For safer milk in East Africa

Safi's Martin Turuta, Daria Margarit and Miraal Kabir will move to East Africa this summer after finishing university studies.

Ontario university students develop a low-cost pasteurization system

Unpasteurized milk is a major cause of serious illness and death in East Africa. A company started by some Ontario university students has developed a product that could dramatically reduce the incidence of milk-borne illnesses. Safi hopes to set up shop in East Africa this summer. The company has been funding its product development from prizes won at a handful of pitch competitions.

It has conducted pilots in Rwanda, Kenya, and Oman and has orders for 16,000 of its low-cost milk pasteurization devices. Safi is a Swahili word that means safe or pure. Safi, the company, emerged after a group of six university students wanted to use their skills to have a positive impact on the world beyond just helping businesses make more money. Three years ago, they pitched an idea at the Challenge for Climate Action competition. “It really came down to how we can use our business skills to do good,” said Miraal Kabir, one of Safi’s co-founders.

Kabir grew up in Oman, an oil-rich nation in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Her younger sister, Iman, learned about the problem of spoiled milk while doing a high school project on milk supply issues in that country. Due to climate change, spoiled milk is becoming an increasing problem in many countries. Jeffrey Farber, an adjunct professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph, has provided food safety advice to the students. He thinks that commercialization of Safi’s product “would be very significant. East Africa has one of the highest global incidences of ill health and early death from [unpasteurized] milk,” he said.

The students never thought they would take their idea to address that problem past the initial case competition. However, judges at that event told them they should work on commercializing their product to make milk pasteurization affordable for small-scale dairy farmers and milk vendors. Three of the six students involved in the competition — Kabir, Daria Margarit, and Martin Turuta, all university students in Waterloo, Ontario, decided to work at building a company. Another friend, Filip Birger, a student at Hamilton’s McMaster University, joined them as head of engineering.

Kabir is studying computer science and business at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo. Margarit and Turuta both major in math and business at the same universities. The group has won cash prizes to support Safi’s development at almost every pitch competition they have entered. Concept, Validate.global, StartUp Laurier, the Queen’s University Entrepreneurship competition, University of Waterloo Velocity, United College GreenHouse, and Enactus Nationals have all named Safi as a winner.
Last summer, Safi won $10,000 US at The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Innovate hardware pitch. That win involved six sessions and 100 judges in a virtual competition. It also gave them access to a hardware accelerator for social innovation.
Safi did not expect to win that contest “just because the competition was so strong, and the [other] products were so developed,” Turuta said.

“When we went to Africa in September, all those learnings really helped us to be on the front foot rather than the back foot. Each competition has been a guiding force that led us to the next competition,” Margarit said. Those wins have prepared Safi for the next stage of pitching to investors. The company will need to raise over $400,000 to manufacture the devices for which the company currently has orders. Developing a product to test took considerable trial and error. Safi made 20 “mini prototypes” before coming up with five proper test products. “None of us are engineers by background,” Margarit said. “Maybe by trade now, but not by background.”

“The false hope that we knew what we were doing carried us to build our first prototype.” The group “hogged” a university 3-D printer intended for occasional student use over four months, making a new prototype every week. “We politely basically got kicked out” and had to buy a printer for Safi, Margarit said. Turuta said the current version will change again. “Our next design looks pretty different.” He thinks they can produce their product for about $30 US and sell it for about $50 US. “From the get-go, it was always our goal to make it as cheap as possible because that leads to accessibility,” Margarit said. Safi estimates that its product will pay for itself in around two weeks. Farmers who use this can sell their milk at a 58 percent premium. That would still be much less expensive than the cost of pasteurized milk in the formal sector.

Safi has also had discussions with partners about the possibility of offering farmers micro-loans to make it easier for them to purchase the product. Current methods of pasteurization used by small-scale farmers require boiling the milk three times. That removes all of the vitamins from the milk as well as any pathogens. Safi’s device heats milk to 70 degrees Celsius for 15 seconds, eliminating pathogens while retaining nutrients and requiring only one-third as much energy. The next cheapest pasteurization product on the market sells for between $300 to $400 US. Most of the farmers in their target countries run small-scale operations with about three cows. “Another challenge for them is, because they have such small yields, they don’t have much power in the market, which is why they give their milk to aggregators … who give them a low price,” Kabir said.

