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Business Management

Nigeria: "A simple tech solution to a complex food problem"

Food waste is a huge problem in Africa. This is why last year, as a culmination of 18 months’ research, three Nigerians launched ColdHubs.

ColdHubs are “plug and play” modular, solar-powered walk-in refrigerators, for all-time off-grid storage and preservation of perishable foods fruits and vegetables. They are the brain child of farmer, social entrepreneur and radio presenter Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu who teamed up with two others to provide what they call a “simple tech solution to a complex food problem”.

“With this tech intervention we eliminate post-harvest food losses completely and increase farmers’ and sellers’ income,” Ikegwuonu explains.

As Rockefeller Foundation notes, fruit and vegetables account for 42% of food waste across all geographies. “In sub-Saharan Africa, roots and tubers are also a significant source of loss,” it explains. “This removes the dietary diversity critical for human health. Greater food diversity could decrease the incidence of stunting, which already affects 180 million children worldwide and can lower lifetime earnings by 22%.”

The startup works from the premise that “farmers lose 45% of their vegetable harvests, 35% of their fruit harvests, and 25% of their income due to lack of cold storage”.

“In our world of so much advancement of science and technology, there is no reason for those numbers,” says CEO, Ikegwuonu.

In practice ColdHubs are installed in all major farms and markets. All the sellers need to do is bring along their baskets of produce, which are then transferred into clean plastic crates, and stacked into ColdHubs. “This extends the freshness of fruits, vegetables and other perishable food from two days to about 21 days,” explains Ikegwuonu.

Designed as walk-in solar powered cold rooms, these ColdHubs are made of 120mm insulating cold room panels to maintain cold. Solar panels are mounted on the roof-tops to provide energy which is then stored in high-capacity batteries.  The batteries are then used to supply the energy to installed inverters which then feed the refrigerating units.

Ikegwuonu uses radio – he is a presenter on Smallholder Farmers Rural Radio – in addition to other communication methods to educate farmers. Here, he provides information on the prices that farmers’ produce can fetch and where the best market is.

The trio started with one ColdHub and have already taken it to test in 11 states in Nigeria. Initially local farmers were then given a chance to sample the tech and trial different business models. In the end the inventors settled for a pay-as-you-store model. Farmers and sellers are charged 100 Nigerian Naira (0.5 USD) for each day’s storage. 

In addition to solving nutritional and socioeconomic problems, the startup has a bigger agenda and objective: “Our target is to hire mainly women to manage the operations and collection of revenue at ColdHub stations,” says Ikegwuonu.

It is great to see more and more positive tech solutions emanating from Nigeria, a country that has grappled with negative global tech issues and PR. And the company has launched 10 hubs already this year and has plans to move into Kenya by 2017 and Zimbabwe by 2018.

Yet as the saying goes charity begins at home and the CEO is full of advice for locals:

“Do something for Nigeria, not for attention, but with the aim of improving lives,” he concludes. “Aspire big, but start small. Do not let past failures, disappointments and the problems in Nigeria scare you.”

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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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