Post-harvest cold storage unit puts smiles back on the faces of farmers in Odisha
Local cooling companies are leveraging a mobile app called Coldtivate coupled with the servitisation business model to help small and marginal farmers in Rourkela, Odisha cut their post-harvest losses and increase profits. Farmers now have a way out of distress selling. They can store their produce in the cold store and sell it when the time is right.
Ashis Senapati 7 Oct 2022 6:57 AM GMT
Rourkela (Sundargarh), Odisha
Rameswar Mahato, from Kairikerla village in Nuagaon block of Sundargarh district, grows and sells pumpkins, lady's fingers, sweetcorn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables, and takes them every day to sell at the VSS market, in Rourkela.
"Earlier, because I could not sell all my harvested vegetables, a lot of it just went to waste. I used to lose about five thousand rupees worth of my produce a month," the 47-year-old Mahato told Gaon Connection. Oftentimes, vegetables stored in the open would be eaten by foraging elephants, leaving nothing for sale the next day.
But now, ever since a five-metric tonne cold storage unit came up at the market, Mahato has cut his losses as he stores his produce at the facility and does not indulge in distress sale. He shares that he now makes a profit of anything up to Rs 7,000 a month. Earlier, in the absence of a cold storage facility, he used to earn between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000, unable to save in the face of escalating costs of farm inputs.
The cold storage unit was installed in September 2021 with money from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayors Challenge. To streamline the operations of the room and offer cooling on a pay-per-use basis to the farmers, it was chosen as one of the pilot sites within the 'Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant' (Your VCCA) project, launched in January 2021 by Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE) and Empa (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology).
Your VCCA aims to provide smallholder farmers access to energy-efficient and clean cold storage facilities as well as to post-harvest intelligence. In the past one year, the Rourkela facility has brought considerable relief to about 300 hundred small and marginal farmers like Mahato in the region.
The cold rooms are being run on a servitisation model, wherein the ownership and operational costs of the unit are retained by the local cooling companies or community-based actors such as farmer producer organisations (FPOs) and self-help groups (SHGs) for stronger democratisation of the solution.
In the latter case, the local cooling companies offer several months of training to the FPOs or SHGs on how to independently run the cold rooms, while staying available in case of major technical challenges. Under this configuration smallholders can benefit from the dual opportunity of storing a portion of their crops at nominal rates, and selling the rest to the FPOs at above-market rates.
At a time when many private and government-owned cold rooms battle the problem of breakdowns and negligence, a model where the community (with a vested interest in the cooling solutions) is supported by local companies in running the rooms offers potential for more dedicated maintenance.
One of Your VCCA's pilot sites in Odisha (Keonjhar) has already implemented this model, where the responsibility to operate the cold rooms has been taken up by FPOs. The FPOs aggregate and sell in bulk to retail stores, helping farmers with forward market linkage and negotiating better prices.
Some FPOs hope to engage in post-harvest processing, with the value addition giving them a price mark-up. In most cases, the profits are used to cover the operating costs for the cold room and distributed among farmers to purchase seeds and fertilisers for the next sowing season.
In Rourkela, the cold room is being operated by the Maa Tarini Self-Help Group (SHG), where the women not only manage the rooms and bookkeeping, but also help with forward market linkage of the stored products. The crops stored in the rooms are collected in bulk from different farmers to be sold to retail shops and hotels. This method ensures that the farmers receive fair rates for their produce. As a wholly women-run room, it gives women an opportunity for skill development, and to financially support their families.
"Previously, before they left the market for home at sunset, the farmers sold their leftover vegetables at rock bottom prices," Minati Mallick, president of the Maa Tarini Women SHG, told Gaon Connection. The SHG manages the cold storage facility with the help of the Rourkela Municipal Corporation and a local partner agency, Koel Fresh Private Limited (KFPL).
"The cold store has been a huge help to the farmers, who now store their produce at the facility. At present, we are not even charging the farmers any money for using the cold store," Mallick added. This is to allow them a chance to see the benefits of cooling and build trust in the solution. In a couple of months, there will be a fee, although very nominal.
This cold storage was inaugurated at Rourkela on October 28, 2021, by Sarada Prasad Nayak, MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), and Dibyajyoti Parida, commissioner of Rourkela Municipal Corporation.
Components of Your VCCA Project
Simran Singh, Capacity-building Lead for the project, told Gaon Connection that Your VCCA project has two components to it. One is a business model called 'Cooling as a Service'; and the other a mobile app called Coldtivate.
BASE and Empa first identify a local partner in the area and through that partner initiate the project. "In Odisha, that local partner is Koel Fresh," Singh said.
"Koel Fresh provides training, capacity building and market linkages to the farmers who are preserving their vegetables in the cold stores with the technical support of BASE," Ashutosh Nayak, chief executive officer of KFPL, told Gaon Connection. The training follows a peer-to-peer model which means that the farmers that are trained are encouraged to educate their fellow farmers about the benefits of cooling.
