One Year Later, Kulé Tech Pasteurization Thermometer is a Step Closer to Saving Lives

By Meagan Garrett

Victor and Mark work with Maasai leaders to collect data
Photo by Annalise Miller

When Annalise Miller, Victor Charoonsophonsak, and Mark Caudell left Tanzania, Africa, a year ago to return to WSU after researching how to improve milk pasteurization practices among the pastoral Maasai, they had no idea what their lives, their invention, or their company would look like today.

A year later, Miller (’18 Entrep., Math) has returned to Africa to serve a two-year tour in the Peace Corps providing business and entrepreneurship education in Namibia.

Charoonsophonsak (’17 Mech. Eng.), a WSU Honors College graduate, continues to use his mechanical engineering major to propel their company, Kulé Tech, forward while working full-time as a management consulting analyst at Accenture, a global management consulting and professional services firm. He is working with Caudell, a post-doctoral fellow in the WSU Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, to improve Kulé’s pasteurization thermometer design.

Though much has changed for the three of them, the problem among the Maasai remains; they often consume raw milk, exposing themselves to a long list of pathogens.

A year later, Kulé still has the solution: a smart thermometer that would make it easy for the Maasai to pasteurize their raw milk, limiting the transmission of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance and making milk safer and people healthier.

Encouraging milk pasteurization practices

Their 2017 trip focused on finding the best way to encourage the adoption of milk pasteurization practices and the use of the Kulé pasteurization thermometer among the Maasai. Kulé tested two different techniques to communicate the need for pasteurization and how to properly use the Kulé pasteurization thermometer. They communicated this information through either narrative stories or fact-based messages.

The narrative messages included stories of Maasai children becoming ill from drinking raw milk, causing their families to travel many miles to seek hospital treatment. The fact-based messages focused on purely educational content, providing information on why milk must be pasteurized for quality and safety, and how to properly pasteurize milk.

The community that received the narrative story advocating pasteurization instead of boiling, saw the highest incidence of women heating their milk correctly and the largest reduction of bacteria in the milk.

“We realized that it wasn’t just about the pasteurization of the milk. Stored improperly, heated milk was more dangerous than raw milk. It had higher levels of bacteria. This was a big take away for our team,” says Caudell. “Kulé had to provide more than just thermometers. We also need to provide education about proper milk storage and cleaning of milk cooking and storage containers.”

Annalise (far left) and Victor (far right) with the Engage Biotech Team and Center for Entrepreneurship Director Marie Mayes in Tanzania

Refining the thermometer

The Kulé team has been working on that and much more in the year since they returned from Tanzania. They are currently redesigning the thermometer casing.

“One thing we observed in our initial use tests was that Maasai women cook over an open flame,” says Charoonsophonsak. “Our first-generation thermometer had a hook on the outside to keep it connected to the milk pot. The open flame would melt that hook and the thermometer would fall into the milk pot. Our second-generation product is correcting that problem, giving the Maasai women something more practical for their cooking environment.”

Additionally, Caudill and Charoonsophonsak, along with a team of colleagues from the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, the Center for Entrepreneurship, the Carson College of Business, the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, and the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology are working together to scale up the intervention in over 100 Maasai communities in northern Tanzania.

Forming plans for distribution

The Kulé team recently won $24,500 in funding from the Amazon Catalyst Program at WSU and plan to use it on production of the redesigned thermometer and a second trip to Tanzania to continue testing the updated product and accompanying educational component. They will also meet with multiple NGOs to begin researching economically and culturally sensitive methods of distributing the product among the Maasai. Kulé has also applied to several large grants from USAID, NIH, and the Gates Foundation to help fund the next steps: in-country product manufacturing and distribution to individual Maasai homes.

“In low income countries, most of the dairy is purchased in open, unregulated markets,” says Caudell. “Quality is often low, and products are often unsafe. Improvements in milk safety must happen at the household level with a simple technology like the Kulé pasteurization thermometer that women can implement easily and economically. We are very close to delivering that solution.”

Watch video on Kulé’s innovation.