According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 40-50% of produce perishes before reaching the end customer, largely due to a lack of viable cold chain solutions. This waste already exacts a heavy toll, but now farmers and families living off-grid are facing a COVID-19-triggered food emergency, resulting from supply chain disruptions and economic turmoil. The UN’s World Food Program estimates that the food insecure population could double to 265 million by the end of the year.
In an article for NextBillion, Energy 4 Impact’s Maria Knodt and CLASP’s Ruth Kimani argue that solar -powered cold rooms can help address this crisis by reducing the post-harvest loss of crops, increasing profits by boosting farmers’ bargaining power at the marketplace, and unlocking regional and international markets to smallholders in remote rural areas. However, the cold storage industry faces significant technical and business model challenges. The UKAid-funded Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC), developed by Efficiency for Access Coalition in partnership with Energy 4 Impact, gained insights into the opportunities and challenges for cold chain storage in food insecure regions.
Through the Challenge, 10 finalist companies were selected in 2018 to test solar-powered cold rooms in eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa. The trials found it is critical to adjust to the local conditions of customers in unique off-grid settings. For example, the performance of cold units varies by crop and geographical location, so they must be designed to meet specific intended use cases. Technology providers face strategic decisions around technical components. Within the trial, one participant decided to use phase change material for thermal storage whilst others used less efficient but more affordable clay bricks and recycled plastics for insulation.
Implementing appropriate business models can help ensure the sustainability of cold storage solutions: Cooling as a Service optimizes efficiency and maintenance by allowing the customer to pay for cooling on a usage basis, rather than purchasing the cooling equipment directly. The ability to leverage locally available materials and technical capacity to overcome supply chain interruptions and meet the need for safe, quality food has become urgent during the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the off-grid cold chain market is not yet ready for scale. Challenges include end users lacking awareness of how to optimize usage, e.g. what temperature different crops must be stored at. Consumer education and training on post-harvest best practices is vital. The technology itself is also often not proven in the field, e.g. faulty electronic parts, so donors and investors need to support research and development activities on the ground, rather than in laboratories. When explaining the value proposition to farmers dealing with these challenges, it is important to convey the trade-off between quality and the cost of off-grid cold storage systems.
Establishing an enabling business environment for off-grid cold chains will involve:
- Access to favourably designed financial product offerings for early-stage businesses
- Supportive policy frameworks for nascent technologies aimed at productive use
- Access to supportive technologies for business, such as remote monitoring units
- Well-developed rural – urban transport infrastructure
- Easy access to market information and security
Initiatives like OGCCC are needed to build up market and technology data, undertake more field-testing and market analysis studies and encourage innovation around enabling technologies, such as digital platforms for remote monitoring. Co-ordinated intervention can help prevent food losses and scarcity, especially in developing countries whose economies are integrally linked with agriculture. The coronavirus pandemic has served to remind us of the urgency of this need.
The full article by Maria Knodt (Programme Manager at Energy 4 Impact) and Ruth Kimani (Associate for Clean Energy Access at CLASP) can be found on NextBillion here.