Iowa State Alumni: Food Waste Fighters

The four co-founders of KinoSol: Clayton Mooney, Elise Kendall, Ella Gehrke and Mikayla Sullivan. 

Lindsey Settle

In 2014, four Iowa State students set out to solve the problem of worldwide food insecurity with a food dehydrator that is now located in over 40 countries.

Troubled by the fact that a third of food produced goes to waste globally, Clayton Mooney, Mikayla Sullivan, Ella Gehrke and Elise Kendall began the process of developing a food dehydrator.

They started the company KinoSol while still attending Iowa State. All global resource systems majors, they had common backgrounds in international experiences and a desire to #savethethird. 

The idea for KinoSol came about as the co-founders were at Parks Library. They settled on the name KinoSol for its symbolic meaning. “Kino” stands for connect, while “Sol” translates to sun in many languages.

Their common backgrounds in international travels opened their eyes to the issue of food waste and cemented their motivation as a team to collaborate on solving the issue.

“We had all seen it to some degree with our own eyes,” said Mooney. 

As a team of four, which has expanded to as large as 11 members, they have been able to work as a team to create their vision.

“This isn’t just a project, it’s really helping people solve food insecurity,” said Rebecca Lyons, junior in agricultural studies and KinoSol marketing coordinator.  

Those experiences witnessing food waste influenced the idea of a food dehydrator.

According to their website, “dehydration is an easy and inexpensive way to avoid post-harvest loss and storage increases the availability of food during low and no harvest periods.”

The idea for KinoSol was to focus on aiding small scale subsistence farmers.

“KinoSol is really teaching from an educational standpoint that there is enough food for everyone,” Lyons said. 

Properly storing food is just as important as producing it.

“There was just like a large amount of food available, but only in some parts of the year,” said Kendall.

The Orenda dehydrator, KinoSol’s current model, takes moisture out of fruit, vegetables and insects to keep them from going bad. With its convection system of using the sun to dry out produce, essential nutrients are kept intact while still preserving the produce for months.

Being naturally powered is a plus for KinoSol’s dehydrator. A statistic from their website states that only 24 percent of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity.

Product Evolution

Located mainly in countries along the equator, such as Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, where the climate is hot and dry, electricity is not necessary for the solar-powered Orenda dehydrator.

The Orenda dehydrator is made entirely of plastic, a far cry from its earliest prototype made out of wood.

Kendall said early prototypes were built in the garages of family members.

They tested out many shapes and sizes before settling on plastic, which Kendall also said has a similar warming effect as that of a greenhouse. They even tested the prototypes out in the Iowa State greenhouses.

The plastic Orenda dehydrator can lay flat and snap into place for an assembly process of 15 minutes or less, and became commercially ready in January 2017.

The current unit sells for $130 and is intended for use in developing countries. However, the KinoSol team realizes that food waste is just as much of a problem in the U.S. as it is globally, so they are currently developing a domestic KinoSol unit that can work in urban environments.  

Mooney said there are around 260 units worldwide right now with a heavy focus in Africa. He said around five dozen dehydrators have been placed in Uganda.

KinoSol is able to produce dehydrators in these numbers, because of the support they have received from partnerships. One of the biggest has been Iowa State.

Support from Iowa State

The strong connection to Uganda began with help from Iowa State. With an established relationship in Uganda with the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods, Iowa State connected KinoSol with CSRL. With that connection at their disposable, KinoSol was able to get dehydrators into the hands of Ugandan rural subsistence farmers.

Feedback from the farmers who used their dehydrator was very important to the KinoSol team.

“It was very important to get prototypes to the end user,” Mooney said. 

Iowa State gave KinoSol a variety of resources, including allowing the KinoSol team to utilize and work with the Iowa State nutrition lab,

“We just had no many amazing opportunities we were motivated to keep going,” said Kendall.

In addition, KinoSol attended many business pitch competition, including the thought for food challenge. Their experience at the competition sparked the idea for KinoSol.

Field Testing

Addressing a global issue can be difficult at times due to not having the advantage of in-person interactions with users and partners. KinoSol recognizes the need to field test in the conditions that reflect the areas the dehydrator will be located. The team strives to visit their international locations when possible.

During the winter of 2017, Sullivan and Mooney traveled to Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda to test the dehydrator.

When traveling abroad is not a possibility, KinoSol tests in U.S. locations that compare to those of countries along the equator, where the climate is hot and dry.

One experience from field testing in Uganda showed an improvement to subsistence farmers.

Quoted from the KinoSol website, “dehydrated fruits, vegetables, and other produce sell at a much higher prices at local the markets.  Having access to an Orenda would allow women to preserve more produce and receive a higher price in town.  Storage was almost non-existent for a majority of the women which caused a huge proportion of their yields to spoil.”

Partnerships and Farmer Feedback

Getting dehydrators into the hands of farmers has been made possible through partnerships with churches and nongovernmental organizations. KinoSol currently has nine partners worldwide.

Today, KinoSol is particular about who they partner with.

They carefully choose partnerships with only a small percentage of those who ask to partner with KinoSol.

“We had to learn the hard way that not all partnerships are equal,” Mooney said. 

Turning people down is a choice the team makes by looking to see if the values of who they would be partnering with align with their own mission, and if the dehydrator would be located in a dry, hot climate that it could be effective in.

Feedback from users is a big factor to KinoSol’s success. The KinoSol team continually reaches out to their partnerships to hear how the dehydrator is working and if there are any product concerns.

“We had to make sure there was a value all along the supply chain,” Mooney said.

One comment they often hear from subsistence farmers is that the size of the dehydrator is too small to preserve all the produce they would like at one time.

“People would like a larger one so they could do more at once,” Kendall said. 

The Orenda model is small scale and meant to be used by families and communities. The dehydrating process takes around six to eight hours in proper sunlight to effectively dry out the products.  

“Not only is it helping at the family level, it also allows for entrepreneurial endeavors of the users’ own,” Lyons said.