Dr. Klein Ileleji: Founder of JUA Technologies – Ep. 105

About Dr. Klein Ileleji:

Dr. Klein Ileleji is the CEO of JUA Technologies International, and he has dedicated his life to agriculture and engineering. 

Discover how his curiosity led him down multiple career paths, ultimately leading him on a journey from his home in Nigeria around the world. 

He is a professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University and the co-founder of JUA Technologies, a company that makes solar-powered food dryers for small farmers in the developing world.

He distilled his decades of experience into a meaningful product to combat food insecurity, and he has my deep admiration for that. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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On Why Drying Food Is So Beneficial
*2:28 – “I always say my first job is as a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue. So that’s my day job. And I also am the co-founder and CEO of JUA Technologies International, which is a company that develops affordable solar drying devices for growers globally. Our device is essentially to dry produce so fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices, medicinal plants, those types of things which have very high moisture. But also they’re high in richer nutrients, micronutrients and vitamins. And one of the things for these types of products is once they’re dried, they can store well for a very long time.”

3:52 – “The other big thing for us in terms of our mission is to reduce post-harvest losses for small growers in developing countries and waste. That’s a huge thing. If we can curb wasting and take all that wasted produce into dry shelf stable produce that can sell at a high premium. It’s a win win for food security as well as economic empowerment.”

7:17 – “Cornell University in Ithaca had a program on applied economics and business management, very similar to their one year Master’s in professional studies. They give scholarships, it was supported by the Soros Foundation, the Open Society Fund…I enrolled in the program and that really gave me, in my mind, a lot of interest and exposure about business and what it is: economics, accounting and things like marketing. I also did some courses again, offered at the University of Delaware in Slovakia, but the Cornell program was where I’ll say really exposed a lot of interest in business for me.”

11:09 – [On moving away from the dream of working in aeronautical engineering towards agricultural engineering] “When I got into the program, we had one class on introduction to agricultural engineering the first year…the class was what gave me that impetus to stick to agricultural engineering. I found out that it was beyond just applied engineering agricultural…Nigeria’s a food insecure country. Most of the growers are poor, they lack technology. I was going to be serving a part of the workforce and society that really hasn’t been served. And if you look at it, Nigeria needed more of developing its agricultural sector than its aerospace sector. We literally had nothing like aerospace – it’s only airlines. If I was going to do that, I’ll have to think of working overseas. So it was the mission and then just the global mission of food, environment and everything. It was the mission of…the problem out there that Ag engineers had to solve that kept me. So I pivoted…to this global mission of solving the world’s food problems for the world’s poorest and things like that. And that’s what really got me into the profession.”

13:24 – “If you look at the problem of the poor and look at ag engineering, the first thing I realized is that, and actually, I know my dad sort of made fun of me, was like, ‘I hope you realize that the people you’re going to be serving are the poor people…You know, farmers like here with combines and tractors and technology, you’re talking of peasant farmers, but if you look at the mission it’s like you’re trying to provide solutions for people that really don’t have a lot of money to pay you.’ So when you are engineering anything, cost has to come into play. You going to be developing technologies for people a lot who are not educated. So when you think of that, it’s an engineering challenge on its own because a lot of things have to be intuitive. You look at the global needs, they are so varied. We really have needs everywhere. And so it’s really enormous when you look at the problems but it’s a noble one. And at that time I selected it, it was not, for better term, the ‘in’ thing. Now, I think it’s an ‘in’ thing globally that people are gravitating towards.”

Nobility Or Money – Which One Wins?
*16:31 – “It’s not an easy decision but I think one of the things I’ve realised over time in my life, and in any one’s life, is passion actually wins in anything you do. If it’s in ag engineering, if it’s mechanical, if it’s flying, if it’s in soccer, in sports, or even your program, if you have passion then it wins because that passion gets other people excited. It’s very contagious. And I think I bring passion to what I do and I’m very excited with what I do. And frankly speaking, it’s time for us to make an impact to that sector of the world. It’s a huge sector. And if we are going to solve some of the global problems from climate change all the way to food insecurity and all that, this is it, you know?”

21:45 – “In 2009, I started doing international work first in Nigeria, Ghana, and that’s when I went back to my roots where I was raised and brought up to see some of the challenges growers faced. And I saw those challenges in ways I hadn’t seen even prior to my leaving Nigeria, because in a lot of the USAID and the US Department of Agriculture, Foreign Ag Service research projects and capacity development projects in Niger and Ghana, and then subsequently in Kenya and Senegal, we were actually going to the villages and working at the grassroots with farmers. So you basically were seeing a lot of the issues they faced and that’s what prompted a lot of the development that eventually drove me into starting a company here.”

