Radio star and entrepreneur launches solar powered fridges for farmers
Design will impact hunger, poverty, gender equality and healthcare
Almost half of the food produced in the developing world is wasted before it reaches the consumer, largely due to a lack of cold storage.
In Nigeria, the problem is particularly acute as agriculture is by far the largest employer – accounting for two-thirds of the labor force. The lack of electricity in rural areas makes it fiendishly difficult to keep food cold.
Enter Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, a radio presenter and social entrepreneur, with “Cold Hubs” - an enterprise that could transform millions of lives and the entire Nigerian economy.
The start-up produces walk-in, solar-powered refrigeration units which extend the lifespan of fruit and vegetable produce from two to 21 days. The “Hubs” are designed for use in even the most remote corners of the country. They are simple to operate, and affordable to all.
Ikegwunou is a farmer himself from the southern state of Imo, who previously founded the Smallholders Foundation – and its popular radio station – as a means of empowering rural workers. He believes the design responds to their most urgent need.
“From talking to farmers, we identified the challenge of lost produce,” says the 33-year-old. “Most losses come in the markets, and when produce is taken from the trees…In Nigeria, electricity is unreliable so you have to make an alternate plan.”
From Dresden to Lagos
Ikegwuono resolved to pursue an off-grid solution. In 2012, he traveled to Dresden, Germany, to meet with scientists that had developed a solar-powered cold room that was never commercialized. Together, they refined the concept and technical specifications.
The embryonic business then hired an office in the U.S., where the design was presented to investors and energy experts. After going through several prototypes, the entrepreneur emerged with heavyweight investors, an all-star team, and a world-class product.
“When you take an idea to the US, it is torn apart, criticized and condemned,” says Ikegwunou. “If you come out unscathed – then you have an idea.”
The first units were rolled out at Nigeria’s busiest markets in 2014, giving farmers an opportunity to test them for 100 Naira ($0.50) per day. There are now 10 in operation – and constant use – with a further 50 to be unveiled in 2016.
Farmers also have the option of forming co-operatives to buy their own, with subsidized repayment plans. Either way, Ikegwuonu anticipates they will see swift and substantial returns.
“A basket of tomatoes sells for $60 when they are in the best condition,” he says. “Farmers lose 50% due to lack of storage - $30 a basket. For 50 cents they can eliminate the loss completely.”
The company estimates farmers will see a 25% fillip to their annual income, and the benefits do not stop there.
Increased food production – including fruit and vegetables – should help tackle the nation’s chronic malnutrition problem. There will be a boost to female employment as public units will only be operated by women. Rural healthcare will improve as medicines and vaccines can also be refrigerated.
Serial entrepreneur Michael “Luni” Libes, founder of six start-ups, recently joined Cold Hubs as an adviser, and sees enormous potential.
“This is one of the most innovative ideas I have seen to kick-start the cold chain, and in a way that is accessible to the most farmers,” says Libes. “The impact is twofold: At scale it should help Africa feed Africa, and it should stop farmers losing money. It should basically have an impact for both global hunger and global poverty…at least a billion people need this.”
Cold Hubs has already achieved international recognition, having been selected as a partner program for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In September, the team was invited to present their work at UN headquarters in New York.
Ikegwuono is confident the units can have a dramatic impact at home, but he also believes they can capture the global market. There is interest from the U.S. and Europe, and no obvious competitors.
“I hope in 15 years this can be a brand name all over the world – the same as an LG or Sony product,” he says.