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Strengthening the weak link

Production and value additions

Cold chains

Development of the cold chain in ACP countries is necessary if they are to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of reducing food waste. Poor access to cold chains impacts food and nutrition security, while also hampering agricultural development and the emergence of an efficient agri-food sector.

Preserving the quality and safety of food products from slaughterhouse, fishing or harvesting sites to the final consumer is the goal of cold chains. The different steps in this system include postharvest storage, processing, transport and marketing. Unfortunately, the lack of reliable electrical power often limits cold chain use in ACP countries, despite the vital need for this technology due to high prevailing temperatures.

According to a 2011 FAO report, Global Food Losses and Food Waste, in sub-Saharan Africa alone the lack of a reliable cold chain is responsible for an estimated loss of about 30% in meat commodities and 50% in roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables. The situation is not much better in the Caribbean where high quantities of tropical fruits and tubers are regularly lost during inter-island shipping. At the Carrier Summit on world cold chains held in Singapore in December 2016, Mohammed Majeed, lecturer at the University of the West Indies (Trinidad and Tobago), reported weekly postharvest commodity losses of 375-425 t between Barbados, Trinidad and Saint Vincent. The same problems affect pepper exports from Trinidad and Tobago to Canada, with up to 52% of postharvest losses caused by cold chain interruption.

These losses are inevitable without cold chain infrastructure. But the cold storage capacity of developing countries is tenfold lower than that of developed countries on average, and even lower in sub-Saharan Africa. A 2014 FAO policy brief, Developing the Cold Chain in the Agrifood Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa,based on different sectors (meat, milk and dairy products, seafood, fruit and vegetables), revealed substantial differences in the per-capita cold storage capacity between countries, which ranged from 2 l in urban centres in Ethiopia to 15 l in South Africa compared to around 200 l in developed countries.

Health and economy threatened

Food losses resulting from an insufficient refrigeration system have direct impacts on food and nutrition security of communities in ACP countries. Perishables (mainly fruit and vegetables) start degrading immediately after harvest, resulting in loss of produce weight, texture, taste, appearance and nutritional value. This degradation can be considerably stalled by cooling, thus increasing the shelf life of the commodity. According to a 2015 University of Nottingham report, The Impact of Reducing Food Loss in the Global Cold Chain, 190 million pre-school age children and 19 million pregnant women are at risk of severe visual impairment or blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. The degradation of such vitamins in food can be considerably stalled by cooling, thus increasing the nutritional value, as well as shelf life, of agricultural commodities.

Markets are also affected by the lack of access to efficient cold chains. Many farmers without means to preserve their excess produce are obliged to sell it at low prices in saturated markets. EU initiatives to streamline health standards have also significantly limited the marketing of refrigeration-dependent commodities. In the early 2000s, for example, when the Beninese shrimp sector was booming, export of these shellfish to markets in Europe was banned due to a lack of compliance with European standards. This led to an estimated loss of 60,000 jobs in Benin.

Investment and regulation

Cold chains must only be developed if they are environment-friendly. In addition to high power consumption, refrigerant gases (hydrofluorocarbons [HFCs]) involved in cold chains are responsible for high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Didier Coulomb, director general of the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR), an intergovernmental body which promotes scientific and technical knowledge on refrigeration, welcomed a 2016 international agreement in which 197 countries committed themselves to halting HFC use by 2050. Coulomb states that this commitment will require heavy investment and long-term policies, however recent studies have shown that suitable cold chain technologies can reduce GHG emissions by 50%.

IIR primarily aims to encourage governments to set up and regulate cold chains. Recent statements by the United Nations – which considers that refrigeration is decisive for food security – have boosted awareness. But there is still much to be done according to Coulomb, who stresses the importance of political commitment to ensure the involvement of local private stakeholders and funding agencies, including the World Bank and regional development banks.

Will solar power ensure the future of the cold chain?

Some countries have built cold chain infrastructure, but mainly for the refrigeration of produce for export or local urban markets. Kenya, for instance, has invested in refrigeration technology to preserve the quality of flowers and green beans for export. Remote rural areas do not benefit from these facilities, which are primarily geared towards agribusiness.

Some initiatives have nevertheless been set up to serve these rural areas, such as ColdHubs, a Nigerian start-up producing modular solar-powered cold storage rooms with the capacity to hold 2 t of food. Installed at farms and markets, ColdHubs provides 24/7 off-grid cold storage for perishable farm produce with the potential to extend freshness by up to 20 days. Farmers are charged a flat fee for each crate of food they store in the cold storage room.

In Uganda, Station Energy has developed similar solar-powered cold storage units for cooling and freezing produce in isolated areas – farm cooperatives are the main targeted users. Station Energy has calculated that the yearly economic benefit for a farmer renting 1 m3 of cold space will be €5,250. Solar energy has proven to be an interesting option for the development of independent refrigeration systems. The problems to be overcome are the costs involved in scaling-up production of solar powered storage units and ensuring a steady flow within the cold chain, which is crucial.  

A private partnership for refrigeration

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), in partnership with the Indian company UPL Limited, launched an initiative to boost cold storage capacity in Africa at the World Economic Forum in Kigali in May 2016. This public-private partnership, with US$2 million (€1.82 million) in funding support, aims to benefit 100 million people. The project is still in its infancy, but substantial knowledge and experience have already been gained, as indicated by Valentine Miheso, head of financial inclusion at AGRA, “The pilot project set up in Kenya is targeting 3,000 potato producers. It was built based on experience in India which, over a 50 year period, was able to transform its production through the use of refrigeration and improved seeds. A 3,000 t capacity refrigeration unit was built with funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. This now belongs to farmers’ organisations and farmers are obliged to pay a fee to store their produce”. Future developments are planned in Rwanda and Uganda.

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