Food spoilage forced smallholder farmers out of pocket and out of business – until an entrepreneur came up with a cool idea.
Growing up on a farm in Southern Nigeria, Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu observed how smallholder farmers rushed to sell their produce before sunset to avoid spoiling or selling it at give-away prices. Ikegwuonu came up with a cool idea to save the produce from spoiling: solar-powered cold rooms.
Smallholder farmers in Africa experience high post-harvest food losses owing to poor handling, poor packaging and lack of storage for their produce before it reaches the market.
According to the World Bank, food loss accounts for 40 percent of all food produced in Nigeria.
ColdHubs Ltd is a Nigerian social enterprise that designs, installs, operates and rents walk-in cold rooms known as ‘ColdHubs’. The Cold Hubs can store and preserve fresh fruits, vegetables and other perishable foods, extending their shelf life from two to 21 days.
Describing spoilage as a wicked problem, Ikegwuonu’s ColdHubs concept is helping farmers and retailers preserve their produce for longer, reducing waste and ensuring farmers get better prices for it.
The mission is to reduce food spoilage due to lack of cold food storage at key points along the food supply chain, explains Ikegwuonu, who has won global recognition for his innovations in farming and entrepreneurship. In 2016 he was named a Rolex Award Laureate.
In 2003, Ikegwuonu started the Smallholders Foundation. This non-profit developed rural radio services, delivering information to improve agricultural methods and conserve the environment to more than 250 000 daily listeners across the country.
During a radio roadshow in the city of Jos, the capital of Plateau state in central Nigeria, where he was doing a radio programme on cabbage, Ikegwuonu realised many farmers were throwing away their produce because it was spoiling before they could sell it all.
“At that point, it dawned on us that there is no form of cold storage which is an important infrastructure for any outdoor markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. After some research, we built solar-powered cold rooms, and these were well received by farmers,” Ikegwuonu told IPS in an interview.
“Spoilage entraps farmers into poverty cycle because, by the time the food arrives in the outdoor market, the value has reduced, economically and nutritionally.”
Farmers and retailers rent out the walk-in cold rooms for a low fee of $0.25 (100 Naira) per 20kg plastic crate for one day. Each cold room has a capacity of storing three tonnes of food with other storage units that can hold 10 tons and 100 tons of food at a time.
Ikegwuonu said in designing the cold rooms, emphasis was placed on the solar power generation capacity to run the cold rooms every day of the week. The units generate energy from rooftop solar panels during the day. The energy is transferred and stored in batteries that run the cold rooms at night.
Currently, 54 cold rooms are operating in 38 clusters across two states in Nigeria, and Ikegwuonu plans to double the number in 2022.
ColdHubs have created 66 jobs for young women by hiring and training them as hub operators and market attendants. The ColdHubs, located in outdoor markets, serve more than 5 000 smallholder farmers, retailers and wholesalers in Nigeria.
In 2020, the cold rooms stored more than 40 000 tonnes of food which helped reduce food waste and increased farmers’ profits, according to Ikegwuonu.
“Farmers had commended the technology and have increased their income by about 50 percent before we started deploying ColdHubs. Now they are earning about $150 every month from selling the products that used to be spoiled and thrown away or sold at ridiculous rock bottom prices.”
Food waste occurs during industrial processing, distribution, and final consumption of food, research by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition shows. In developing countries, food losses occur upstream in the production chain.
According to the Food Sustainability Index (FSI) developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, food loss and waste need urgent action given its environmental and economic impacts. The FSI, which ranks countries on food systems sustainability – is a quantitative and qualitative benchmarking model measuring the sustainability of food systems in the categories of food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges.
Nigeria was ranked five with a score of 74.1 for food loss and waste on the FSI 2018 results for middle-income countries.
“Tackling consumer food waste and post-harvest waste (the loss of fresh produce and crops before they reach consumer markets) will involve everything from changing consumption patterns to investing in infrastructure and deploying new digital technologies,” the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition report noted, emphasising that ending hunger and meeting rising food demand will not be possible without tackling high level of food loss and waste.
Fruits and vegetables have the largest losses across developing countries, accounting for 42 percent of the developing country loss and waste globally, a report by the Rockefeller Foundation found, noting that growth in the commercial sale and use of loss averting technologies among smallholder farmers and value chain actors was an opportunity to reduce spoilage.
An estimated 93 million smallholder farmers and food supply chain actors are affected by food loss in Nigeria.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has urged for accelerated global action to reduce food loss and waste, with less than nine years to the deadline for achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Seven years ago, global leaders agreed to the 17 SDGs, and Goal 12 specifically commits to halve by per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030.
Reducing food loss and waste contributes to the realisation of broader improvements to agri-food systems towards achieving food security, food safety, improving food quality and delivering on nutritional outcomes,” the FAO highlighted in marking the 2021 International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. The UN specialised agency has urged investment and prioritisation of new technology and innovations that directly address post-harvest food loss.
Investments to encourage African youth turning away from agriculture to reconsider opportunities in the sector is key given the need to generate jobs and repair food systems particularly impacted by the current COVID-19 pandemic, says Heifer International, which has promoted young, creative professionals deploying technology innovations to transform agriculture in Africa.
“Young entrepreneurs across Africa understand the struggles of their parent’s generation and have seen how this has discouraged the people around them from pursuing careers in the agriculture sector,” commented Adesuwa Ifedi, senior vice president of Africa Programmes at Heifer International.
With support from Heifer and the AYuTe Africa Challenge, Ikegwuonu predicts to expand from 50 to 5000 ColdHubs across West Africa in the next five years.
“Too many African farmers do not get the income they deserve because they have no way of keeping their produce fresh. We are revolutionising storage with our Cold Hubs and ensuring that farmers get value for their produce by avoiding spoilage,” said Ikegwuonu.