It is no secret that millions of South Africans currently suffer under the impact of the lockdown regulations introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic. The poor access to food is probably the biggest tragedy, because millions of citizens do not know where their next meal is coming from.
A Potchefstroom engineering company, CFAM Technologies, a spin-off company of the Faculty of Engineering of the North-West University, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns to ensure that residents in and around this town do not go hungry any longer.
CFAM is currently the only manufacturer of twin-screw extruders in Africa and specialises in a process in which raw materials like maize meal are cooked at high pressure and heat in an extruder to produce a cooked, dry product within a few seconds. Because of the rapid cooking process, the digestibility and absorption of nutrients by and palatability of the product to the human body are enhanced.
According to LJ Grobler, director of CFAM Technologies, the biggest benefit of extrusion is that vitamins and nutrients can be added to the dry final product after the cooking process. “Merely adding water or milk to this powdery, dry product makes this food ready to eat, offering a balanced meal,” Grobler says.
However, CFAM took their innovation to a higher level and recently developed their first food auto bank. It consists of a recycled shipping container that is filled with this dried porridge and placed in a strategic location in a residential area. Residents can then receive or buy an electronic coupon with a pin number on their cellphones and key this in on the digital keypad of the food auto bank to gain access to a bag of dry porridge. “Several organisations in the Potchefstroom area have already been helping to supply needy persons with food for several weeks. This initiative is a new and easy way of doing this.
The amount of free porridge for which every needy resident qualifies, is quantified by a database that contains information on every needy resident and their dependents. The database is updated and verified on a daily basis by members of the Potchefstroom Chamber of Commerce, local churches, community leaders and administrative staff,” says Grobler.
The validity of the coupon is regulated in real time, which means that crowding at a particular distribution point can be prevented. For example, the coupon can indicate that it is valid only between 08:00 and 10:00. This helps to accomplish social distancing and exposure to the coronavirus.
A further benefit is that it eliminates the logistical nightmare of delivering food parcels in rural areas, as the food auto bank has the capacity to dispense up to 250 000 meals before it has to be refilled. This also eliminates corruption with respect to favouritism and prevents food from being stolen. As the dry porridge is not exposed to any human factor during manufacturing, this method of distributing food also eliminates possible food contamination.
Food can therefore be distributed fairly according to need and no cash is involved, as the food can be obtained only via an electronic coupon.
Grobler says the dry porridge is fortified mainly with zinc and vitamin C, which help the immune system to fight viruses and bacteria and promote physical development and growth. As is provided by legislation in most countries, all maize meal and other raw, starchy meal that is for sale on shelves must be fortified with additional nutrients and vitamins.
However, the problem is that when ordinary meal is cooked in the traditional manner, the vitamins it contains are broken down and destroyed by the high heat during the cooking process. Extruder technology offers a solution here, as the vitamins and nutrients are added to the cooked, dry product.
The biggest difference between single- and twin-screw extruders lies in the taste and appearance of the final product. Starches, proteins, energy, fats and fibre often have to be extruded to manufacture the desired nutrient-rich end product. Twin-screw extruders have the ability to apply much better process control, which is required especially with complex formulations for different types of food.
Proteins have very tight bindings and only twin-screw extruders have the capacity to refine them adequately to make them more palatable to the consumer. Single-screw technology does not provide the same process control and is more suitable for animal-feed quality.
The mechanics of this food auto bank, the coupon software and the control system were developed and built by CFAM within a single week. “This food auto bank is not just a solution for food shortages during the coronavirus period, but also offers a sustainable solution for dealing with famine in South Africa and Africa,” Grobler says.
Just in the areas around Potchefstroom, approximately 16 500 people do not have access to food at this stage. The first food auto bank was recently installed in Potchefstroom and needy residents will soon be able to use it.