iAGRI PhD Student, Rita Mirondo, works to advance food processing in Tanzania

May. 13, 2014

Rita was sitting at a corner workspace for graduate students on the 3rd floor of Parker Hall, intently studying for her upcoming final exams. Though she had been situated in the same spot for some time, it was obvious that a great amount of studying still lay ahead of her.

She was tired, but focused, and determined as ever to attain the best final grades she could. Such can be said for Rita’s overall attitude towards her academics and research.
Rita Mirondo, orginially from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - is currently a PhD student in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. She also is a sponsored student through iAGRI - the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative -a major food security project funded by the United States Agency on International Development (USAID) and led by The Ohio State University’ Office for International Programs in Agriculture. The overall objective of iAGRI is to strengthen the teaching and research capacity of Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) and Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives (MAFC) through long term degree training and collaborative research. Five other U.S. land grant universities are involved in the iAGRI project as well, accepting Tanzanian students into their graduate programs and involving faculty in collaborative research projects with SUA.
In 2012, Rita was one of seven Tanzanian students placed at Ohio State to complete a graduate degree. She had previously worked in the MAFC after completing both her undergraduate and masters education in food science in Tanzania. Since arriving at Ohio State, she has been working with her advisor, Dr. Sheryl Barringer, Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology, who specializes in food processing, specifically for fruits and vegetables.
Rita’s interest in fruit and vegetable processing is of great importance to her home country of Tanzania. Tanzania produces vast quantities of fruits and vegetables, but lacks the capacity to preserve and process them for later consumption and value addition.
“This constraint raises issues of not only food safety, but the inability to export these products to foreign markets on a larger scale,” explains Dr. Barringer.
“Given the extent of post-harvest loss that Tanzanian farmers experience, a superior understanding of processing is needed to ensure safe consumption, maintain food quality, and add value to food products that might otherwise go to waste.”
Currently Rita is examining how different methods of processing tomatoes affect the quality of tomato juice. A part of this analysis is how removing or not removing the peal of a tomato affects quality, or how hot and cold breaking – two types of thermal treatments – affects the activation of enzymes in tomatoes that contribute to juice quality, and therefore consumer desirability.
“Essentially there are tradeoffs with all of these different processing methods, and Rita’s objective is to find a balance between producing a product that is safe for consumption and a quality level desired by the consumer,” explains Dr. Barringer.
Exploring product quality, Rita shared, is one of the most exciting aspects of her research, because it relates to an observable difference in the nature of food industry in the United States compared to Tanzania.
“In the U.S. there is the obvious element of competition through the sheer number of varieties available to choose from. And in spite of the vast variety of products already in the market, there is still a drive to be innovative and produce a better product.”
She added that this notion isn’t as evident in Tanzania, where there are often only one or two kinds of a particular product, but that her research could certainly change that trend while simultaneously lowering the costs of production.
“I want to put my knowledge into action,” exclaims Rita. “I don’t plan to keep knowledge I’ve acquired to myself.”
Dr. Barringer said that Rita will be more than equipped to make an impact in her field because of her time at Ohio State. The Department of Food Science and Technology has enjoyed a strong relationship with the food industry in Ohio for decades, priding itself on providing instruction and research that has a practical significance to those in the field of food science.
“We’re very applied here,” says Dr. Barringer, “I may not have a long list of academics that our program has turned out, but I can give you an extensive list of alumni that have ascended the ranks to become company vice-presidents and industry leaders”.
She explains that this bodes well for Rita, who will be able to take the skills she’s acquired at Ohio State and use them to nurture private sector growth in Tanzania.
Rita is planning to extend her research beyond tomatoes next month when she will begin similar analyses on mangos, a fruit that is very popular in Tanzania and is experiencing a greater demand partly because of the high concentration of cancer-fighting antioxidants.
“Everyone wants to be healthy,” says Rita, adding that Tanzanians are no exception and that they’re beginning to gravitate towards juices and foods higher in lycopene, mangiferin, and other nutrients that neutralize free radicals.
With all of the different varieties of mangos and other fruits, coupled with advanced processing methods, Rita’s confident that an interest in a healthier lifestyle will be an impetus to produce different types of fruit and vegetable juices for everyday Tanzanians to purchase.
The determination and hard work that Rita has invested up to this point speaks for itself. This past July, she sat on a Feed the Future panel moderated by former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman and keynoted by current USAID Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah. She impressed the audience with her knowledge of the important impacts Feed the Future is having and will continue to have on Tanzanian agriculture through the iAGRI project. More recently in March, she placed second in the PhD student division of the Ohio Valley Section’s Institute of Food Technologists research poster contest.
With more than 80% of women in Tanzania working in agriculture, an increase in the number of women entering Rita’s field of food processing in Tanzania isn’t surprising and is something that she’s observed herself. Continuing to foster an interest in food processing among women is something that she specifically wants to devote herself to after completing her PhD and returning to Tanzania so that young women can realize their professional aspirations as she is doing now.
Drawing to a close at the end of our meeting, Rita mentioned that the person she is today is not the person she was when she began at Ohio State almost two years ago. She’s matured academically, professionally, and personally. She makes a point of expressing her appreciation for the opportunities iAGRI has afforded her, and also what impacts projects like it can have for other Tanzanians eager to further their education in the area of agriculture.
“There are so many people in Tanzania who are passionate about agriculture,” says Rita, “If more people have the chance to become involved in opportunities like iAGRI, then we have the potential to significantly improve agricultural systems in Tanzania.”