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A Nigerian engineer’s eventual triumph

When Dr. Dele Sanni ran out funds for his innovative machine, he felt deeply frustrated. Then, an opportunity presented itself.

An illustration of Dr. Dele Sanni by Nonso Brendan for The Question Marker

“Our lives depend on others. We don’t have control over our lives. And this is the unfortunate situation.”
Illustration by Nonso Brendan for The Question Marker

When Dele Sanni starts talking about his now acclaimed invention, he can go on and on, taking on the voice of the patient teacher eager to help his student understand another of life’s inexplicable mysteries. Sanni is sturdy, round and laughs with ease. He is an Associate Professor at the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Engineering at the Obafemi Awolowo University, where he has lectured for virtually his entire academic career. “I have been here for quite a while,” he told me during our first conversation.

Last November, Sanni’s drying machine invention (he has a patent for it) earned him a place on the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation long-list. The APEI is the brainchild of the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineers and, since 2014, has recognized and rewarded the African creators of groundbreaking technologies developed to solve acute challenges across the continent. The winner of the Prize, which will be announced in May, goes home with £25,000. This year, four Nigerians, including Sanni, are on the long-list of 17 African innovators.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said, during a phone conversation, allowing himself some laughter. His machine, the 3d-3p rotary dryer, is a 30ft long, 10ft high and 8ft wide behemoth. But Sanni told me that, compared to similar dryers in the market, his is more portable, consumes less power, more efficient and cheaper to build. The machine’s primary job is to extract moisture from materials, whether they are agricultural products like grains or non-consumables such as sawdust. The APEI described it “as an industrial food dryer that dries grain for livestock feed faster, and increases the nutritional value of food stocks.”

Think of it as “putting a cooking pot on your gas stove” and then pouring in, say, wet cassava, while you stir and allow the heat from the gas suck out the moisture. It’s a crude analogy for what the machine does, but a good starting point. It regulates the amount of heat that passes in and has an in-built system – a set of blowers – that ensures the moisture being extracted is swiftly ejected from the revolving drums. “This helps to really make the drying very rapid”, compared to flash dryers, which rely on hot air that comes into direct contact with the product being dried, Sanni said.

The idea for the machine was inspired by the academic’s frequent contacts with food processors in the country. He sees farmers sun-drying their produce – cassava chips, potato chips – on the road, exposed to the elements. “This gets me worried,” he said. “Virtually, all of our food products processed locally in Nigeria are produced under very bad hygienic conditions.”

“In Nigeria now, we actually need dryers,” Peter Kolawole, an expert in agricultural equipment and crop processing at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), told me recently. “It is not a joke, especially if you travel along the highway – there are lots of cassava products displayed along the road. And you know the kind of chemical products that any vehicle passing will be carrying, or some pollutants that can easily contaminate the commodities, which at the end of the day end up in the market. So we are seriously in need of dryers with a proven technology.”

So when between 2006 and 2007, the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, through the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), made a national call for scientists in the country to design equipment that would be useful in the production of cassava flour, Sanni knew this was an opportunity to put his thoughts to action.  He got some of his students to assist him and together they started work on the machine’s design. Some of the design considerations included the option to power the machine with sources other than diesel fuel, portability and efficiency. In 2008, the design won the RMRDC national award and was slated to receive a grant for actual construction.

The first tranche of the grant arrived in 2010, after the then minister gave an instruction that funds should be released for the physical dryer. But Sanni told me it was not enough. Between 2010 and 2013, the first version of the machine was built and the engineer took it to Abuja for a national exhibition, where it attracted considerable attention. But that appeared to be the end of the road for the idea. The Ministry said there was no provision for additional funding. For the next three years, it sat in a workshop, idle, unfinished.

“It was very frustrating,” Sanni told me, as he watched his invention gather dust and depreciate.

Circa 2017, Pericom, a Nigerian engineering company, was involved in a project to convert sawdust into briquette. Briquettes are a source of environmental friendly fuel. As part of the conversion, Pericom needed a drying machine and the original plan was to import one from China. But a former student of Sanni was on the company’s payroll and he informed his boss, Ade Ojeleye, that there could be a cheaper, locally-sourced alternative.

Ojeleye made the trip down to Ife to see the machine. But, at the time, it was non-functional. Some parts had even gone missing or were broke. So the academic had to convince his soon-to-be client that the machine was up to the task.

“I told him, look this dryer of ours, even though it has been abandoned for a few years, it can do better than any imported dryer. So there is no point going to waste a lot of money bringing a dryer that we know we can do it here. So based on trust, the man, Mr Ojeleye, actually entered into a contract agreement with us.”

