Bihar: Solar powered cold storage facility is helping small traders in Muzaffarpur minimise their losses
Bihar's Muzaffarpur is a hub for vegetables and fruits. Cold storage units can go a long way in cutting down losses suffered by the traders and farmers, as demonstrated by the five metric tonnes cold storage unit running in Nwera village. All its operations have been digitalised through a mobile application. A similar story is unfolding in Himachal Pradesh, where apple farmers are benefitting from the cold storage and shelf-life monitoring, which were not so accessible earlier.
Ashish Anand 25 Nov 2022 2:46 PM GMT
Nwera (Muzaffarpur), Bihar
Brij Kishor Prasad, a 54-year-old fruits seller of Daud Chhapra village in Bihar's Minapur block has been selling fruit in Newra bazaar for the last 20 years. He buys fruits at wholesale prices from traders and sells them in retail.
However, for these two decades, Prasad was barely able to profit as the lack of cold storage facilities meant that he could not afford to keep the fruits with him for long, which often forced him to sell fruits at throwaway prices.
"At the end of the day, the fruits that were not sold would get spoiled and I had to throw them in the garbage or feed them to stray animals. To minimise my losses, at the end of the day, I would sell the leftover vegetables at a very low price. Every month I faced a loss of around 3,000 to 4,000 rupees," Prasad told Gaon Connection.
But, things changed in February, 2020 when Oorja Development Solutions Limited (ODSL), a Bahraich-based company, launched a cold-storage unit in Nwera village at a walkable distance from Prasad's house. He has become a member of this facility and uses it to store the excess vegetables and fruits.
"Because of the cold storage unit, I am getting better deals because I can now buy larger stocks and keep them safely; and sell when the market is favourable [meaning better price for the produce, especially during off-season]," Prasad said.
"I buy fruits in large quantities, which also cost a little cheaper per unit since the order is in bulk. I store them in the cold storage and take them out according to the demand. Now I am selling it at the market price with some benefit and keeping 1,500 to 2,000 rupees storage charge aside to cover the cold storage charges. But in return, I make enough to save 2,000 to 3,000 rupees in a month," he elaborated.
The cold storage unit in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district, which is a containerised solution supplied by Ecozen Solutions, was installed in February, 2020 by Oorja Development Solutions Limited (ODSL). In 2021, ODSL collaborated with Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE) and Empa (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) to digitalise their cooling services.
BASE and EMPA are implementing a project called Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant (Your VCCA) to reduce post-harvest losses in developing countries. "After having implemented the Cooling as a Service Initiative through which we supported the implementation of the pay-per-use business model in the cooling sector, we saw a strong potential to tailor the model to the agricultural cold chain. One of the project's aims is to shift the burden of investment and operation of cold rooms onto the technology providers, so that farmers can benefit from cooling while only paying nominal amounts per use," said Thomas Motmans, Your VCCA Project Lead at BASE
Your VCCA was launched in January 2021 in India to provide smallholder farmers access to clean, decentralised cold storage facilities as well as post-harvest intelligence by using data science, digitalisation, and business model innovation through a mobile application, called Coldivate.
According to Roberta Evangelista, Your VCCA Technical Lead at BASE, "The Coldtivate app helps cold room operators and users through two key features: it digitalises the check-in and check-out of crates, and predicts the remaining shelf-life of the stored crops based on real-time sensor data."
The cold room in Nwera village is run by ODSL on a subscription model. At present, 25 small-time traders/farmers are using this facility. Firstly, one has to avail a membership card for Rs 1,000 to use the facility following which farmers only have to pay for the number of crates they store.
The capacity of the cold room is five metric tonnes [1 tonne = 1,000 kilogrammes], with the space to store 150 crates. Eventually, the set up intends on pricing crates differently for each crop by exacting a percentage of the selling price to ensure that farmers are not overcharged if they are not making profits.
