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Nigerian, other scientists improvise techs for food post-harvest management

By Femi Ibirogba
07 September 2022   |   1:00 pm
Dr. Daniel Onwude, from Empa-Swiss Federal Laboratories of Material Science and Technology, Switzerland, and his team have been working closely with another Swiss organization, Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE), led by Thomas Motmans...

Low-cost charcoal ‘cooling blanket’ for fruits and vegetables. It was tested with apples in crates. photo: Empa

Can low and high storage technology simultaneously reduce food loss and increase the income of small-holder farmers in Nigeria?

This question is currently answered by a Nigerian scientist, based in Switzerland.

Dr. Daniel Onwude, from Empa-Swiss Federal Laboratories of Material Science and Technology, Switzerland, and his team have been working closely with another Swiss organization, Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE), led by Thomas Motmans, to tackle the issue of food loss and poverty reduction among smallholder farmers in Nigeria. Small-holder farmers make up 90 per cent of Nigeria’s farming population, yet over 70 per cent still live below the poverty line.

The Empa and BASE team recently launched the Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant Project in Nigeria, as a scaled up of a similar project launched in India in 2021. The project aims to use open access, data-science-based mobile application to save food, improve food quality, reduce CO2 emissions, and enhance the income of smallholder farmers in Nigeria by encouraging cooling as a service model in decentralized solar-powered cold rooms.

By leveraging available farm input data such as weather data, historical hygro-thermal data in storage, data on the farming system, and so on, the project aims to use machine learning models coupled with physics-based modeling to provide small-holder farmers and cooling service providers with real-time information on remaining shelf life, weight loss, microbial spoilage, etc. and pre-and post-harvest market analytics during cold storage. To do this, these international bodies are currently piloting the project with ColdHub, a local cooling service provider in Nigeria led by Mr. Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu.

The team recently announced the release of the first version (Coldivate). Local cooling companies and operators are testing this app version in India and Nigeria. Updated versions of Coldtivate will be released in late 2022, enabling farmers to access the existing and additional features on their smartphones.

Coldtivate will enable small-holder farmers to track the shelf-life of their stored fresh produce in real-time. For each checked-in crate, the app computes the ideal time for farmers to pick up their crops, i.e., it predicts the number of days that the fruit can last under the current storage conditions with a buffer time for bringing the crops to the market at ambient temperature. To make these calculations, the app integrates a crop-specific physics-based model known as ‘digital twins’ developed by Empa, which simulates how crops in a particular crate age inside the cold room in real-time.

The team also launched an interactive map to identify suitable cold room lo-cations in Nigeria. The aim of the visually engaging map is to fill the lacuna in ready-to-use, easy-digestible actionable data to aid in better decision-making that drives food loss reduction. This map also links food stakeholders of farmers, cold chain providers, retailers, and policymakers together. The interactive map was created using open-source data on fresh food sup-ply chains in Nigeria. The gathered raw open-source data include crop production data, market prices, weather, road network, market locations, mobile coverage, water access, water scarcity, and food insecurity.

To increase access to cooling in remote areas and farmers who cannot afford cooling in a decentralized cold room, Empa has also developed a low-tech charcoal-based “cooling blanket” to tackle this challenge. Led by Dr. Daniel Onwude and Prof. Thijs Defraeye, the charcoal cooler is designed to be low-cost and easy to make without any construction expertise.

Charcoal, readily available in Nigeria and most African countries, absorbs a lot of water as a result of its high porosity, which enables efficient evaporation with airflow, with a high cooling effect on fruits and vegetables. To use the charcoal, the researchers constructed their blanket with vertical segments filled with charcoal pieces. This creates self-supporting, malleable “walls” that are doused with water – and evaporation cools the space inside.

In drier and warmer climates, the researchers say, temperature could drop by 10 degrees or more. At the same time, the humidity inside can rise significantly, which is a natural protection against wilting. In a recent BBC interview, Dr. Onwude said that the goal is to use this low-tech cooling solution to reduce food loss and increase the income of farmers, as they will be able to sell more good quality produce at profitable prices.

This is a call to action to all relevant stakeholders of Nigeria’s fresh produce supply chain to key into this innovation towards achieving SDGs.