Growing Ideas: Solar fridge fights farm-level food loss

A cool way to reduce food waste

By harnessing solar energy, data and innovative financing arrangements, Ecozen has risen to the challenge of preventing food loss in Asia. It is now aiming to expand its offerings and broaden its geographical reach.

Last month Indian start-up Ecozen won the first-ever Food Loss Challenge Asia, a pitch competition encouraging solutions to the growing problem of food loss in the region. The company blends portable, physical technology with data to connect farmers and buyers along the perishables supply chain.

Their solar-powered cold room beat competition from four other finalists, a testament to its innovation and potential for improving the lot of smallholders, who make up more than 80 percent of the region’s farmers.

Renewable energy + cold storage

Ecozen’s offerings have evolved since the company got its start. “Since our college days, my co-founders and I wanted to build solutions enabling energy access and efficiency,” says COO and Co-founder Prateek Singhal. “Visits to smallholders in rural areas convinced us we could provide multiple solutions to address the problems they faced.”

Ecozen’s first product, Ecotron, is a solar-powered pump that helps bring irrigation to remote villages that don’t have reliable access to electricity. While solving one problem, Ecotron alerted them to another: farmers using the product were producing more, but their earnings were not rising accordingly. They either had to lower their prices to sell the extra produce or let it go to waste.

“That’s when we developed Ecofrost – a portable, solar-powered container that brings cold storage capacity to the farm,” he says. “This cooling infrastructure reduces waste at field level, increases shelf-life and gives farmers more control over when and where they sell their perishable items.”

“Farmers gain control over when they sell their perishable items”

- Prateek Singhal, Ecozen

Data connection

The company saw the opportunity to further develop their offerings when delivering refrigeration units to farmers. They are currently working on Ecoconnect, an information platform and app that will provide valuable data along the supply chain. It has the potential to greatly improve food security by opening up the perishables market to organized aggregators and supply chain companies while at the same time creating more markets for growers.

“Our units collect temperature and humidity level data in the cold rooms, which – with our data analytics – give an indication of produce quality,” says Singhal. “So we worked out that, by collecting this data and sharing it with buyers, we can vastly improve the perishables marketplace as well.”

Farmers and buyers share an Ecofrost cold storage unit at a market in Mandi, India.

Reaching more farmers

For Ecoconnect to truly deliver lower loss and better value along the supply chain, Ecozen needs to connect more farmers with more buyers. Put simply, that means delivering more cold storage units to farms.

To that end, the company has developed a more cost-effective unit that doesn’t compromise on quality. They have also taken a unique and flexible approach to sales. They can install units at markets, offering access to farmers and buyers alike on a pay-per-use basis. It can also lease the units to groups of farmers who use them for a minimum period of three months each.

“We realize not all smallholders are able to justify the upfront cost and we want to give as many farmers access to this cooling infrastructure as possible, so we are continually looking at new ways of helping them secure this,” says Singhal. “That includes working with local banks and other lenders to provide financing.”

Next steps

Ecozen is striving to grow both its product offering and geographical coverage and plans to pursue further funds over the coming months to realize its ambitions.

“One of the comments from judges was that we need to improve our engagement with perishables buyers,” says Singhal. “So as well as raising funds to produce more solar pumps, we want to scale up Ecofrost deliveries. Once we have more cooling units on the ground, we will be able to develop Ecoconnect more effectively.”

Winning the Food Loss Challenge Asia has already opened doors and led to introductions that should help Ecozen achieve its funding goals and provide the entire perishables supply chain with an all-round solution to inefficiency and waste.

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in these sectors.