Cold storage is a hot topic in east Africa

Cold storage facilities have clear potential to help smallholder farmers reduce post-harvest food losses in east Africa. Yet a clear and proven business model for doing that does not yet exist.

That is why the Rabo Foundation recently hosted a round table meeting in Nairobi, Kenya to connect players in the fresh produce supply chain. They discussed the challenges of cold storage at smallholder level and explored market driven, scalable cold storage solutions. Sixteen organizations attended the round table meeting. Crucially, they each represented different parts in the fresh produce value chain, bringing a range of perspectives to the table. Together the participants explored issues relating to finance, production, storage, packaging, distribution, and markets.

Despite its obvious potential, all participants at the round table agreed that cold storage won’t be a stand-alone solution to the food loss and waste dilemma. Chef Kiran Jethwa illustrated this perfectly by using waste produce to create a delicious three-course meal at the round table. It was an inspiring example of how redefining “food waste” can complement cold storage solutions.

Lieke Verhofstad coordinated the event on behalf of Rabo Foundation. She deliberately invited organizations that would bring different perspectives. She was confident that a shared understanding would generate the cooperative approach needed. And it seems her hunch was correct. “Everyone was very enthusiastic about working together,” she explains. “It was even more encouraging that they all came away from the round table wanting to continue to work together, and to expand their networks beyond that small group in Nairobi.”

Partnerships are essential for innovation

The round table initiated several promising connections, including one between Rockefeller Foundation and Zucchini Greengrocery Limited, a fresh produce retailer that buys direct from local farmers.

Betty Kibaara leads Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise program, an initiative to reduce food loss in African fresh produce chains. “We are now in discussion with Zucchini on a potential partnership to test innovative models of delivering safe fruits and vegetables to the low income population,” she explains. “We are also linking Zucchini with a network of over 5,000 farmers who can supply various products.”

Microfinance institution Grafco also connected with Zucchini Greengrocery Limited. Zucchini Greengrocery represents a promising new market for Grafco’s smallholder customers. Grafco’s ability to expand Zucchini’s supplier base makes this a potentially powerful connection for both players. Hopefully, as a result of their participation at the round table, Enviu, a sustainable business developer, might be about to change that. Enviu is developing a pilot project to assess the feasibility of using cold storage facilities in the field. Rabo Foundation is keen to work together with them in this pilot and hopes others will also join.

Surprisingly, there is still not a clear business case for using cold storage facilities at the smallholder level. Nor is it obvious at which point in the value chain facilities will have the most impact. So appropriate business models and acceptable margins throughout the entire value chain, based on market entry price, are key to success.

The next steps are promising

Lieke Verhofstad hopes that a proof-of-concept will create the momentum needed to use cold storage at scale, which is also key to avoiding import substitution. “Once we establish an appropriate business model, it will give us a basis for an integrated approach. We need partnerships to provide technical support to smallholders, (how to harvest sustainably, how to aggregate) to facilitate access to finance and to respond to variations in supply and demand. Then we will really start to see some significant reductions in food loss, and importantly, associated improvements in food security.”

Until then, many opportunities remain for organizations to engage all along the fresh produce value chain. The round table might have finished, but the conversation is still wide open.

“We will really start to see some significant reductions in food loss, and improvements in food security”

Lieke Verhofstad, Rabo Foundation