“We watched our parents, grandparents and those before them work tirelessly, they toiled in the rural farms only for a huge chunk of their fresh produce to rot away due to lack of proper cold storage units,” says Dysmus Kisilu, a founder of Solar Freeze, an agri-tech company in Kenya that provides smallholder farmers (80% female) with mobile cold storage units powered by solar to help reduce postharvest losses.
According to Kisilu, farmers using the refrigerated units powered by solar are moving away from diesel-powered generators for cold storage, hence reducing environmental impacts. “Food waste is an economic issue as well as an issue for climate change, as it is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, which we’re mitigating through utilizing solar,” he says. To date, Dysmus has worked with 3,000 small scale women farmers in Kenya to increase agricultural yields by more than 150% from 2016. Off-grid cold-store solutions can help farmers in remote areas who are not yet connected to roads and electricity to reduce waste and to sell when prices are good. Usually, during times of harvest prices fall and recover later in the season. Reducing waste and obtaining better prices lead to higher productivity and income.
Each year, 1.6 billion tons of food worth more than US$1 trillion are lost or go to waste—one-third of the total amount of food produced globally according to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). To put the figure in perspective, that is 10 times the mass of the island of Manhattan. In sub-Saharan Africa, FAO estimates that 30-40% of total production can be lost before it reaches the market, due to problems ranging from spillage to lack of proper post-harvest storage, processing or transportation facilities, thereby negating the benefits of investment aimed at ensuring increased productivity towards food and nutrition security. On the other hand, widespread adoption of mechanization, postharvest technologies such as cold storage and other necessary infrastructure has reduced downstream postharvest losses to lower levels (less than 10%).
Currently, it is estimated that less than 10% of all perishable foods are being refrigerated, despite the fact that post-harvest losses amount to 30% of food production worldwide. According to the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) new report, “The Market Opportunity for Productive Use Leveraging Solar Energy (PULSE) in Sub-Saharan Africa,” 26% of the sub-Saharan African (SSA) population, aged 15 or older, suffers from food insecurity. PULSE solutions can help meet the growing demand for food through increased productivity and reductions in post-harvest losses. The cold chain innovations around DRE are paramount in Africa and Asia given that access and connection to electricity, especially in rural areas where food is produced, is still a luxury.
In Kenya, approximately 40%-50% of food is lost or wasted throughout the entire food chain, from farms to households, which is twice the global average. In 2017, US$1.5 billion worth of food went to waste, tossed out or left to rot, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), resulting in lost earnings as farmers struggled to, manage, store, and transport their produce to the market. In Nigeria, 45% of postharvest output spoils due to a lack of access to cold storage, resulting in a 25% loss of income for the country’s 93 million small farmers. Cold stores also help to improve the negotiation power of smallholders in the market place. Twiga Foods in Nairobi offers, for example, a smallholder trading platform where smallholders can directly offer their fresh produce without middlemen and consequently higher prices.
According to the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology May 2019 Policy Brief, India’s Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MFPI) estimated losses of 23 million tons of grains, 12 million tons of fruits and 21 million tons of vegetables for a total approximate value of about US$4.4 billion while total value of food loss and waste generated was US$10.6 billion. Speaking to Financial Express Online, Pushpendra Singh, President, Kisan Shakti Sangh noted that, “lack of cold chain and proper storage facility, exports, transportation, adequate processing facilities, and marketing are fields where the government has failed to deliver, leading to wastage of food.”
A transition to off-grid, solar-powered cold storage systems is key to reducing food waste and making more food available for subsistence and sales ensuring food security and economic development while minimizing the adverse effects of conventional, fossil fuel-based agricultural value chains. In India, in an attempt to cut wastage of agricultural produce and augment income for farmers, IIT Madras-incubated startup Tan90 has developed a portable solar-powered cold storage device to preserve farm produce. Innovations like these are helping farmers to increase their incomes from farm produce. “Since India is blessed with perennial solar energy, developing cold storage with thermal energy storage as a backup can help meet this (cold storage) shortage using abundantly available renewable energy that is best suited for rural/ decentralized deployment. This is a solution for small farmers with the use of thermal energy storage/ thermal battery instead of an electrical battery,” said Satyanarayanan Seshadri, lead researcher and assistant professor at the Department of Applied Mechanics, IIT Madras. By integrating decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions to cold chain to support the development of a self-sustainable model of Green Cold Chain, enterprises like Solar Freeze, Ecozen, Inspira Farms, and Tan90 offer farmers practical and affordable solutions. With the United Nations aiming to reduce waste per capita by 50% by 2030, action needs to be taken to help make reaching this target achievable.
As developing countries prepare to mark this year's World Food Day on October 16 and as they continue to invest in nutrition and set in place policies to provide for healthier, affordable, and sustainable diets, interventions are needed to assist farmers to reduce post-harvest losses. This will greatly increase the availability of food, increase farmer’s incomes and reduce emissions.
Heinz Strubenhoff is a senior private sector specialist with IFC, based in Addis Ababa
(Photo courtesy of Inspira Farms)