"BASE is helping us with the digitalisation of cold rooms, whereby customers can get information about the extended shelf-life of the crops, availability of space, and many other information through the app," Chandan Kumar, project assistant of ODSL, told Gaon Connection. "Cold rooms are very important for farmers and traders. If they have access to cold storage then they can wait for a right time to sell their product when the market is paying them well in the off season," he added.
The project assistant went on to inform that the cold room is f running on the hybrid mode on electricity, but mostly relies on solar panels. "That's why the electricity bill comes very less, around 600 to 800 rupees only in a month. There is some misconception about cold storage,like farmers think it harms their crops and their quality. So, we are also working on creating awareness on the benefits of cooling to encourage farmers to use it," Kumar said.
Post harvest crop losses in India
In India, farmers incur nearly USD 12,520 million in post-harvest losses due to inadequate storage facilities and a lack of energy infrastructure every year. Due to a lack of proper refrigeration, 25 to 35 per cent of cultivated food is wasted. Presently only six per cent of the food produced moves through the cold chain.
At the beginning of 2020, there was a shortfall of 12.6 million tonnes of cold storage capacity in the country, as noted by the National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD), an autonomous body set up by the Indian government to establish cold chains for perishable agriculture and horticulture produce.
This is worrisome as almost 82 per cent of farmers in the country are small and marginal with land holding of less than two hectares.
The concept of product-as-a-service or servitisation is giving consumers access to a service or output instead of having to invest in the equipment needed to generate it. The consumer only pays for the units they consume, while the asset stays in the ownership of the party providing the solution.
The shift to circularity is embedded in the servitisation model itself. As the ownership of the equipment stays in the hands of the technical provider, the model creates incentives for the provider to design goods with longer durability and to extend product life through repair and remanufacturing, to maximise value recovery at the end-of-life, and to optimise resource efficiency across the entire product life cycle. Further, it incentivises improvements in operation performance through research and development, and the maintenance practices shift from corrective to preventive.
Muzaffarpur's cold storage facility
Muzaffarpur district lies in the fertile region of the Indo-Gangetic plains and has a high share in total vegetables produced in Bihar. The district markets are recognised nationally as hubs of vegetables,including the Minapur block's markets. Vegetables and fruits of the Muzaffarpur belt are sent to other states such as West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand.
Like many village bazaars (market), Newra bazaar in Minapur block is also held on an alternate day basis, thrice in week on Tuesday, Thursday and Wednesday. So if fruits and vegetables remain unsold, they would often perish.
The five-tonne cold storage facility at Newra village in Muzaffarpur is proving to be a boon for the small traders.
This cold storage is run by Rita Devi, a resident of Chhagan Neura village of Minapur block. She has studied only till class five but runs the entire facility through Coldtivate app through which she does the check-in and check-out of the crates in real time.
The app uses easy to identify icons and is available in the local language to make it usable for operators and cooling users from different educational backgrounds (specifically designed to encourage more women from the community to be able to take on the role of operators).
This was a part of the project's gender strategy.The presence of female staff and/or management in the cooling hubs has a great potential to encourage women farmers to access the services, making the contact less intimidating and possibly even facilitating knowledge exchange and technical support. Whenever possible, the project seeks to support hubs that are either run by women or employ female operators," notes Simran Singh, Your VCCA Capacity Building Lead.
"I learned some basic features of the app two months back in a workshop given by company officials. Now, I use to do check-in and check-out of the crates by filling in basic details. I frequently check the crates and if I find any fruit or vegetable that starts to rot then I inform the person to withdraw it," Rita Devi, a mother of two, told Gaon Connection. She said that she earned 1,000 rupees per month and a cut of 10 per cent on every crate stored in the cold storage facility.
"Earlier I was only involved in household work but now I am running a cold storage facility in the village. Learning new things and technologies gives me a level of satisfaction," she smiled and added.
"The current version of the Coldtivate app helps in tracking the shelf-life of the produce available in cold rooms, operators through SMS or personal interactions inform farmers of when to withdraw their crates. The later versions of the app being released by the end of 2022 will make the app directly accessible to farmers," Roberta shared.
