What it takes to cool thousands of pounds of food: Africans work to find new business models

My family and I leave our Sub-Saharan winter and arrive at Sundaresh resort in the upscale popular fishing resort of Abakaliki. With no pollution and no air conditioning, it’s a tropical paradise. We are…

What it takes to cool thousands of pounds of food: Africans work to find new business models

My family and I leave our Sub-Saharan winter and arrive at Sundaresh resort in the upscale popular fishing resort of Abakaliki. With no pollution and no air conditioning, it’s a tropical paradise.

We are here to see how “cold storage” is being used to modernize agriculture and put food, particularly in rural parts of Nigeria, back on the table.

“Cold storage” is to Africa what “dry storage” was to the Americas or “insurance” was to the United Kingdom. As a climate-adapted part of Kenya, Abakaliki is ideally placed to provide these services because it’s wet in the summer and dry in the winter.

Directly behind our hosts’ kitchen stall, I see nearly 5 acres of sprawling cold storage operations.

There are barrels and tubs of cooking ingredients around the premises, as well as silos and equipment for cooling and mixing products. The storage area is completely enclosed, sealing in the air and heat for increased efficiency.

This low-tech setup is run by Little Dagora and their little sister firm, Mazamizze.com — both entrepreneurs. Little Dagora’s great-grandfather founded Logitek Nigeria, one of the most powerful business houses in the country. He died in 2002 but his granddaughters Mambaa and Zainab Bamba worked in the company before making their way out to start their own businesses.

When Mundaba is not managing Mazamizze, she runs Moyella Manufacturing, a bottled water company. When I first see Moyella’s label, I can’t help thinking of Aquafina and its flagship Blue Lagoon.

Back in Malawi, Mundaba and her team use this infrastructure to make the frozen food that is being sold at Sundaresh. In Zambia, a similar system is used to make frozen pizzas. It’s a home-grown technology that is beginning to grow in Africa.

If cold storage will revolutionize the African agriculture economy, then this type of technology is key to it. Many businesses are willing to pay for a simple heating system but they’re unwilling to pay for a 30-year lease for an industrialized storage system. Currently, businesses in Africa need to import frozen-meal products, which are expensive, and often require a time and labor-intensive process of melting the dough and then chilling it in glass and metal barrels.

When I’m later discussing this topic with Osita Ekeremadu, CEO of Understaffed, a startup helping organizations hire workers from rural regions, he shows me the cooktop stoves they have developed in Africa, using their solar-powered processes and materials.

There is a huge opportunity to not only control this cold storage process but to develop it into a commercial venture across Africa.

Johanna Shelton, an academic from University of Liverpool who has studied soil and climate, says that your livelihood can be affected by the temperature fluctuations of your food storage. She says that crops can be adversely affected by cold storage or lack of storage, especially if a farmer doesn’t plan ahead.

If the technology does come to Africa, there is a huge opportunity to reduce costs and drive development of Africa’s agribusiness by bringing investors into a sector that has yet to attract them. As companies like Little Dagora are trying to make frozen-food retail viable, companies like Understaffed look to increase efficiency by increasing crop yield and value. Both businesses hope to reduce the amount of food wasted on African farms or in factories.

Oftentimes, when people talk about improving food, they think about improving transport. They think of improved storage or better transportation. They don’t think of the really hard work of getting the food to a point where it can be stored.

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