NWU engineers develop ‘Food ATM’

About 16,500 people, just in the surrounding Potchefstroom area, currently do not have access to food. The first food-ATM was recently placed in Potchefstroom and residents will shortly be able to make use of it.

The lack of access to food is probably the biggest tragedy for millions of citizens not knowing where their next meal will come from.

A Potchefstroom Engineering Company, CFAM Technologies, which is a spin-off company of the North-West University’s Faculty of Engineering, tackled this proverbial bull by the horns to ensure that residents in and around this town can fight their hunger battle.

CFAM is currently the only manufacturer of double-screw food extruders in Africa and specializes in the process of cooking raw materials, such as maize meal, in a high pressure and heat exchanger to produce a cooked, dry product within seconds. Due to the rapid cooking process, the digestibility, nutrient absorption and palatability of the product are promoted in the human body.

According to CFAM Technologies’ director LJ Grobler, the main benefit of extrusion involves adding vitamins and nutrients to the dry final product after the cooking process.

“By simply adding water or milk to this powdery, dry product, it makes these foods ready to eat and provides a balanced meal,” says Grobler.

Now, CFAM has taken their innovation to a higher level and recently developed their first food-ATM. It consists of a reclaimed shipping container that is filled with this dry porridge and can be placed in a strategic area in a residential area.

Residents can then receive or buy an electronic coupon with a pin number on their cellphone, which can be entered into the food-ATM’s digital keypad to gain access to a bag of dry porridge.

“Several organisations in the Potchefstroom area have been helping to provide food to the needy over the past weeks. This is a new and easier way to do this. The amount of free porridge for which every needy resident qualifies is quantified by a database containing information about each needy resident and their dependents.

This database is updated and verified on a daily basis by members of the Potchefstroom Business Chamber, local churches, community leaders and administrative staff,” says Grobler.

The coupon’s validity is regulated in real-time which means that congestion can be prevented at a particular terminus. For example, the coupon may indicate that it is valid only between 08:00 and 10:00. Social distance is thus achieved and exposure to the coronavirus is limited.

As a further benefit, it eliminates the logistical nightmare of delivering food parcels in rural areas as the food-ATM has a capacity of up to 250,000 meals before it has to be refilled. It also eliminates corruption with regard to delivery preferences as well as theft of the food. The fact that the dry porridge was not exposed to any human factor during the manufacturing process also eliminates possible food contamination.

This mass capacity food bank has been developed to address food shortages using a coupon system.

Food can therefore be distributed fairly as needed and no cash is involved as the food can only be obtained by electronic coupon.

Grobler says the dry porridge is fortified with minerals and vitamins and with additional Zinc and Vitamin C, which helps the immune system fight viruses and bacteria and promotes body development and growth. As most countries’ legislation stipulates, all maize meal and other raw starch-bearing flour for sale on the shelves must be enriched with additional nutrients and vitamins.

Problem is, when this product is cooked in a traditional way, the vitamins in it are broken down and destroyed by the high heat during the cooking process. Here, however, extrusion technology offers the solution because the vitamins and nutrients are added to the cooked, dry product.

The biggest difference between single screw and double screw extruders comes down to the taste and appearance of the final product. Starches, proteins, energy, fats and fibres often need to be extruded to produce the desired final nutrient-rich product.

Double-screw extruders have the ability to apply much better process control, especially needed with complex food formulation. Protein is a very tight bond and only double-screw extruders have the ability to process it finely enough to make it more acceptable to the consumer. Single screw technology does not provide the same process control and is rather intended for animal feed quality.

The mechanics behind the food-ATM, the coupon software and control system were developed and built by CFAM within a week. “Not only is this a food shortage solution during the Coronavirus period, but it also provides a sustainable solution to address food shortages in South Africa and Africa,” Grobler says.

Read original story on potchefstroomherald.co.za