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Shared solar fridges prevent massive waste in Nigerian markets

Design: Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

Food producers and traders in Africa waste thousands of tonnes of food every year. And yet Africa is the most food insecure region in the world. This paradox is mainly generated by the absence of a commonplace item in developed countries: the refrigerator. In Nigeria, Nnaemeka C. Ikegwuonu wants to change this by introducing shared solar refrigerators in the markets.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news. It is the eighth episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World".

In the Obinze market in southern Nigeria, customers have packed their bags. The sale is over and the kilos of courgettes, tomatoes and cabbage are piling up on the asphalt. The smell is sometimes overpowering. Ahmad Makiala, one of the dozens of cabbage sellers, stands there, resigned, watching his unsold goods rot at the bottom of his wicker baskets. "I often lose up to 40% of my investment. It hurts me but there's nothing I can do about it. It's part of my business," says the 22-year-old retailer. Another 7,000 nairas (15 euros / CHF 16.4) were lost, out of the 17,000 nairas (37 euros / CHF 39.90) that came out of his pocket to buy his cabbages that day. "Rain and heat are huge problems for us. The cabbages are rotting, we can't keep them," sighs the young Nigerian.

But recently, Ahmad Makiala has been smiling again. His wallet is much fuller than before. Because at the entrance to the Obinze market, a strange container has appeared. The cold room, refrigerated thanks to solar panels on its roof, allows the local traders to store their fruit and vegetables and thus increase their shelf life from 2 to 21 days. Called "ColdHubs", this shared container can store up to three tonnes of perishable goods at the same time. A new ritual has been introduced in Obinze before each market starts: the traders line up, plastic crates in hand, before entering the refrigerated room to deposit their goods.

Up to 50% loss of goods

At 100 nairas (0.22 € / CHF 0.23) per 20-kilogram crate per day, all of them pay a relatively small sum compared to the losses they incur each month due to the deterioration of their products. In Nigeria, food waste is a real scourge. "93 million small-scale farmers and supply chain actors are affected. They lose almost half of their fruit and vegetables because they cannot afford to keep them fresh. They lose almost a quarter of their annual income," says Nnaemeka C. Ikegwuonu, the founder of the ColdHubs.

Clément Jous, SWISSAID's agro-ecology project manager, is making the same observation from the Chadian desert, 1,300 kilometres away in Nigeria. Food wastage affects the whole of Africa, mainly due to the lack of a piece of equipment which is commonplace in developed countries: the refrigerator. Clément Jous:

"This is a serious problem. Even the wealthiest civil servants don't have a fridge. It's extremely expensive! More than 300,000 FCFA (450 €/ CHF 484). Producers and traders often don't have the means to invest such a sum, so they can't keep their products. And those who do invest are confronted with numerous power cuts. When this happens, their fridge is useless to them."

Read the article in French: Ces frigos solaires partagés évitent un gaspillage massif sur les marchés nigérians

In the stalemate, African sellers of perishable goods often have no choice but to throw away much of their merchandise. Nnaemeka C. Ikegwuonu saw this for years when he was a radio reporter for the Smallholders Foundation, a non-governmental organisation committed to promoting more sustainable agriculture. Microphone in hand, the Nigerian travelled through the bush to reach out to rural communities in his country.

In 2013, it all clicked. Nnaemeka C. Ikegwuonu was recording a report on cabbage farmers in Plateau State, central Nigeria. "I saw a lot, but really a lot of cabbage being wasted. It struck me that none of our markets had storage capacity for all these fresh fruits and vegetables," he said. A few months later, the reporter dropped his microphone to become an entrepreneur: the ColdHubs was born.

Vegetables preserved, monthly income doubled

Since then, 24 shared cold rooms have been set up in markets and farm clusters across Nigeria. Every day, 3,500 producers and retailers store their produce there. The Nigerian entrepreneur has done the math: on average, his ColdHubs have enabled his customers to double their monthly income to 56,000 nairas (€122.1 / CHF 131.4). The reason why traders and farmers earn so much money from a simple fridge is that the longer they keep their perishable goods, the higher their value. Clément Jous, a pedagogue, takes the example of a 120 kg bag of onions:

"At present, producers are obliged to sell it directly after the harvest, because they can't keep anything. They will get about 11,000 FCFA (16 euros). But the more time passes, the higher the prices. If they had sold the bag in October, they could have got ten times more! At that point, it becomes a really good deal for them."

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A solution soon to be exported elsewhere in Africa

Last year, ColdHubs saved 20,400 tonnes of fruit and vegetables from rotting in Nigeria. And their boss doesn't intend to stop there. Thirty new shared ColdHubs are expected to be deployed in the field by the end of the year. He and his 47 employees are also preparing to export them for the first time to Burkina Faso, Liberia, Mali and South Sudan. Nnaemeka C. Ikegwuonu:

"I am proud to be an African who has found a solution to an African problem. I truly believe that it is up to us to solve the problems facing our continent."

All starting with food insecurity, which affects more and more Africans every year. More than 19% of Africans were undernourished in 2019, compared with 17.6% five years earlier, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Africa, the area with the highest population growth, will be home to more than a quarter of the world's inhabitants in 2050. So how can we feed this growing population?

For the Nigerian boss, the challenge is surmountable. The first step would be to provide African vendors with the necessary infrastructure to enable them to stop wasting their food. This is the ambition of his ColdHubs, on a smaller scale. On the continent, the task is vast: sub-Saharan Africa wastes nearly 150 kilos of food per year per inhabitant, according to FAO estimates. This is despite food tensions which, due to demographic pressure, are likely to worsen in the coming years if nothing is done to thwart the forecasts.

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Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in the Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year he published Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.

11 African solutions for the future world