Photograph — Charles Sturt University

Amidst the uncertainty during the COVID–19 pandemic, matching food supply with demand is becoming a major problem, especially given the logistics bottlenecks arising from lockdowns and restricted movement.  Fresh produce is accumulating at farms, resulting in food loss. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) alone, which unfortunately is home to over 230 million people suffering from chronic undernourishment according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 30-50 percent of food production is lost before it reaches the market due to problems ranging from improper use of inputs to lack of proper post-harvest storage, processing or transportation facilities. 

Of the 10 million smallholder farmers in Africa who are farming fresh produce that needs cold storage, 36 percent have access to the grid and 62 percent can not afford cooling technology. The remaining 2% is serviceable and constituted by 225,000 farmers in 2018.

Reducing post-harvest losses (PHL) offers a vital pathway to alleviate poverty, and improve nutrition, especially during the pandemic crisis. Many households in SSA countries are dependent on agriculture as their primary, and often only, source of income. FAO estimates that 54 percent of Africa’s working force relies on the agricultural sector for livelihoods, income, and employment with 63 percent of the population being in rural areas. Realizing Africa’s full agricultural potential will require significant investment in energy-efficient off-grid cold storage technologies.

Existing cold chain systems for perishables like milk, fruits, and vegetables contribute to food loss keeping vulnerable farmers in a cycle of poverty. Establishing extensive and reliable solar-powered cold chains in off-grid environments could enable farmers to raise food supply by 15% by reducing post-harvest losses, increasing profits through greater bargaining power at the market place, and enabling better commercialization of agricultural produce in regional markets. 

However, off-grid cold storage technology solutions still remain nascent with business models and technologies largely untested in rural areas in SSA. A recent webinar, ‘Insights from the Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC)’, hosted by the Efficiency for Access Coalition and Energy 4 Impact presented lessons learned from the competition and its four finalists, FreshBox, Ecolife, ColdHubs, and Ecozen Solutions, in implementing their business models by commercially deploying cold storage units in Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya. 

FreshBox, an off-grid cold storage solutions provider based in Kenya leveraged the Challenge to pilot and improve its cold room technology. Nearly half of Kenyans live without access to the grid, where cold storage for produce is practically nonexistent. The exposure and learning gained through the OGCCC helped FreshBox form three new partnerships with farming cooperatives in Kenya, and win a tender to install solar-powered cold rooms in Somalia.  

“The OGCCC program validated our business model, we initially had a fantastic idea and a big dream of reducing spoilage across the food supply chain, but the CLASP implemented program enabled us to prove how viable the business model was,” said John Mbindyo, FreshBox Founder and CEO.  In the last 12 months, FreshBox has installed 21 cold rooms across Kenya, Somalia, and South Sudan all without additional grant funding.

In a country whose economy depends so heavily on agriculture, Uganda produces annually 875,000 metric tonnes of mangoes, EcoLife is using its cold room to improve the mangoes’ shelf life, which allows them to negotiate higher prices with market traders. In Nigeria, ColdHubs has built solar-powered cold stations for use on-farm and in markets. The startup combines the well-established technologies of photovoltaic energy supply and compressive cold generation with a novel concept of pay-as-you-store model.

“Nigeria is the largest tomato production belt in west Africa, yet farmers are losing more than 50% of their crops due to lack of cold storage. So we came up with solar-powered, walk-in cold rooms which can extend the life of food up to 21 days, and my goal is to push these hubs to all developing countries,” Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, founder and CEO of ColdHubs told The Guardian.

OGCCC identified EcoZen’s solar-powered cold room unit as having high technical performance, a short repayment period, and incorporated sophisticated Internet of Things that was greatly appreciated by the farm user. 

Launched in 2018,  the Global LEAP Awards OGCCC competition was run by Energy 4 Impact and CLASP, as part of the UK aid-funded Ideas to Impact programme, which is delivered by an IMC Worldwide-led consortium. The OGCCC aims to stimulate off-grid cold chain refrigeration for farmers and small traders in sub-Saharan Africa., enabling better commercialization of agricultural produce. 

By Sam Grant, Director of CLASP’s Clean Energy Access program.

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