The Fruits of Their Labor

If all goes well with an Iowa State Engineers Without Borders (EWB) project, dried fruit may soon become a resource that helps fund books and supplies for students in rural Belize.

Over spring break in March, eight EWB members visited the country to implement their prototype design of a solar fruit dehydrator. In addition, they worked on several secondary projects including constructing a town sign, implementing two cook stove designs, providing a hygiene program to villagers that emphasized the importance of hand washing, and assessing soil quality to determine the feasibility of a school garden.

Sustainability is key

The visit was a follow-up to an initial site visit that took place last summer, during which EWB members met with people to assess the community’s needs. The project, which originally sought to provide healthier snack options in the school system, has now led to a potential income opportunity.

“Schools are given a bi-annual ration of dried fruit for snacks that is typically gone within a few weeks,” says Tom Cooper, a senior in mechanical engineering and EWB member who made the trip. “With a fruit dryer on-site, students have access to nutritious snacks and schools could sell any fruit surplus to help pay for educational supplies.”

The solar fruit dehydrator is made from wood, a resource easily found in Belize. The initial prototype is a simple design that combines a sheet of plywood, some 2x4s, screws to hold it all together, and a polycarbonate material such as Plexiglas.

“The whole idea is to keep the project sustainable,” Cooper says. “We want to make sure people in the community are able to build it, understand how it operates, and know how to repair it and keep it clean.”

Before leaving, students constructed two dehydrators and were able to test one in the Department of Horticulture’s greenhouses. But the real test took place when they started working on it in the community.

“The materials on-site were a little different from what is available in the U.S.,” explains Laura Jarboe, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and an EWB faculty adviser. “Belize is known for its excellent hardwood, which ended up being much harder than what was used in Iowa, and sizes of the materials were less standard. But the students adapted their design and were able to construct two working solar fruit dryers.”

Building confidence


Another prominent challenge for the group was ensuring the community understood what EWB was trying to accomplish, and that villagers were invested in the work being done. To help increase confidence in their efforts, the students held several discussions with families throughout the community and spoke with community leaders. The response was favorable.

“Students and staff were excited about their dryers and eager to give them a try, and the Rotary Club in [nearby tourist destination] Orange Walk was also interested in the dryers and building more units,” Jarboe says. “We will keep in contact with them to receive updates on changes and improvements we may need to make, and then we’ll go back to evaluate the projects, implement any necessary changes, and possibly expand the program.”
For Cooper, working on the project was also a welcome opening to a new culture. “The people of Belize were kind, hospitable, and unbelievably accepting and excited about our ideas to help their communities,” he says. “We experienced challenges with communication and cultural tendencies, but that provided us with a new perspective to approach life with.

“The entire trip was so wonderful,” he adds, “it’s hard to describe.”

For more news about Iowa State’s EWB abroad, see the article in March’s Innovate Online.