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Spring 2012
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Preserving Zambia’s Forests by Preserving Its Food

By Amanda Garris, Ph.D. ’04

How do you turn a poacher into a farmer? Food science graduate student Matt Stasiewicz, MS ’10, found that one essential ingredient is food technology.

Stasiewicz spent four weeks in January in Zambia working with COMACO, a nonprofit corporation whose goal is to reconcile farming with conservation of wildlife and habitat in the Luangwa Valley. One of its most effective strategies is to purchase farmers’ surplus harvest to make value-added products for the IT’S WILD! line of food products.

Supplemental income can reduce rural poverty, giving farmers a viable alternative to poaching wildlife or burning forests for charcoal. Dealing with farmers’ surplus, though, requires rapid and safe handling of large quantities of a crop quickly, and finding creative uses for low-value crops.

“Mangoes ripen during a short period during the rainy season, and they will rot if they are not properly preserved—a challenge because of the lack of sun to dry them in the rainy season,” Stasiewicz explained.

Stasiewicz, a recipient of an National Science Foundation grant in Food Systems and Poverty Reduction, helped COMACO implement new technology—a used food dryer—that allows them to dry 1.5 tons of mangos in just three days.
Another less welcome surplus is broken rice grains. Although as nutritious as their unbroken counterparts, they are of less value because they can only be sold as livestock feed. COMACO’s goal was to use them to make puffed rice cereal, which could fetch a higher price.

Stasiewicz helped develop a basic formula and process for extrusion. Production will require additional equipment and engineering of the production line, a project Stasiewicz hopes will tempt Cornell students with engineering expertise.

“Like most students in food science, I most often work with processed foods for the U.S. market,” Stasiewicz said.

“Working in Zambia was exciting because it took me back to the heart of the discipline of food science: taking raw commodities and preserving them as food for people.”