At the end of deliberations, Pericom made an order for two units of the machine, custom-designed to dry sawdust.

Another advantage of Sanni’s design is the claim that his can dry multiple products. “Most other dryers are built for one particular product, except what you call the cabinet dryers, which can be used to dry different kinds of materials,” he said. “But in terms of rotary and convertive dryers, they are built generally for one particular product. So if you buy a dryer today, you can only use it for either cassava flour, grains. The beauty of this one is that you can use it for virtually all kinds of agricultural materials.”

Through his private engineering company, Sandel Engineering, Sanni successfully built the two units. They are now installed in Lagos and Delta states.

“That’s where the reinvigoration started,” Sanni said. “With the money that we got from that company, we were now able to correct all the errors. Even the dryer we have right now still has room for lots of improvements, modifications, because even the best technologies in the world are still subject to improvements. So with the money that we got from Pericom, we were able to do a lot of improvements to get the dryer to a level where it is now market-ready.”

According to Sanni, the price to build a unit of the dryer costs about N6.5 million. “But the flash dryer costs about N12.5 million naira,” he pointed out. “And in terms of capacity, ours can do about 500kg an hour, while the flash dryer will do only 250kg per hour. So you can see ours is about 50 percent cheaper. And 50 percent more in capacity. And then of course all the operational cost that you have to incur with the flash dryer, the issue of having a heat exchanger to generate the heat, diesel fuel (ours runs on gas) and of course the electrical components are not much. With a very small generator you can power the electric motors that drive the drums. So it is a dryer that is actually adaptable for use in any kind of location, even on the farm, in the village. Once you have a small generator and you have access to gas, you can continue to dry your products. And the rate of drying is quite high. Much more efficient than any other imported dryer.

“These were all the descriptions I gave when the African prize thing came onboard and it is very satisfying to be one of those selected.”

Based on conversations with several of Sanni’s past students I reached out to, it was clear he has a record of being a conscientious instructor who pays attention to the practical and emotional needs of those who sit under his tutelage. “He is a very good man,” Oluwatobi Olalekan, who now works as a Telecoms Enginner, told me. “His magnanimity allowed me work on several projects and gain some experience on building machines that enhance food security. He allows you to learn all you want to learn, without holding back. He is a very intelligent person. We are just in a part of the world where people want to rate intelligence on being book-smart. Of course he is book-smart, but he is also the kind of engineer that we really need.”

Oladotun Dagunduro graduated from OAU in 2006, but he has remained in touch with Dr. Sanni. “He believed in me when nobody did not,” Dagunduro, who is now a software engineer, said. He described his former lecturer as an engineer who does the actual work and not just a paper theorist.

Sanni believes that the current structure of university education in Nigeria is a misnomer, since it is not productivity-based. Faculty members don’t have to attract grants or be innovative to stay on the job. It is a laissez-faire that encourages redundancy and glorifies status-quo knowledge. Even for the mavericks, those who think differently within the system, it is difficult to midwife their ideas from conceptualization to market acceptance, since there are no structures to provide funding that gives them the luxury to fail.

He heard about the APEI while drinking with friends at the University. At first, he wasn’t too keen on applying, but after looking over the email that had been shared, decided that this was something that could benefit his project. As it happened, the application window was about to end. So he had to rush through the process. His entry was only ready some 30 minutes to the application deadline and the Internet on his computer suddenly refused to work. Panicking a bit, he quickly put a call to a friend at the university’s ICT centre and rushed down there; 15 minutes to the end, his application was eventually delivered.

His appearance on the Prize’s long-list has now opened to him a world brimming with opportunities. Foreign and local investors have approached him for business deals; he has received messages from the African Development Bank and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Even the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology are now in communication to see how they can support the dryer’s commercialization. Several agricultural companies within the country, too, have shown interest. “It’s been a very long road to get here,” Dr. Sanni told me. “But it feels very fulfilling.”

“It’s been tough really, being an engineering professional, because Nigeria has not particularly done good enough in patronizing Nigerian engineers and home-made products,” he continued. “Engineering innovation is key. We have to innovate, if we don’t we will continue to rely on imported technologies. The technological development is about having control, even if it is not 100 percent, over your own technology. For me, it is like economic slavery that we have to depend on others for everything, our cars, our clothes, our transport system, our oil, we have to invite expatriates or we can’t do anything. Our lives depend on others. We don’t have control over our lives. And this is the unfortunate situation.” ✚

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