Benefits to the fruit and vegetable sellers
Raja Babu Shaw, a 45-year-old vegetable seller in Chhapra village in Minapur block, has been selling vegetables for more than 25 years now. "After each passing day the green vegetables started getting dry and their weight got reduced. Customers also bargain and pay very less for dry green vegetables. Vegetable sellers like me used to face losses as we had to sell green vegetables at very low prices thinking because when you have to feed your family, something is better than nothing."
Things have taken a turn for the better since Shaw began using the cold storage facility. "I keep vegetables in a cold room and it keeps them fresh for a week. It saves me 2,000 to 2,500 rupees in a month," Shaw told Gaon Connection.
Cold storage unit at Shiladesh, Himachal Pradesh
Like Bihar's Muzaffarpur, Your VCCA is collaborating with cold storage facilities in Rourkela, Odisha, and Himachal Pradesh's Shiladesh.
In Himachal, the cold rooms are operated by CoolCrop, and are primarily meant for the apple farmers. Two decentralised cold storages, one of 25 MT capacity and another of 8 MT, mostly running on solar energy, were set up in Shalidesh in the Cooling as a Service (CaaS) business model.
At present, 10 farmers in an Apple Growers Society are using it. These facilities ensure that farmers have an affordable access to the cold storages. They have to pay anywhere between Rs 1.6 and Rs 2.8 per kg for cooling and other value add services like sorting, grading etc.
Srinivas Marella, who is looking the operation of cold storage in Shalidesh, Himachal Pradesh said, "We use the Coldtivate app in conjunction with the CoolCrop Market Analytics App to help farmers make well-informed decisions regarding the effective management of stored inventory and the facilitation of profitable forward market linkages for improved price realisation of the stored produce."
Marella went on to inform that the app has proven to be highly user-friendly and intuitive so far. "We want to utilise it to the fullest capacity moving forward as our system capacity utilisation increases as the farmers gain proficiency in using both the cold storage hardware and the software platforms," he added.
Most farmers from the Apple Growers Society sell their crops in big markets like the Azadpur Mandi in Delhi, where they are assured immediate sales of their produce. Without access to decentralised cold rooms in their vicinity, most farmers had previously attempted to store their produce in large-scale commercial rooms in cities.
Away from their crops and reliant on intermediaries to check on their crops quality, the farmers complained that they received lower than expected prices due to food spoilage in the cold rooms. Most farmers sent their produce directly to the market without checking if these claims were truthful.
The app mends this trust deficit by giving farmers a means to directly monitor the quality of their crop, shielding them from exploitation.
About the Coldtivate App
The Coldtivate app ensures that once farmers have access to cooling units, they are able to maximise the benefits reaped from its usage. Coldtivate serves this aim by predicting the extended shelf-life of the crops (from cold storage vis-a-vis storing it at ambient temperatures) based on real-time sensor data (temperature and humidity in the cold room), and the initial quality of the produce. Your VCCA has also received support from cold room manufacturers such as Ecozen to connect their sensors via application programming interface to the Coldtivate app.
In addition to predicting the shelf life of the stored crops, the newer versions of the app will include market price forecasting. The app will forecast the price of commodities across different markets in the vicinity of the cold rooms. This information, combined with the remaining time left for pick up, will provide insights to cold room users on when and where to sell the crops in storage.
The Knowledge Hub integrated in Coldtivate contains information about the optimal storage temperature and average storage time for each commodity and will be regularly expanded and enriched to reflect the best practices in post-harvest management as per latest research. To ensure that cold storage users and operators always have access to this crucial information, the Knowledge Hub will be made available offline as well.
The YourVCCA solution is an open-source project, allowing cooling companies to build on it and integrate it in accordance with their existing solutions and offerings. BASE and Empa aspire to integrate cold transportation into the solution to address the entire cold chain rather than solely cold storage.