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Deploying eco-friendly technologies for food loss prevention, income boost

By Femi Ibirogba, Head, Agro-Economy
31 January 2022   |   2:41 am
Over 70 per cent of Nigeria’s rural population are estimated to be farmers, about 70 per cent of its agricultural workforce is constituted by women and 88 per cent of Nigeria’s farmers

Solar power structure and cold food storage facility in Lagos

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Over 70 per cent of Nigeria’s rural population are estimated to be farmers, about 70 per cent of its agricultural workforce is constituted by women and 88 per cent of Nigeria’s farmers are smallholders with fewer than two hectares of land, while about 40 per cent of Nigeria’s produce is lost and wasted due to poor storage facilities, transportation challenges and absence of an effective cold chain.
 
Following the yearly loss, about 25 per cent of smallholder farmers’ yearly income is lost to food deterioration. Worth of produce in monetary value estimated at $39.34 billion is lost and 76.9 million metric tonnes of produce are wasted yearly.

  
Yet, amid the loss and wastage, Nigeria faces significant risks due to a lack of access to cooling that can protect food, especially fresh and perishable foods.
 
Besides the negative impact on farmer’s income caused by food loss, farmers suffer income loss by being forced to sell their produce at give-away prices at the wrong time due to lack of access to market information and cold chain facilities as well as harvest at the same time by almost all the farmers.
 
Climate-friendly cooling technologies are available, but their deployment is limited due to lack of reliable access to energy, high-upfront costs, unavailability of proper maintenance, limited financing options and technical know-how.
 
Hence, professionals have harped on strengthening the agricultural cold chain and enabling access to market intelligence as would bring tremendous economic, health, and environmental benefits for farmers and the growing population.
 
Because agriculture plays a vital role in the economy and Nigeria’s rural population is particularly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, some international organisations have also called for the deployment of technology-driven apps to mobilise farmers, dealers and traders for cold chain utilisation based on market and shared infrastructure information.

However, public storage infrastructures in Nigeria have been concessioned, and the remnants are mostly dysfunctional and without the capacity for cooling vegetables and fruits.

Some of the reserves have been leased to private operators. The Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) approved the concession of 20 out of the 33 strategic grain reserves in 2018 and claimed to expect N6 billion in the 10-year lease period.

The storage capacity of the silo complexes ranges from 11,000 to 100,000 metric tonnes with a combined total storage capacity of 1.3 million metric tonnes.

The holding capacity breakdown of the 33-grain reserve silos are Jahun, Jigawa 25,000 metric tonnes (MTs); Kaduna, Kaduna 25,000 MTs; Gombe, Gombe 25,000 MTs; Jos, Plateau 25,000MTs; Minna; Niger 25,000 MTs; Ilorin, Kwara 25,000 MTs; Lafiaji, Kwara 11,000 MTs; Makurdi; Benue 25,000 MTs; Ibadan; Oyo 25,000 MTs; Akure; Ondo 25,000 MTs; and Irrua, Edo 25,000 MTs.

Others are Ogoja, Cross-River 25,000 MTs; Ezillo, Ebonyi 25,000 MTs; Dutsin-man, Katsins 25,000MTs; Sokoto, Sokoto 25,000MTs; Bulasa, Kebbi 100,000MTs; Gwagwalada, FCT Abuja 100,000MTs; Ilesha, Osun 25,000; Gusau, Zamfara 100,000MTs; Gaya, Kano 25,000MTs; Yola, Adamawa 25,000MTs; Bauchi, Bauchi 25,000MTs; Jalingo, Taraba 25,000; Maidiguri, Borno 100,000; Lafia, Nasarawa 25,000; Ikenne, Ogun 25,000; Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti 100,000; Lokoja, Kogi 25,000; Igbariam, Anambra 25,000; Uyo, Akwa-Ibom, 25,000; Damaturu, Yobe 25,000; Yenagoa, Bayelsa 100,000; and Okigwe, Imo 100,000.

Meanwhile, as part of solutions to the multifaceted challenges, the Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE) and the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Material Science and Technology (Empa), both in Switzerland, is currently developing an open-access data science-based mobile application, called, ‘Your Virtual Cold-chain Assistant (YVCCA),’ to enable smallholder farmers, aggregators and food traders to optimise their decisions on produce and farm management, and to gain access to sustainable private-sector operated cooling infrastructures. The project was launched in September for Nigeria.

The expansion of the project is commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and is being carried out by BASE in partnership with Empa on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (GmbH).

The project is the expansion of BASE and Empa’s efforts in India, which started in January, as part of the DataDotOrg Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge, piloted in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.

“With the use of business model innovation, digitalisation and data science, our interdisciplinary team is working in close collaboration with local entrepreneurs and other stakeholders in Nigeria to strengthen the agricultural cold chain and generate measurable environmental and social impact,” Thomas Motmans, Project Lead at BASE, said.