On How Travel Can Help You Appreciate The World
*22:59 – “I love travel. Travel, if you can afford it or your work takes you – in my case, mostly for my work – it opens your eyes to a lot of things, perspectives in terms of your work, perspective in terms of life, perspective in terms of how you see things and see other people. It helps you appreciate the world, you know, it helps you understand that the world is bigger than your own family, your own environment, your own neighborhood, bigger than the country in which you stay in. And I’ve been to countries I will never have thought. Slovakia was not a country that I would have ever thought of going. If you ask most Nigerians, most people will think of the Western countries, historically, African countries will think of their colonial countries so the UK, France, Germany, this kind of western Europe.”

24:16 – “Going to Slovakia was off the beaten path. I got to learn a different language, learn to write, read and speak. I got to learn a lot of Slavic languages like Russian, Polish, Czech, When you learn a language, a different language, it’s some depth in understanding culture and thinking of people…I’ve been to countries that I wouldn’t have thought of going. And these are one of the most beautiful places with very beautiful people. And one of the things in my travels that I’m always fascinated by, or shall I say reaffirmed by, is humans are all the same. We want the same for our families. We want a peaceful life.”

26:01 – “You just come to realize that we’re all the same – just living in different locations, that’s all. And obviously, our cultures mold our perspectives but inherently, in the morning, everybody’s going to work…That’s what I love about traveling. And the fascination is that while we are the same, the other thing about traveling is you see snippets of differences that shouldn’t reinforce ‘oh they do things differently,’ but out of curiosity, ‘wow, I didn’t know you could do this that way. I didn’t know you could prepare rice that way. I didn’t know you could eat that that way, I didn’t know you have this flavor of wine.’ So, yes, we are all this, you see the same goals and aspirations and things, but you also see the differences that makes the world’s beauty.”

On Why It’s Important To Prioritize Travel
*29:39 – (Ross) “I’ve always had a hunch. It’s like, to what degree do we prioritize travel? And it’s just a theme that’s come up over and over again, with so many people I’ve talked to, it’s impossible to ignore how many different people have been impacted by travel and how many people found this kind of career idea based on travel. You just you can’t ignore it and you can’t say that it’s just a small detail. That’s what I’ve come to realize. It’s a big thing. And a lot of people do what you described. I’ve seen that arc several times on this show where somebody leaves their home environment. They go somewhere else for an extended period of time, and then they bring something back home. And like you said, they see their home environment in a new way. I find that to be a really fascinating thing. You see it with fresh eyes and new skills. And obviously from the time that you did your first degree to going to Slovakia, to going to the United States and then coming back, you had learned a ton about other cultures and about the world and of course, about your profession and the problems of the world. And then you come back and you say, ‘Now I have some new insights.’”

31:27 – “Everything has to do with power source. So if you look at the world and everything we do power plays a huge role. And in dehydration or drying, power is the primary source of energy. Either it produces heat, either directly by the sun in the case of solar, or it will be with sun and using photovoltaics, the power of fans that drives the way that moisture or you have to in some way use a form of fuel, natural gas, wood, biomass, what have you, fuel oil. And so power drives everything. And if you look at the enormous amount of power in food production, a lot of people will tell you it’s almost 60 to 70% in a facility that involves drying.”

32:49 – “What drove me toward solar energy was: well, I’m trying to create this technology to the developing part of the world, typically humid tropics. They have an abundance of sunshine, yet it’s very under-utilised. So that’s one of the poorest, most less-resourced area in terms of power utilization. You can look at the NASA view from the space station and if you look at Africa, it’s all dark. Because literally we don’t have power plants. At night it’s all dark. So I started looking at how do you efficiently get that power source to dehydrate foods and the answer there is solar and so it’s how do you harness solar energy efficiently in such a way that dries foods hygienically? People in this part of the world use solar. We call it open sun drying. But if you travel to Niger, Ghana, sub-Saharan Africa, even if you go to China and Southeast Asia or even the Caribbean, as well as South America, small growers dry stuff on the roadside or on the road…They just spread on the ground dirt or some tarred surface and swept up with stones and all the dirt. Now for grains, they can dry and try to clean up. But when you drying vegetables, when you’re drying tomatoes, mangoes, you can’t dry those on the ground because it’s high moisture, all the sand and all that will get into it. So we’re looking at not just solar dry, but something that can dry stuff hygienically. And that’s what led me to the creation of this unit.”

