With angel backing, sorrel machine inventors look outward for markets
Turner Innovations Limited, whose owners invented the sorrel-harvesting machine, is mulling whether to license and sell machines globally or keep the technology to themselves and buy sorrel from farmers to process and market under Brand Jamaica.
The Jamaican couple, Oral and Allison Turner, say they are leaning more towards an overseas market.
Either way, the inventors are now poised to cash in on their invention, having got the attention and backing from local angel investors.
The journey has taken seven years. The Turners converted their garage at Comma Pen, St Elizabeth, into a 40x60-foot factory to commercialise the machine they invented in 2008, using $3 million in funding secured from the state-owned Development Bank of Jamaica.
Turner Innovations is also contemplating a mobile service to harvest sorrel on farms around Jamaica, based on orders of 1,000 pounds or more.
The sorrel-stripping machine can handle 2,000 pounds of sorrel in half a day using one operator instead of the average 10 people that a sorrel producer would use to strip 1,000 pounds in a day, Allison said.
"We can either come to you and cut your sorrel at a cheaper price and at a quicker time than you are doing now or you can bring sorrel to us. We won't come out for less than 1,000 pounds though, it wouldn't be worth our journey, but you can bring smaller amounts to our base and get it done," she said.
First Angels Jamaica, a network of mainly Jamaican companies and individuals who are willing to finance promising start-up companies and projects, announced last month that the inventors were now being backed by some of its angel members.
Now, the sorrel machine is to be officially launched on the local market by November.
While the company works on its plan to manufacture the machine for sale, it is in the process of proving its capabilities among local farmers here at home.
"In order for it to be interesting to the farmers, it had to do more than they were doing," said Turner.
"We get a 85 per cent yield," she said, comparing her equipment's performance with another machine that was invented as a college project in Mexico. "Their yield was about 15 per cent," she added, while noting that Jamaican sorrel is processed differently from Mexico's.
The Mexican machine squeezed the whole sorrel plant through a roller, thereby, destroying any immature buds and wasting the juice that flows from the buds being reaped, said Turner.
Turner Innovations' machine feeds only the picked buds into the funnel-shaped invention to tear the calyx away from the seed.
"As a company, we also want to look at manufacturing a product and exporting. So we see a facility where we could be employing up to maybe 50 people and having a process plant to get products out. We are looking at maybe drying and packaging for export," she said, while noting the company is still mulling on its way forward.
"The main thing is that we have the technology now which will reduce the cost and enable us to compete globally," she said.
The size of the First Angels Jamaica backing and the specific angel members involved remain confidential, according to the angel network's rules.
Turner Innovations is now one of three companies helped by First Angels, the other two being Billodex Limited and DRT Communications.
With their invention in 2008, then the first of its kind worldwide, Oral and Allison solved what was a common agricultural problem faced by many local sorrel farmers - removing the red outer shell, the calyx, from the seed of ripe sorrel buds.
Typically, farmers employ labourers to hand-strip the buds at harvest or a broken umbrella stick is used to push the seed up and through the base of the bud. The latter method is used in about 22 countries around the world, Allison said.
Sorrel is renowned worldwide for its health benefits and is used in many herbal blends and teas. China currently tops world exports.
Oral, a trained welder and farm store operator, developed a "cutting method" that reduced by half the amount of time it takes labourers to complete their tasks, and effectively saving on farmers' reaping costs.
"One of the customers of the farm store planted four acres of sorrel but was about to scrap the whole project because of the cost of having the crop stripped," Allison said. Her husband, known for his affinity for fiddling with machines, "thought there must be a way to solve the problem".
So, after experimenting with different ideas of how to get the calyx away from the seed, which included cutting up his wife's brooms and other bits of furniture, "he came inside after about three months and said: 'Look, it did it!'," Allison told Sunday Business.
"I'm glad he didn't listen to me because after a week (of trying), I said to him leave it alone because if it could have been done, it would have been done already - but he did it," the businesswoman said.
The couple first shared their breakthrough with the farmer who wanted his sorrel reaped and another agro-processor, both of whom had wanted the Turners to keep the idea secret for the advantage of their businesses.
However, the Turners saw the bigger picture - one that would revolutionise a common agricultural problem and earn them acclaim.
The couple has placed a provisional patent on their invention through the US Patent Office.
Ahead of the harvesting machine's November roll-out, Turner Innovations plans to hire at least four staff as operators and for clerical positions.
Whatever they decide on how to commercialise their invention, the Turners say it will involve them getting into the supply of Jamaican sorrel to the world market.
"Our research shows that there is a lot of land that they are not planting. It also shows that there are a lot of farmers that came out of sorrel farming and that would go back," said Allison.
"This is a story to inspire everyone that no matter your financial, education or background you can create your own wealth," she said.