In a normal week, dozens of wicker baskets overflow with ripe tomatoes, an essential ingredient in the rich stews favoured by locals in Nigeria’s rural Kaduna state.
Yet over the summer, after a moth epidemic ravaged some 80% of the region’s tomato farms in May, forcing the price of a basket from $1.20 to more than $40, Kaduna’s authorities were forced to declare a state of emergency. Kaduna’s “tomato emergency” is part of a national dip in food production. In large parts of the northeast, production has been all but abandoned in the face of continued attacks by Boko Haram militants.
Even where food production remains strong, poor handling, storage and delivery methods mean that much of Nigeria’s food is spoiled before reaching those in need. But now, in a bid to minimise post-harvest losses – which government estimates could be higher than 50% for some fruits and vegetables – businesses are beginning to develop new technologies to assist farmers.
“Most of the spoilage starts on the farms because farmers don’t receive visits from delivery trucks every day,” says Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, chief executive of Cold Hubs. “Sometimes it takes three to four days for trucks to come to the farm. So these farmers keep the food in a shed or try and cover it, and by the time the truck comes in the food is already spoiled.”
This is a common problem for farms across the continent. In 2011, the UN World Food Programme estimated that annual food losses in sub-Saharan Africa exceeded 30% of total crop production and cost farmers some $4bn in value every year. Cold Hubs offers a simple solution.
The firm installs walk-in refrigeration units near both farms and markets in a bid to preserve valuable crops in the crucial period before they reach consumers. It’s a pay-as-you-go model that allows farmers to dodge pricey storage agreements that tie them to excessive payments regardless of production.
With Nigeria suffering from acute and chronic power shortages, the hubs are entirely solar powered. It’s an affordable and eco-friendly model freed of expensive infrastructure that the company believes could be quickly rolled out across the continent.
“In five years we want to have 1,000 installed in Nigeria, and in the future, there could be 1m units all over Africa,” says Ikegwuonu. For the hawkers and worried consumers of the markets in Kaduna, it may be the first step to ensuring that 2016’s tomato emergency remains little more than an unpleasant memory.