Investment in rural refrigeration is about more than distributing medicines
Image credit: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Ashden
Vaccination programmes have highlighted the importance of cold-chain infrastructure that’s absent in many less prosperous countries. Sustainable solutions will provide a host of other long-term benefits.
In our overheating world, 2.2 billion people go without clean and efficient cooling. This puts their health at risk – but also their ability to earn a living. Those in danger include many millions of smallholder farmers in the world’s least wealthy countries. When they see their precious crops wither in the heat, or their carefully grown fruit and vegetables turn to sludge, they see hopes for a better life rotting away too.
Wider access to cooling would supercharge the rollout of coronavirus vaccines. But even without this huge incentive, investment in affordable, sustainable cooling is needed to raise living standards in villages around the world. Lack of cooling is one reason for the shocking amounts of food wasted every single day. This adds up to 1.3 billion tonnes of produce a year, or one-third of all food grown worldwide.
Conventional cooling technology is too expensive for most. Ironically, it is also a huge driver of the emissions fuelling the climate crisis – a major threat to these same smallholder farmers.
By contrast, scaling up sustainable, proven solutions can bring cool benefits to a wide range of farmers and producers, opening access to new markets and giving them a higher and more stable income. For these solutions to succeed, they must overcome the daily challenges faced by marginalised people – such as how to afford the up-front cost of new products and services, or how to keep equipment working when parts and mechanics are in short supply.
These barriers are big, but not insurmountable as long as innovators work with their customers and think about the causes and effects of deep-rooted poverty. Pioneers following this approach are already showing the way in rural communities.
For example, in the Indian State of Maharashtra, Promethean Power Systems’ sustainable refrigeration technology helps groups of villagers chill milk so it can be sold to major distributors and retailers. Promethean’s chillers cut the need for polluting diesel generators and can be used in areas where the power grid is weak or non-existent.
In recent months Promethean has launched a smaller version of their chilling unit – suitable for even more remote and isolated communities. The company is partnering with local NGO Swayam Shikshan Prayog to make sure women take advantage of the business opportunities this brings.
Also pioneering sustainable cooling in India is Ecozen, whose solar-powered cold rooms help growers store vegetables, flowers and other produce. The units are portable, which means they can be leased out to support the harvesting of different crops at different times of the year. And like Promethean, Ecozen is developing a smaller model that will bring cooling to more farmers. Both companies’ technology makes use of monitoring software and real-time analytics to predict and address problems.
The costs of life without cooling can be eye-watering. In fishing communities in Ghana’s Volta Region, families can spend up to a dollar a day on blocks of ice to keep their catch fresh – a huge slice of their income. A more popular preservation method is smoking fish. But smoked fish attracts a lower price than fresh produce, and the demand for firewood is also an environmental threat, driving local deforestation.
In the Volta Region and elsewhere in West Africa, solar company PEG Africa is piloting the sale and lease of solar-powered fridges and freezers to small businesses – including those in fishing communities, where women process the daily catch. Families, including many that already use solar energy to power their lights and charge their phones, can boost their earnings.
All three enterprises offer fair and affordable financing, which is vital for farmers with little hope of building up the savings to make big one-off payments. And all three are rolling out their latest solutions with help from Ashden’s Fair Cooling Fund, which has supported innovation widening access to cooling for those most at risk.
We know that clean, accessible cold chain solutions exist. But they won’t scale up without financial backing. For investors and funders, supporting these solutions unlocks a range of development benefits – not only raising incomes and putting communities on the path to a low-carbon future, but also tackling gender inequality, boosting nutrition and cutting environmental damage. A cooler future for all is possible, if we get behind the communities and companies showing the way.
Harriet Lamb is CEO of climate solutions charity Ashden.
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