“Once you pluck a tomato, you have a maximum of two days,” muses Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, weighing a ripe red fruit in his hand. “If you don’t sell, you lose it. But in the process of cultivating that one tomato, you are investing in labor, soil, fertilizer, irrigation and herbicides. That whole investment, you lose it if you cannot sell that tomato.”
“It didn’t make sense to us,’’ he adds. “In our world of so much advancement in science and technology, there is no need for you to lose it. You can save that tomato, sell it, make a profit.” Through his cold storage company, ColdHubs, Ikegwuonu has set out to harness the power of solar technology to help Nigerian farmers, retailers and wholesalers do just that: save their produce, boost their incomes and ensure that fresh food is available across the country.
With a background in community radio, Ikegwuonu might not seem the most likely candidate to shake up Nigerian agriculture. But he explains that he spent years traveling through rural areas across the county, talking to farmers about the challenges they faced.
“They identified the problem of post-harvest losses due to lack of cooling,” he remembers, estimating that farmers lose up to 60 percent of their produce to spoilage. “Access to cooling is hampered by lack of energy, but at that point, in 2014, people hadn’t figured out that you can actually use solar to generate energy and store it in batteries.”
A man of boundless drive and infectious enthusiasm, Ikegwuonu set out to solve the problem himself. Working with a small team, he built a cold room powered by the type of air conditioner usually mounted in a window. Uptake among farmers was so good that the idea of a “pay-as-you-store” cooler business was born.
Today ColdHubs, one of four finalists in the Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge, deploys 15 solar-powered walk-in coolers on farms and in markets across Nigeria, with 20 more on the way. Users pay 100 naira (about $0.30) per crate to store their produce inside. “We are trying to deploy a seamless cold chain from the farm to the market, making more nutritious, safe, hygienic food available for Nigerians,” Ikegwuonu explains.
The units can store up to three tons of food at between 12 and 16 degrees Celcius, and with their 120mm-thick insulated walls, galvanized steel floors and gasket-sealed doors, they are built for efficiency. They run on a block refrigeration system that draws a kilowatt of energy every hour, but each cooler has enough solar panels and batteries to generate 5.5 kilowatts; the system is oversized, Ikegwuonu explains, to account for any number of cloudy days.
“This country is a country of low trust,” he confides. “We did not want Nigerians to question our integrity. If you deploy a technology and it fails, nobody will give you a chance again. So we built a huge energy bank so that we can have energy at every point in time.”
The company also chose to use high-quality batteries, solar panels and inverters from the beginning, all purchased from Europe. Ikegwuonu says it can take up to six months to receive these materials, and import duties can add 20 percent to the cost of each item. But he thinks the investment has been worth it.
“One of the reasons we’ve not had a lot of challenges with the solar systems was we set out from day one to build cold rooms and never to go back for any technical solution again,” he explains. Imported products may be expensive, he adds, “but they give us a very, very robust supply of energy.”
Despite the imported parts, Ikegwuonu is quick to point out the importance of the fact that ColdHubs is a home-grown Nigerian company, with 60 percent of each cooler made locally. “Locally made technology is built around the people, the behavior of the people, their knowledge, their practices, the way they think. A technology that is made locally creates greater adoption, telling our own people that we made these, we are Nigerians, we are part of you, we understand the problem. It creates quicker trust and adoption,” he says.
The pioneering approach
The units’ distribution is strategic. In northern Nigeria, the country’s “food belt”, ColdHubs has placed coolers in farming clusters in order to store the new harvest. In the more urbanized south, home to a middle class hungry for high-quality produce, they put coolers in markets for retailers and wholesalers to use. Ikegwuonu estimates they have around 625 users in total, with five or six more signing up every day.
Most of these clients have never had access to cold storage before. “Our farms are situated in very remote areas,” he explains. “Deploying an expensive technology to those farms is very difficult. Most of the people that tried cold storage in the past were not able to break even because of energy costs. Nobody has done it in this country, in markets and farms. We were the first.”
But, he adds, “I consider myself and the rest of the people that work with me as thinkers. We are inspired by the fact that the agricultural sector in Nigeria needs a lot of modern thinking, a lot of creative thoughts, because at the moment it is driven by traditional practices.”
This pioneering approach has created some hurdles for the young company, particularly when it came to getting clients to accept the idea. People didn’t believe that tomatoes could be kept in cold storage without spoiling, for example, and it wasn’t until ColdHubs began offering free trials that farmers and traders gradually began to sign on.
People like Joy Franklin, on the other hand, needed little convincing. A farmer for the past 13 years, Franklin grows a variety of local greens like water leaf, scent leaf and bitter leaf to sell in a nearby market. Before she discovered ColdHubs last year, she says, “we preserved our vegetables under a shade. We just spread them somewhere so they wouldn’t get spoiled, but they wouldn’t last a day.”
She remembers losing around half of her greens to spoilage. “I felt very bad when our vegetables went bad because even if we couldn’t sell them, we still had to pay for transportation and the people that helped us harvest them,” she recalls. But cold storage, says Franklin, can keep the same produce fresh for weeks.
On the retail end, fruit and vegetable trader Festus Mbwemene had been concerned for years about his wares going bad in transit. Though he sells his produce in a market in southern Nigeria, he regularly makes the long journey up north to buy directly from farmers. For him using cold storage means less time spent on the road, since he can now buy in bulk without worrying about the goods going bad before he can sell them.
“Before, I used to travel two or three times a week,” explains Mbwemene. “But now I only travel once. If we buy larger quantities, we save the cost of traveling, then we store them. Now we make more gain than before.”
Dreams of expansion
“Since we launched this company in December 2016, we’ve never lost one customer,” insists Ikegwuonu. At the moment the company’s biggest problem is too much demand, with each new unit filling up within days; building bigger cold rooms poses a whole new set of engineering challenges, something Ikegwuonu is already working on.
“We are dreaming very big,” he says, his eyes shining as he talks about expansion. “We want to have cold hubs in every strategic location in the markets in Nigeria, in all the farm clusters, the coastal communities preserving fish, all the abattoirs preserving meats. Our goal is to deploy up to 200,000 cold hubs over the next five to ten years.”
Nor does he plan to stop there. Not only has ColdHubs attracted partnerships from Microsoft and USAID, it has also received attention from other African companies interested in introducing the technology.
“Yesterday we had a request from Equatorial Guinea,” marvels Ikegwuonu. “We’ve received requests from Senegal, Rwanda, Mali, Niger, Kenya, over and over from Rwanda, from South Africa. I tell people that if you can develop a technology in Nigeria, test it in Nigeria, succeed in Nigeria, you can deploy it to any African country.”
“We want to deploy up to a million cold hubs all across Africa within the coming years, and we know we can achieve it.” he says. “The need is there, and the solution is here.”
In the meantime, Ikegwuonu is undeniably proud of ColdHubs’ achievements. “By the end of this year we’re going to close having saved more than 40,000 tons of food from spoilage,” he beams. “That is what makes us go to bed very happy.”
The Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC) is a joint initiative with Energy 4 Impact, with the support of the Ideas to Impact programme, which is funded by the UK aid, and Power Africa’s Beyond the Grid initiative. ColdHubs also received funding through the Efficiency for Access Research and Development’s second funding call on cooling, which was supported by UK aid and the IKEA Foundation.