Indian farmers turn to solar-powered fridges to fight food waste

A farmer arranges pineapples in a field in Nandannagar village on the outskirts of the northeastern Indian city of Agartala May 4, 2008

A farmer arranges pineapples in a field in Nandannagar village on the outskirts of the northeastern Indian city of Agartala May 4, 2008. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

What’s the context?

As climate change brings more extreme weather to India, sustainable cold storage units help off-grid farms to deal with the heat

  • Climate change fuels ever-more extreme weather in India
  • Agriculture sector struggles to prevent food waste
  • Solar-powered cold storage units seen as off-grid solution

KHAWZAWL, India - For Indian farmer Lalmuankimi Bawitlung, selling her annual orange harvest is often a race against time to beat the heat.

The 38-year-old, who owns a small plot in her village in northeastern India, threw away about a third of her 350 kg (772 pound) crop last year because the fruit became overripe or rotten, and could not be sold.

"I have always been in a hurry to dispose of my oranges at whatever price available, to prevent as much wastage as possible ... (with) the increasing heat making it worse," she said at her home in Kawnzar village in the state of Mizoram.

But Lalmuankimi's prospects are brighter since the state government in January installed a 10-tonne solar-powered cold storage unit for farm produce in the nearby village of Khawzawl.

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The facility uses ice battery technology, or thermal energy storage, to convert water into ice within six hours using solar.

The Mizoram Science, Technology & Innovation Council (MISTIC) worked with cold chain company Inficold to set up the 2.2 million-rupee ($27,100) facility, which is open to about 235 farmers such as Lalmuankimi across several villages in the area.

It meant Lalmuankimi could store the rest of her last harvest in February, 7-8 kg of oranges, instead of discarding them.

She took the fruit out of cold storage in August when it was out of season and managed to sell it for 250 rupees per kilo - five times the price she would normally have expected to fetch.

"After hours of backbreaking toil ... I can now sit back and enjoy the fruits of both my farm and labour, as there is hardly any wastage that I have to worry about," Lalmuankimi said.

Although India has thousands of cold storage facilities for produce - about 8,200 as of 2020, official data shows - these units are connected to the electricity grid rather than powered by solar.

Farming advocates and NGOs say the energy costs of the units are too high for many small-scale farmers, while common power outages mean those who can afford to use them must often rely on expensive and polluting diesel generators as back-up.

To address this, more companies and civil society groups - often backed by government funding - are now working to set up sustainable cold storage units, powered by solar, nationwide.

A cold storage unit seen from outside as a few farmers get ready to enter with their produce in Khawzawl, India, November 4, 2022

A cold storage unit seen from outside as a few farmers get ready to enter with their produce in Khawzawl, India, November 4, 2022. Isaac Lalremruata/Handout Via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A cold storage unit seen from outside as a few farmers get ready to enter with their produce in Khawzawl, India, November 4, 2022. Isaac Lalremruata/Handout Via Thomson Reuters Foundation

From waste to emissions

In the past decade, the government has implemented policies and action plans, and provided subsidies to develop cold chain systems across the country as part of a drive to cut food waste.

About 40% of food produced in India is wasted at the cost of billions of dollars per year, the United Nations has estimated.

But it's not just an economic issue.

Food waste accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a U.N. report launched at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt which said sustainable cold chains can play a major role in tackling "the climate and food crises".

India is enduring ever-more extreme weather - from floods to droughts - and rising temperatures due to climate change, with farmers increasingly worried about their crops and wastage.

Given that many farms are not connected to the grid and rely on diesel for power, clean energy experts say solar solutions such as cold storage systems will not only improve farmers' incomes but help the agriculture sector go greener.

"Solar-powered cold storage hubs ... take care of both the environmental and socioeconomic challenges without raising carbon footprints," said Rekha Krishnan, the chief executive of Clean Energy Access Network, an industry association in India.

Yet logistical issues and costs may be a barrier to scaling up such storage, industry representatives and experts warn.

Scaling up

The co-founder and CEO of Inficold, Nitin Goel, said he hopes to cut the price of the company's cold storage units by half within the next five years as more "get rolled out to the markets". Its five-tonne units cost about 1.4 million rupees.

Inficold currently has 116 facilities across 19 Indian states that provide storage for about 25,000 farmers, and the firm plans to double the number of units next year, Goel said.

The entrepreneur acknowledged there are challenges to scaling up such as transporting the large "containerised" units across poor roads and rough terrain to remote parts of India.

But as long as they can cut carbon emissions, "the pains are worth it to keep our environment cleaner," said Goel.

The cold storage unit in Khawzawl means a tomato-grower cooperative from Tualte village - which makes up most of the users - no longer has to harvest all of its produce at once but can pick the fruit about twice a week and sell at better prices.

The farmers pay one rupee a month for each kilo stored, with the money used to maintain and clean the facility.

Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) in Khawzawl, an agricultural science centre funded by the federal government, is helping the farmers and training them on how best to keep their produce to prolong its shelf life and ensure it stays as fresh as possible.

"The technology is helping farmers to be resilient to climate impacts and empowering them in their fields and (at) market as well," said KVK project associate Isaac Lalremruata.

MISTIC scientific officer Joel Dantes said the state was prone to climate shocks such as heavy rains and landslides that cause sudden power cuts, making off-grid sustainable solutions vital.

Close view of a solar powered cold storage unit installed in the midst of fields cultivating marigold  and vegetables in Karnataka, India, November 15, 2022

Close view of a solar powered cold storage unit installed in the midst of fields cultivating marigold and vegetables in Karnataka, India, November 15, 2022. Jayant Chandravarkar/Handout Via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Close view of a solar powered cold storage unit installed in the midst of fields cultivating marigold and vegetables in Karnataka, India, November 15, 2022. Jayant Chandravarkar/Handout Via Thomson Reuters Foundation

For the farmers in the area - who also grow pineapple, kiwi and papaya - cold storage affords them a "back-up of four to five days" as the systems can keep running for that period of time even where there is not much sunshine, Dantes said.

Climate 'saviour'

Meanwhile, in the southern state of Telangana, the Kattangur farmer producers' group bought two five-tonne solar cold-storage units from Inficold in May this year - with major financial help from Bharatiya Vikas Trust, an NGO, and some of their own money.

The farmers said having the "climate solution at our own local level" had more than doubled their incomes, together with apps showing market prices to determine the best time to sell.

This has enhanced their quality of life, said member N. Dharma Reddy, highlighting how the group can now afford better healthcare, education and technology like mobile phones.

"But most importantly, we are able to plough back the investments to our fields by buying more seeds, mini electric tractors, spraying and weeding tools and cattle," he said.

The group wants to install another dozen units to cover more villages. Its head, Nandyala Narsimha Reddy, said members were looking for loans or sponsorship to help them cover the cost.

"For small and marginalised farmers, such solar-run cold storage units act as saviours against climate woes that are getting more and more unpredictable and common," he said.

This story was updated at 16:10GMT on 01/12/22 to correct the rupees value of Inficold's five-tonne cold storage units in paragraph 23

(Reporting by Moushumi Basu; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling)


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