in 2016

Event highlights UC contributions to Feed the Future

How new innovations and research from the University of California are helping to end global poverty and hunger was the focus of a standing-room-only event recently at UC Davis. Among the participants recognizing these efforts were representatives from the offices of U.S. Representatives John Garamendi, Doris Matsui, Ami Bera, and Mike Thompson.

The event was hosted in part to highlight the passage of the Global Food Security Act of 2016, which sets the U.S. government’s global food security strategy and includes 24 agricultural research programs called Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Continue reading Event highlights UC contributions to Feed the Future