It was a passing conversation in a bustling Nairobi market that first got John Mbindyo thinking about coolers. Turning wilted spinach leaves over in his hand, Mbindyo asked the vendor how long his veggies lasted before they went bad. The answer: two to three days. Not much of a window, thought Mbindyo.
“I wish we had fridges,” confessed the vendor.
It was this simple exchange that inspired Mbindyo to establish FreshBox, a company that innovates cold storage solutions to increase the shelf life of produce in Kenya.
Nearly half of Kenyans live without access to the-grid, where cold storage for produce is practically nonexistent. As a result, shelf life is drastically reduced, and a considerable percentage of produce spoils before it can be consumed. Mbindyo explains that most fruit and vegetable vendors “get leaves, cover the produce when they close shop in the evening, come back in the morning, open it up and sell what they can. What they can’t sell they just throw away.”
A solution to the problem
At first, Mbindyo simply bought a standard commercial refrigerator and rented space to market vendors. “In two or three days it was fully booked,” he recalls. “I saw the demand at that point and tried to look for ways to make a bigger fridge that would accommodate more vendors. That was the birth of FreshBox.”
FreshBox designs and builds off-grid refrigerators that give Kenyans access to the type of agricultural cold chain most have never used before. At ten square meters, the basic unit is essentially just a refrigerated room. It’s insulated with polystyrene and uses a locally-made cooling system, all powered by four 260 watt solar panels and a 2,000 to 3,000 kilowatt inverter. Each cooler is custom made to suit the client, and can be scaled up as necessary.
The company is one of four finalists in the Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge, an impressive accomplishment for a 30 year-old entrepreneur whose own background is in IT, marketing and logistics. Working from the FreshBox headquarters in Nairobi, he does much of the assembly himself.
“I love solar, I really love seeing power coming from nowhere. So I really like seeing that come together,” says Mbindyo. “The fact that we’re able to turn solar, free energy, into a cooling mechanism, I feel like that’s the 9th wonder of the world.”
At the moment, there are only around ten units in operation; at $7,000, the basic cooler is still too pricey for most Kenyan farmers. But Mbindyo insists that FreshBox is actually one of the most affordable options available. Other commercially available coolers and DC solar fridges cost even more, and few are large enough to store agricultural products.
Mbindyo is certain that the demand is there. Larger players in the food supply chain have long been aware of the problem of spoilage, particularly with products like milk, berries, green beans and mangoes.
“They’re just waiting for the right solution,” says Mbindyo.
Some wealthier individuals purchase the FreshBox coolers outright, while others are bought or rented by farming cooperatives or produce aggregators who pay between $300 and $500 a month.
Storing freshly harvested fruits and vegetables in a cooler can increase shelf life by up to a week, and allows dairy farmers to increase their production by five or six times, Mbindyo explains. It also gives farmers more power to negotiate with the middlemen who buy their produce.
“I think that the Kenyan farmer doesn’t really understand the worth of their produce at the production point. Most are used to brokers coming in and buying at whichever price the brokers dictate.” With a cooler, “they now have time to look for different markets or tell a broker, ‘No, I’m not selling to you at that price.’ I think the moment when the Kenyan farmer gains back that power to dictate the price, they will be able to earn more and create more employment,” explains Mbindyo.
That this solution would have come from a local Kenyan company isn’t surprising; three of the four Cold Chain Challenge finalists are companies based in the countries where they operate. Although Mbindyo admits that electricity and materials can be more expensive in East Africa than they would be elsewhere, “We understand the market better. We’ve seen the problems and we know what solution fits best.”
Working with two business partners, the company was able to develop coolers that would be big enough for large-scale farmers and cooperatives to use, but which would function in areas with no or unreliable grid coverage. FreshBox has now been in operation for over two years, and, says Mbindyo, “We were able to come up with a product which we believe is what the market needs. We are enabling our customers to have an extra source of income that had been thrown away as spoiled food.”
Will it work?
