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The innovator bringing solar fridges to Nigeria’s markets

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Emeke Obanor

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu started ColdHubs to make sure more of the food grown in Nigeria gets eaten.
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Off-grid pay-as-you-store cold rooms are helping market traders sell more and waste less.

In a country plagued by food insecurity, preserving produce is vital. And one Nigerian entrepreneur has helped prevent thousands of truckloads of fruit and vegetables from going to waste.

The solution was home grown. While the problem of food spoilage and waste may be global, solving it in Nigeria is nothing like solving it in, say, the Netherlands.

A ColdHubs cold room in Owerri, Nigeria – one of 24 in the country.

Take fruit and vegetables. Countries in Africa waste roughly the same amount of fruit and veg as Europe and North America. But in richer countries, most of that loss happens either at the farm (often because crops fail to meet retailers’ standards of cosmetic perfection) or in the fridges and fruit bowls of the people who end up buying it. Thanks to robust infrastructure, not much is wasted during the processing, distribution and retail stages in between.

In countries like Nigeria, it’s the other way round: farmers and consumers discard very little, but huge amounts are lost on the way from one to the other, as cucumbers, cauliflowers, bananas and broccoli wilt in the heat, get punctured by rough raffia baskets, or are bruised as they’re trucked along bumpy roads to the marketplace.

While in some countries food waste is framed as an environmental problem, here it is about food security. Supplies are already insecure for many. Any loss of food exacerbates this, and drives up prices, contributing to undernourishment.

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu already knew all this, because he grew up on a farm in Owerri, Nigeria, cultivating cassava, yams and various vegetables, and keeping poultry, goats and guinea pigs. But instead of going into farming himself, he pursued a career as a radio journalist, making educational shows about agriculture. He has spent years travelling the country, talking to farmers.

One day in 2013 Nnaemeka had an idea. He was on the road in Nigeria’s Jos Plateau, and turned up at a market to interview some traders for a show about cabbages. “I saw there was a lot of spoilage,” he tells 5. He also saw how frustrated people were at food being spoiled.

This woman sells fresh fruit juice and herbs.

Around here, the temperature is often above 30°C and rarely below 23°C, so food doesn’t stay fresh long. Produce with a bit of life left in it might be sold cheaply to restaurants or hotels, or failing that, for animal feed. But a lot of it just has to be thrown away.

“I grabbed a man at the market and asked him, what can be done,” says Nnaemeka. “And he said if they had a form of cold storage in the market then it would be better for them.”

“Farmers told me that it was a good technology but they could not buy it”

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu

So Nnaemeka built one. His first cold room was a little more than a metre squared, and two metres high – just enough to demonstrate the concept. He made it solar powered so it can run off-grid – sidestepping problems with unreliable power supplies. When he took it around the country to show farmers, Nnaemeka says, “most farmers I met told me that it was a good technology that was meeting their needs, but they could not buy it.”

But he didn’t give up there. Instead of trying to sell the hardware, Nnaemeka opted for a pay-as-you-store model, retaining ownership of the cold rooms and charging people to use them, per crate per day. That way, it’s accessible for big operators as well as sellers who just run one small stall. In 2015, with backing from impact investor Factor[e] Ventures and startup accelerator Fledge, ColdHubs was born.

Today more than 3,500 farmers and market sellers carry ColdHubs cards that let them store their produce, extending its life from two days to 21. Nnaemeka says this reduces spoilage by 80%, and increases smallholders’ incomes by a quarter. He estimates the cold rooms have already helped save more than 20,000 tonnes of food from spoilage, getting more food to people, more revenue to farmers and creating jobs in the process. “What we’ve done is to liberalise the opportunity to have cold storage,” says Nnaemeka.

While food waste is clearly a pressing environmental concern, for ColdHubs users, “the major driver is economic”, says Nnaemeka. “The investment in food production, in water, fertilisers, in running generators… the investment is huge. If you don’t sell the food it’s all been wasted.”

The pay-as-you-store model means even small stall operators can benefit.

Nnaemeka now wants to take ColdHubs to other countries such as South Sudan and Kenya.

Twenty-four ColdHubs are already in operation, covering 13 of Nigeria’s 36 states. A further 30 are being built. As well as extending its coverage in Nigeria, ColdHubs is planning to expand to South Sudan, and looking at other countries including  Sierra Leone, Liberia, Benin and Kenya.

“It’s a local technology that solves a local problem”

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu

Tackling food loss is just one of Nnaemeka’s projects. He also set up Nigeria’s Smallholders Foundation and still appears on the radio. But he’s particularly proud of ColdHubs. “We developed it from our local understanding of the problem, with technology that is available here and in Europe, bringing the two together,” he says. “It’s a local technology that solves a local problem and meets local people at the point of their need. I’m very proud.”

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