Margarit thinks Safi’s device could open up a new market — customers who want pasteurized milk — for the small-scale farmers. She thinks selling directly to consumers could earn the farmers twice as much for their milk. Safi wants to build a modular product with LEGO-like pieces, such as the whisk at the bottom of the pasteurization handle that can be popped off and updated. It is working to build a team of people in the countries where the product is sold who can quickly do repairs if anything goes wrong. “One of the biggest points of the product is [to ensure that] it has longevity,” Turuta said. One of the next big steps for Safi is to find a contract manufacturer to fabricate its device. Then, the company will determine which country has the least barriers to importing its device. Navigating customs in East Africa can be a challenge.

On a previous trip, one of their prototypes was held in customs for a $400 valuation until they could prove it was only worth a fraction of that amount. Eventually, they hope to look into having at least parts of the device manufactured in East Africa. Safi currently has a pilot in Rwanda with female retailers who sell milk in stalls and a separate pilot with farmers in Kenya who sell directly to customers. Its pasteurization system can be used to pasteurize milk at whatever stage in the value chain stage makes the most sense.

Safi is planning to set up a larger pilot project, with 50 to 100 units, on the students’ next trip to Africa this month. The company has already demonstrated the need for their product. Still, the three founders hope to validate their proposed business model in the coming months and ensure that the supply chain works the way they hope it does. A key task will be to test Kenyan farmers’ ability to earn a premium for their milk by using Safi’s device. Given the subsistence-level incomes of many of those farmers, they may need help purchasing the device, said food safety researcher Farber. “I personally feel there will have to be some incentives for uptake,” he said.

Margarit said that education will be key to the success of Safi’s device. On a previous trip to Africa, the group met with 100 farmers to discuss the importance of pasteurization. Rwanda has a strong milk co-operative system, where farmers are mandated to give their milk to a large producer. “Rwanda’s a special jewel,” she said. “They sort of have their system all figured out, but they do lack in private retailers. In Kenya, it’s more from the ground up and kind of earlier on, directly from the farmer.” Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda are the major milk-producing countries in East Africa.

Kabir, Margarit, and Turuta presented at an African dairy industry event in Uganda last August. At that event, they caught the attention of Uganda’s agriculture minister. He was publicly supportive of their work. On that trip, they also learned about issues of spoilage with milk in East Africa. Uganda produces enough milk to meet its domestic demand. However, it imports milk because the supply chain is not optimized to ensure that milk makes it to the end user. That gave Safi the idea for a second product to address the refrigeration problem and extend shelf life. The group hopes to pilot that solution during its current trip to Africa. Safi wants to track milk post-pasteurization to ensure that issues with cooling and packaging don’t undo the benefits of its first product. The company has filed a provisional patent on its device. It is in discussions with a patent lawyer about filing an official patent.

Miraal Kabir (2nd from right) shows a Kenyan farmer the difference between the scent of pasteurized, boiled and raw milk.

“The goal will be to essentially validate this product and the business model” before going further, Turuta said. The patent process is time-consuming and costly. He estimates it can take between one and two years and cost as much as $40,000 to $50,000. Safi is currently incorporated as a not-for-profit in Canada and will maintain that for hardware development. The founders plan to set up a for-profit company for its software product in either Kenya or Rwanda later this year. Kabir, Margarit, and Turuta will all graduate from university in August. They plan to move to East Africa, likely Rwanda or Kenya, at least for a few years. “I don’t think any of us see a way to do this from Canada, to have one foot in the door,” Turuta said.

If Safi succeeds in East Africa, there will be even larger market opportunities. Yogurt and cheese-making are potential future applications. India has 75 million small-scale dairy farmers, the most in the world. That is over 50 times Kenya’s 1.5 million small-scale dairy farmers. One of their African partners wants the group to go to India. But Miraal said that Safi is “almost closing our eyes” to that opportunity for now.

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