But the FreshBox journey has not been completely smooth. Working with solar energy can be tricky, Mbindyo admits, particularly when it comes to identifying how much power each unit requires and sourcing the high-quality batteries needed to run a cooler for at least 16 hours. After-sales service can also be difficult and time consuming. Mbindyo spends long hours on the road to ensure the coolers are performing as intended and that his clients are satisfied.
One such client is Jasper Etali, manager of a large farm in central Kenya. The farm’s owner purchased a FreshBox in April, in the hopes of increasing his milk production from 150 liters a day to over 1,000. But, says Etali, the cooler hasn’t been working as expected; of the three batches of milk he has tried storing overnight, two have gone bad.
“I’m being honest, it has not been good,” he says. “Now my worry is, will it work?”
For Etali, using the cooler has been a frustrating experience. Each spoiled batch represents an entire day’s work, all rejected by the middleman who transports milk to Nairobi.
“The transporter is cautious of the quality of milk, because once he has taken it from us he’s responsible,” Etali explains. “When it has smell, it will be rejected at the factory because it will not last long.”
Each batch of milk is worth about $45, he adds. But that’s not the worst of it. “I have to explain to the owner of the business that today’s milk was rejected. And when I talk about the machine that he’s investing in to make things better, you feel bad. What should be making things better is actually making them worse. It’s demoralizing.”
Etali’s farm has access to grid power, but it’s unreliable. Before buying the FreshBox they had been using traditional methods to keep milk cool overnight, submerging large metal milk jugs in drums of water.
“The problem is that there is going to come a time when it is a bit hot and that system does not work,” he explains. “It’s not the best for large volumes of a very fragile product like milk. We want to invest in something better, something modern.”
Mbindyo has been troubleshooting with Etali for several months. He added another two batteries and replaced the solar panels, finally converting the unit to work on both solar and grid power. But rural settings all come with their own sets of challenges. The wrought iron shed that houses the unit intensifies the heat of the sun. Sometimes farm workers take advantage of the battery to charge other devices, such as phones or lamps. Mbindyo admits that he’s still experimenting with Etali’s FreshBox to get the temperature stable enough to store a delicate product like milk.
Despite his frustration, Etali himself hasn’t lost hope in the cooler, or in the tantalizing potential it offers.
“The demand for milk in this country is just too high. You cannot meet the demand for milk. And in this region you will not find animals as good as ours,” he exclaims. A cooler would allow them to store their milk for days, he adds, then transport it to Nairobi themselves and sell it for a better price.
“The cooling and preservation of milk is critical because if you can do that, the market is open. You can better plan for distribution,” says Etali. “We cannot operate at volume the traditional way, using drums. The cooler must be there. Then we will realize the full benefit of our efforts here.”
Learning and adapting
Problems like Etali’s have been learning experiences for the FreshBox team, as they adapt their design to meet the challenges of rural customers. Over time they have made adjustments to the insulation and seams, trying different joints and door shapes. Mbinyo says that for their next unit, they’ll place the power systems on top of the cooler, making it more difficult for people to charge other devices.
“It was a challenge to get a product that would provide the solution that we intended,” he says. “But I think there’s the zeal and motivation to do what can be done to perfect the product over time.”
Mbindyo’s dreams don’t stop at satisfied farmers; he hopes to make his cooling systems efficient enough to meet the high standards of food export or medical storage, and to develop smaller units for market vendors. “We want to be a cold storage chain, not a point,” he emphasizes. Every stage of Kenya’s food supply chain would benefit from cooling, and Mbindyo wants to help drive that change.
“I think these solar units should be very handy as you go into the interior,” muses Etali, thinking of his neighbors in central Kenya. “The government talks of electrification and giving power, but you know how long those programs take, and life must continue.”
“We need it,” he says. “Just make the thing work, and we will use it.”
Following the completion of this story, the technical issues with the FreshBox unit were resolved. From June to October 2019, the cold unit successfully chilled over 15.6 thousand liters of milk.