To start with, KFPL trained eight women of Maa Tarini SHG to manage the cold storage. They learnt to monitor the temperature of the cold room, check-in and check-out crates, sort the crops to ensure that the quality of each batch is preserved, maintain records, and produce bills.
While currently undertaken manually, these processes are being digitalised through the Coldtivate app to minimise room for error, calculate the total amount of each crop in the room for bulk orders, and monitor occupancy rate.
Koel Fresh is exploring possible options to collaborate with C.V. Raman Global University to train members from the rural communities on ways to troubleshoot common cold storage problems. Along with this, the Your VCCA team is developing a detailed toolkit for operators on operational practices, technical maintenance, and postharvest management practices for multicommodity rooms.
The Maa Tarini SHG intimates farmers on when to remove their crates from the cold rooms and market the crops. Besides this, the women also spread awareness amongst the farmers on the benefits of the cold storage and urge them to use it.
The cold storage is run on electricity, the cost of which is currently borne by the Rourkela Municipal Corporation. At present, the farmers can use the storage free of cost, but in the near future there will be a nominal fee to use the cold storage facility.
"We pay an electricity bill of around Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 per month for this cold store. We will install four more cold stores soon, and we hope that farmers are able to tap into the benefits of cooling and this increases their willingness to pay to make the provision of the cooling services more sustainable in the long-run. BASE supports with the business model innovation and the digitalisation of the cold store," Sudhanshu Bhoi, the deputy commissioner of Rourkela Municipal Corporation, told Gaon Connection.
He added that Rourkela was one of the 15 cities worldwide that was selected by the Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayors Challenge, (a worldwide innovation competition that supports and spreads cities' most promising ideas), and it was awarded USD 1 million to help implement its breakthrough ideas and, ultimately, to spread those ideas to other cities around the world.
In other parts of Odisha (Sundargarh, Keonjhar, and Sambalpur), the project has already integrated solar-powered or hybrid cooling systems.
Energy-friendly solution to post-harvest losses
Cold storages such as the one set up in Rourkela, could save the exchequer millions by way of revenue. According to Cool Coalition (a global multi-stakeholder network led by United Nations Environment Programme, that works for efficient and climate-friendly cooling) every year, farmers in India incur nearly USD 12,520 million in post-harvest losses due to inadequate storage facilities and a lack of energy infrastructure.
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.
Another interesting insight from government officials is how, in Odisha, most farmers have stuck to paddy production because of a guaranteed market. The availability of cold rooms, which allows farmers to hold on to the stock, and strengthens their bargaining power against middlemen, can push them to cultivate horticultural crops. In addition to food security then, India also moves towards nutrition security.
And the Your VCCA project is a step in that direction. Besides enabling the process of making cooling technologies more accessible and affordable (Cooling as a Service), the project has also introduced the Coldtivate application (mobile app). The app equips cold room users with pre- and post-harvest expertise and market intelligence to secure the best possible price for their produce.
In study titled India's Third Agricultural Revolution Doubling farmers' incomes through clean cold chains, Professor Toby Peters, from the Birmingham Energy Institute notes: "Cold chain can raise farmers' incomes many times over by increasing the proportion of food that gets to market, improving food quality and value to the customer and increasing the range of distribution to more valuable markets or exports."
"The current version of the app that helps track the shelf-life of the produce is available to cold room operators, who 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 Evangelista, Your VCCA Technical Lead at BASE shared.
"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," she explained.
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.
"In the absence of an app, the room operations are conducted manually by the technology providers, are more prone to error, and cannot be easily monitored by the users. Digitalising the cold room transactions is a very important step to make the business model seamless and generate trust among farmers to use the cold rooms," Evangelista added.
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.
By utilising this information, farmers have an alternative to distress-selling at the end of the day and can store their crops for longer to secure better off-season prices, while still being mindful of selling their produce before its quality deteriorates.
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 Knowledge Hub contains information that facilitates the operations and use of cold rooms, allowing operators to ensure that all crops are handled with care and maintain high quality (so that farmers can get fair prices).
Also, 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 order to address the entire cold chain rather than solely cold storage.
The vision for this is in addition to tracking the quality of specific crates travelling through the cold chain, to be able to track the location of each crate.
"We also envision the integration of market linkage services into the digital solution will also be included. The main benefit of providing access to cooling is to reduce food spoilage for beneficiaries and enable them to secure higher prices in the markets. Based on our conversations with the cold room operators and users, we have seen that providing market linkages to farmers in addition to cooling services can significantly increase the impact on the ground," Thomas Motmans, Project Lead at BASE, said.
"For this, we see the potential to transform the cold rooms into aggregation centres where crops can be traded between farmers and buyers. The app could be extended to allow for buyers to see which crops are available in the cold room and what their price and quality is," he added.
This story, the second in a three-part series, has been done in collaboration with the Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy. Read the first story of the series here.