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Photo provided by BYU
BYU students Andreah Tedjamulia, middle, and Shara Richards, right, show a Tanzanian woman how to use a coconut press. The press will help villagers be able to produce and sell coconut oil locally.

PROVO — Impoverished Africans may be sitting on a gold mine, but it took a team of Brigham Young University engineering students to show them how to mine it.

Coconuts "are everywhere" in the coastal African nation of Tanzania, engineering student Shara Richards said. "It's just amazing."

Richards was on a team of four BYU engineering students who developed a way to extract the oil in a cost-efficient way and then went to Tanzania in May to teach villagers how to use and maintain the simple equipment.

Villagers had only limited means to extract the oil, and for them, the process is more like a fancy, two-day cooking project. Most of the cooking oil in Tanzania and other African nations, including Kenya to the north, is imported, Richards said.

Coconut oil is used not only for cooking, but also in lotions and cosmetics. With an extraction process the students developed as their senior year final project, the oil could be supplied locally, competing with imported oil.

The BYU team assigned to the project started last winter semester. Others on the team were Christopher Christensen, Adam Slade, Matt Ward and their coach, part-time instructor Terri Bateman.

The Pope Foundation, a nonprofit group in Orem, operates microeconomic programs in Africa and suggested the students come up with a way to extract the oil with low-cost equipment that is safe to use and easy to clean. Local village women are expected to supply the labor.

The Pope Foundation already had a commercial, large-scale coconut-oil extraction factory in Kenya called the Coast Coconut Farm, but it was looking for a smaller-scale system to employ more villagers. The factory employs 16 workers, Bateman said.

With the oil press the students developed, villagers can increase their daily income from $2 to as much as $10. The goal was to enhance the local economy and make the villagers self-sufficient. Their options are to sell the oil within their own country, in local markets or to the Pope Foundation for its oil-production program, Bateman said.

After considering several ways to build an extractor, the team came up with a hydraulic jack system it had to engineer for that purpose and also developed a sheet-metal oven that could be compacted enough for shipment. The oven was needed to heat the coconut meat so the oil could be extracted through holes in the hydraulic system.

Getting the oven through customs "was a miracle," Richards said, because it not only had to be compacted to fit shipping standards, it also had burn marks on it from testing.

Eventually, the students built two brick ovens when they went to the Tanzania village of Boza in May to set up the operation and teach the villagers how to use it. Each hydraulic processor can extract the oil from as many as 40 coconuts a day yielding as much as three of liters of oil.

Slade and Ward didn't make the trip, so Bateman took two other students in their place, Benjamin Hillyard and Andrea Tedjamulia.

Every part of the coconut is used. The husk, which has to be cracked open to get at the meat, is burned to heat the oven.

"We showed them how to put it together, and when the first oil started coming out, their eyes widened," Richards said of the villagers who surrounded the press. "They were excited (to see) that much oil come out so quickly."

The students built two prototypes they turned over to the Pope Foundation, along with all their drawings and plans so the foundation could produce more of them, making it possible for villagers to start small businesses extracting the oil, Bateman said. By the end of the year the Pope Foundation could put as many as 100 women to work; in a few years that number could multiply into the thousands.

E-mail: rodger@desnews.com