Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu: “Policymakers should see innovators as partners for progress”

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Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu's viewpoint

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, founder and CEO of ColdHubs, which provides solar powered cold storage facilities to farmers in Nigeria, shares his thoughts on green energy innovations and their place in agricultural value chains.

What are the benefits of integrating green energy into agricultural value chains?

At every point in the value chain there is a need for power. That power is not always readily accessible, especially in rural areas where agricultural value chains commence. For production, we need energy, for processing we need energy to create products, and for marketing and distribution, we need energy to run the digital tools and transportation methods we rely on. For all parts of the value chain, green energy is essential because power is essential.

Why did you decide to produce cold storage units that run on solar power?

The decision to produce solar-powered cold storage came about as a result of our desire to eliminate food spoilage due to a lack of refrigerated facilities – essential post-harvest infrastructure needed to extend the shelf life of fresh fruits, vegetables and other perishable food. To run the cold units, we needed access to energy, which is incredibly unreliable in Nigeria. We therefore wanted a system where we were the ones in control of our energy generation and electricity infrastructure, and our best option was to incorporate solar power.

Our solar panels generate 5,500 W of energy every hour, but we use only about 1,000 W per hour to power each of our cold rooms. The cold rooms can store up to 3 t of food each, and the temperature can be adjusted from 12°C to 16°C depending on the commodity. At the moment, we have 11 units and 19 more in different stages of completion. Last year, our units were accessed by 650 farmers and saved 11,400 t of food from spoiling. As a result, farmers increased their incomes from around €50 to over €100 per month, simply by eliminating their previous post-harvest losses due to lack of refrigeration.

ColdHubs won first place in the 2018 Nigeria Africa Energy Ideas Competition. What is the key to the company’s success and how do you plan to develop into the future?

We are expanding rapidly and aim to have 30 cold rooms – all of the same size – up and running by the end of 2019. In 2020, we aim to increase this further to 100 cold rooms across Nigeria. Our goal is to make sure that 45,000 smallholder farmers have access to cold storage by 2030, using a pay-as-you-store model. Through this model, farmers pay based on the amount of fruit and vegetables they store in our units, with one 20 kg plastic crate costing €0.44.

In addition to deploying the technology in rural areas, our company tackles limited awareness of best post-harvest practices for perishable food among farmers and other food supply chain actors. Training sessions are held to impart comprehensive skills and knowledge on post-harvest management, using educational comics published in the local language. We also conduct 5-day post-harvest management classes, educating farmers on the best practices to avoid spoilage at the market, the nutritional value of high-quality fruits and vegetables, and the financial gains of delivering high-quality produce, among other topics.

Have you come across any other promising agricultural innovations that use green energy?

Apart from cold storage, I am fascinated by solar-powered irrigation pumps. They are gradually springing up all across Nigeria. They might look like simple, small pieces of equipment, but solar-powered irrigation pumps are actually providing a critical service to farmers. Farmers are unable to pump by hand the vast amounts of water they require for production, thus, those who have the means to buy a small pump, find that solar technology is very helpful in enhancing access to water. I have seen amazing work being done using these small-scale irrigation pumps and I think they are something which should be scaled up all across the developing world.

How can policymakers support the development of more innovations that help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector?

Policymakers should see innovators as partners for progress. What we are asking for is a conducive environment to run our businesses, and this might be in the form of granting tax rebates, extending repayable grants to innovators or putting pressure on banks to provide cheaper loans. For ColdHubs, we are seeking a mixture of such services to deploy 500 cold rooms by 2030. We also need help to make sure that the wider business environment is not against us, is open to new ideas and change, and will help our business to grow.