Project lead at Empa, Dr. Daniel Onwude, said: “We are now gathering data and building the relevant models. The innovation aims to use a proactive and sustainable data science approach by upcycling the many data sources available in the food supply chain into ready-made information to save food and improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers in Nigeria.”
 


Farmers and other value chain players gain access to the most efficient, reliable and sustainable off-grid cooling while only paying for the amount of food they store (per kg-day) in the cold rooms, avoiding any upfront investment. BASE has significant experience with this business model, as the Swiss not-for-profit launched the Cooling as a Service Initiative in 2018 and since then, supported the mainstreaming of the model in markets around the world.
 
They explained that service providers own and maintain the solar power cooling facilities, thereby covering the operational costs. This long-term commitment serves as an incentive for them to install the most energy-efficient equipment, and perform high-quality maintenance.
 
Farmers and venders connect to cold room operators through an app called Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant Application, which allows farmers to monitor the quality of their crops in real-time and provide access to tailored market intelligence to maximise their net profit while leveraging the extended shelf life enabled by cooling.
 
To do this, the project team uses various data inputs on weather, market volume and location, satellite images, fresh-produce yields, hydro-thermal cold-storage sensors, forecast remaining shelf life of produce, and real-time market prices.
 
The project also aims at identifying smallholder farmers that currently do not have access to cooling facilities and have the largest potential to adopt and implement the solution.
 
The app forecasts the remaining post-harvest life of fresh produce for the current cold storage conditions. Physics-based modelling is being used at this stage, fed by data on quality at harvest and the measured temperature and humidity in the storage room, based on wireless sensor data transfer.

The app also predicts the current quality of the stored food. A computer-vision powered application would assess the quality of the produce at harvest that is being stored in the cooling facility.

In addition, the BASE and Empa teams are planning to map relevant open-source data into an openly-accessible multi-layered map of Nigeria, accessible by anyone in the world without having to download the data. The map would be able to tell which location or states in Nigeria has the lowest shelf life gain with a very high cooling demand. This information will help different stakeholders in the fresh produce value chain, especially the government, take proactive measures to reduce food waste.

The groups are closely collaborating with local cold service providers starting with Coldhubs, and exploring partnerships with other key local stakeholders such as Data Science Nigeria and InfraCredit.
 
The Guardian gathered that the project would be piloted in three states (two northern states and one in the south) based on the requirement of key local partners.
 
When fully developed, the app would be open source, meaning anyone, including the government, could key in and upscale to other states and other agricultural value chains.

 
This could also bring the government traction and help gather more data in the government repository to implement in other states in Nigeria easily.
 
Teams from BASE and Empa visited Nigeria between 25 October to 4 November to launch the project and met local stakeholders to grasp the realities that would shape the future of the project.

The project team that traveled on the ground, composed of Dr. Roberta Evangelista and Thomas Motmans from BASE and Kanaha Shoji and Dr. Daniel Onwude from Empa, described the trip as being exceptionally insightful and dense, filled with learnings that were already being integrated into the design of the solution.

 
The project team kicked off-key partnerships in Nigeria, beginning with reconnecting with ColdHubs Limited, a clean cooling technology company, which previously worked with BASE on an initiative and leading the way in the provision of decentralised, solar-based cold storage offered under a pay-per-crate model.
 
Together with Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, the CEO of ColdHubs, the team met with the core team to delve into the strategic and technical details of the project.
 
According to Nneameka, “It is a fantastic project. It will be a game-changer.” Chinedu Hardy Nwadike, who manages the project from ColdHubs’ side, said, “Your VCCA handles everything we have headaches with.”
 
The project team also visited several sites where ColdHubs rooms are located, such as the Mile 12 market in Lagos, one of the largest in the country, and other market-gate cold rooms in Owerri, Abuja and Jos.
 
The detailed questions asked to the smallholder farmers and traders revealed the day-to-day challenges they encountered in terms of accessing storage facilities and coping with market uncertainty. With their needs in mind, the team spoke to room operators to gain an overarching view of the cold chain landscape, identifying ways that Your VCCA could bridge the gap between those in need and those that could provide, all while making the services affordable and more energy efficient.
 
Equipped with the first mobile application prototype, the team was able to share it with the cold room operators and receive feedback on the user interface.   
 
Overall, the operators agreed that the app was simple to use and would make inventory management a lot easier. The functionalities that were primarily tested pertained to the digitalisation of the cold room inventory: the mobile application enables seamless digitalised check-in, check-out and tracking of the product in the rooms, serving as an effective alternative to the hand-written register books in use today.

A more extensive description of the mission trip by the project team to Nigeria is available and more information about the project are available on the official project website www.yourvcca.org, which also includes a fact sheet of the project.

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