35:14 – “Our project, which was not just me, but a whole bunch of colleagues at Purdue University, was a USAID Feed the Future lab for post-harvest handling and food processing, and I was leading the drying section to develop dryers for maize, that’s corn. And I developed the larger unit, took it to Kenya and Senegal. And while in Kenya and Senegal, while I was teaching them about dry maize, all the questions I got was drying other things. I was amazed at the end people came back and they were not asking me about drying maize. They said, ‘Well, can you dry kale, can you dry okra? Can you dry tomatoes? Can you dry mangoes? Can you dry bananas?’ And also, I asked my colleagues, I’m amazed we came here to dry maize, but everyone is asking about all the things. So I went back and said, ‘Well, I think farmers need something to dry multiple crops.’ A dryer just drying one crop and even just drying maize wouldn’t cut it out. So I started looking at a multipurpose unit and I’ve also done a survey in Ghana that led me towards that. But why I focused on the fruits and veg is because no one was doing that and it’s the most difficult to dry.”

36:47 – “If you look at moisture ranges, maize can easily be dried on the field, comes out of the field less than 20%. It’s easily dried by the roadside or on a tarp. And swept easily and cleaned. Mangoes, that’s like 80/90% water. So you’re looking at a huge magnitude of difference in terms of moisture removal. No technologies out there. So that’s where I focused on even though it was not really the interest of my project. But of course, you know business, it’s not about what’s the interest of the project, necessarily, but what’s the interest of the customer? The need of the people. So that’s what I saw in the field, and the need I saw out there that led me to focus on dry.”

37:50 – “I wanted to develop something fast, I wanted to develop something that already mimicked what they were already doing, and I wanted to develop something that was easily mass produced and delivered globally. That’s something I never thought of just as an academic in the lab. But once you try to start developing something to take to the mass market, you have to deal with logistics. Last mile delivery. You have to deal with cost, technology access, all those things, and all those things informs the way your design will take shape. And that’s what led to the design being the way it is.”

39:19 – “Once I got that was what it was, I went to the design department at Purdue on campus, and I met with a designer, a visiting professor by the name of Heeju Kim. She now works for IDEO design company, but she became, and she is still, my lead designer on contract. And essentially, I took my ideas to Heeju Kim and Heeju Kim and I sat down and I told Heeju I provide engineering and she provides design aesthetics. I told her I wanted something that was going to be designed for a valuable customer, and that customer was the small grower in a developing country. I didn’t want something ugly. I said, ‘I see a lot of products developed for developing countries – they are ugly.’ I’m like, ‘I want this grower to look at this product and say, “This – it was developed for me.”’ I want it to be nicer looking, but I also want it to appeal to consumers in the U.S. or in the West, consumers in Europe. So I was looking at, yes, this is the market, but I also wanted to appeal for those who have home gardens and things like that in the U.S. or even small growers in the U.S. because we have small growers as well.”

41:16 – “We worked with an amazing manufacturer, a local manufacturer in Indiana, who saw the design and told us, ‘Hey, we can’t manufacture this. You guys got to start all over again.’ And he recommended us to another designer to design for manufacturing. So it was an eye opener for me because I thought, ‘Oh, I spent money on doing this.’ And then I realized I’ve got to spend more money. It just changed everything I had, but between Heeju, I, and this designer for manufacture we got it done.”

44:31 – “What drove us as a company and what keeps driving us is we want to solve food insecurity, want to solve food wastage, we want to solve economic empowerment for small growers globally. And we know most of them live in the developing countries. Is that something only developing countries’ folks like? No. I think a lot of Americans love that. I think a lot of folks in the West love that because a stronger developing country is also a stronger country for us as Americans. No one wants poverty. And everyone will buy into the mission of saving the poor. Everyone will buy into the mission of helping small growers. We all love our food here.”

46:32 – “The response has been great. In fact, when we first took it out in 2018 to show small growers in Senegal and Kenya, I remember one lady when we brought the product to her house, she said, ‘It’s like God appeared to me.’ I mean, it’s just phenomenal. I always like listening to what people say before I talk about the products. So I really see if they really like it or not. And for most part, people are excited about the product. It’s serving a need.”

47:36 – “We have a subsidiary company in Kenya now and we can ship the product all over Kenya, in parts of East Africa. And we had to start the subsidiary in Kenya because of the response in Kenya. We’ve sold in over 28 states in the U.S. and over ten different countries from Tajikistan all the way to Australia. So what is our hangup is we don’t have capacity, human capacity, as well as capital to scale marketing and access. And if we can scale marketing and access, that will be great. But we even have a more exciting product – the Dehytray you see at the back there is just one of the products – our signature product is the Dehymeleon. It’s actually a multipurpose solar dehydrator and power generator. If Delfast wants to sell into Kenya, into Nigeria, into a lot of this rural parts of the world, where’s the power to charge your bikes? Our unit will charge. So our multipurpose platform is also a power generator. You can dehydrate your crops. You can power your home. You can charge your bike.”

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