A Nigerian-based company called ColdHubs is providing answers to decrease post-harvest loss partly caused by a lack of reliable electricity in different Nigerian states and beyond.
“Nigeria’s electricity problems do not make the grid dependable. For farmers who stay in rural areas, most of their areas do not have electric poles nor cables crossing them, and so you are still in no position to help,” says Chinedu Hardy Nwadike, ColdHubs’ media officer.
The company founded by Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu — a farmer, innovator and leading social entrepreneur — avails solar-powered cold stations to key food production and consumption centres.
It allows for smallholder farmers and traders, who are mostly situated in remote areas, to preserve fruits, vegetables, milk and meat, among other perishable foods. With a pay-as-you-store subscription model, the farmer or trader pays a daily flat fee for each crate.
Ikegwuonu says they’re in the process of constructing hubs in other Nigerian states to accommodate large-scale farmers and traders. They also plan to digitalise the booking of slots through an app or USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) quick codes. Those plans are in addition to expanding to the Niger Republic and other African markets.
Its first hub was developed in 2015 and to date, the venture has 54 cold-rooms based in 22 Nigerian states. They have three refrigerated vans transporting produce across the country, enabling the company to be present in all aspects of the food supply chain: storage and transportation.
ColdHubs further plans to produce plastic crates, which ensures that the produce isn’t damaged when moved from one place to the next.
“If we are producing the crates, we can also influence the market by encouraging traders, farmers and any other person to use plastic crates instead of raffia baskets,” says Ikegwuonu. Raffia baskets tend to easily spoil the condition of perishable foods because they are not strong enough to resist pressure nor be stacked upon one another.
Streamlined operations with environmental impact
Due to the remote nature of the hubs, ColdHubs personnel encountered difficulty in travelling to the respective areas, spending 13 to 15 hours on the road and increasing the operating costs. The company is piloting remote monitoring to address this challenge.
“We are working on minimising faults in the system and travelling to increase the efficiency of the human resources and machinery,” Ikegwuonu elaborates.
In the midst of such a challenge and innovative measures, they remain true to their core values, which entail extending the shelf life of perishable foods from two days to 21 through environmentally friendly ways, decreasing post-harvest loss by 80% and assisting agricultural stakeholders such as traders.
“We are not using fossil fuel to preserve fruits and vegetables, which if they decay, you have a lot of emission of CO2,” says Ikegwuonu, referring to the solar installations used to power the cold rooms.
Usman Muhammed, a trader based in Kano State, is a beneficiary of the reduction in post-harvest loss. He trades vegetables such as cabbage, green beans, carrots, green pepper, cucumber and Irish potato.
Muhammed was accustomed to using raffia baskets to store produce: a method that posed a challenge when dealing with large quantities, which he purchases at least three times a week. With the cold-rooms, Muhammed keeps his goods refrigerated to gradually sell them.
Trader Daniel Praise, who is situated in Imo State, shares a similar experience with Muhammed. ColdHubs allows him to store produce to last more than a week in order to prevent shortage in supply before receiving more stock in the following week.
Praise, however, finds the cost a bit heavy for his pocket. “I can’t speak for others but for me, the cost is too much,” says Praise.
Nuhu Sa’eed, a smallholder farmer and trader in Imo State, says that the storage cost is affordable, adding that ColdHubs has made it possible for him to prevent the 50% produce loss caused by the lack of refrigeration. Currently, he is incurring two to five percent loss, leading to an increase of his income and profit.
“We used to experience lots of losses then because every day, you waste your energy, yet your goods are still spoiling,” he explains
The use of solar is necessary due to the current state of the national grid. Every cold room consists of a rooftop with solar panels absorbing energy from the sun to be reserved in high-capacity batteries for an inverter powering the refrigerating unit. The interior has 120mm insulating cold room panels needed to maintain a cold environment.
Based on data published by the USAID, Nigeria’s urban areas have 86% connection to electricity while the rural areas are sitting at 34%. “The Nigerian power sector experiences many broad challenges related to electricity policy enforcement, regulatory uncertainty, gas supply, transmission system constraints, and major power sector planning shortfalls that have kept the sector from reaching commercial viability,” it said.