ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – Professor Yetenayet Bekele Tola cringed as he patrolled the nation’s largest fruit and vegetable market recently. Mounds of lettuce and Swiss chard laid out on newspapers were wilting in the morning’s rising sun in the sprawling capital city market. Bananas in straw baskets were already bruised and blackened.
There wasn’t a refrigerator to be found to keep the crops fresh.
For Dr. Yetenayet, who studies food science and technology at Jimma University, the damaged food is a pungent reminder of a fragmented food distribution system that is a significant contributor to the country – and Africa’s – severe malnutrition problems. Losing fruits and vegetables, along with other key perishables like milk, is a loss of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that would otherwise help sustain millions of Ethiopians.
“There is no cold room storage whatsoever,” Dr. Yetenayet said. “The way fruits and vegetables are being handled is not up to standard. It leads to lots of spoilage. The food can’t get to people and it’s less nutritious.”
While agricultural production of fruits and vegetables in Africa’s second most populous country has surged in recent decades, millions of Ethiopians are still not eating them. Those suffering the most are the rural poor, many of them smallholder farmers living beyond the reach of electricity, refrigeration and viable markets. Most of what they grow on their tiny plots are cereal crops, including teff (a local grain), maize and sorghum, for home consumption. Fruits and vegetables are too expensive.
Refrigeration, or cold storage, certainly exists in the massive strawberry farms and flower hothouses that line the dusty roads south of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. But Ethiopia – and Africa – are facing a reckoning in how to create and sustain a network of refrigeration to feed their own.
I recently spent a week travelling across much of Ethiopia chronicling where refrigeration was taking hold. I visited with families in rural areas and saw firsthand how food refrigeration and cold storage, while still rare, is beginning to take stronger hold in diverse parts of the country, from commercialised urban areas to a small remote island using solar-powered refrigeration.
Cold Houses and Underweight Children
Last May, a private solar mini grid operator began providing electricity – and first-ever refrigeration – to 150 village households living on Dek Island in Lake Tana, 320 kilometres northwest of Addis Ababa. A small fishermen’s cooperative is using a refrigerator to preserve tilapia and catfish they catch every day in Ethiopia’s largest lake. While most of the fish is sold in nearby Bahir Dar, more local villagers are eating it, too.
“It’s helping the local community consume more fish in their diets since there is always fresh fish in the refrigerator,” said Samuel Alemu, engineer and business development head at Rensys Engineering & Trading, based in Ethiopia, which is operating the 57-panel solar system, the first of its kind in the country. Built with a grant from the U.S. African Development Foundation, the mini grid is still ramping up and operating at only 35 to 50 percent capacity.
In rural areas across the country, 100 milk chilling centers are being built to help small farmers sell their fresh milk instead of losing much of it – especially milk taken from cows in the evening called “night milk” – due to lack of refrigeration. Most rural populations cannot afford fresh milk – a rich source of essential nutrients – due to inadequate chilling capacity. While 11 of the chilling centers have been built, “it’s still too early to talk about positive impacts,” says Dr. Sintayehu Yigrem, a dairy expert and professor at Hawassa University in southern Ethiopia.
These are small inroads in a country that is busting at the seams with smiling bands of children and teens in ever-more crowded villages and roadsides. It’s clear more of these projects need to be replicated on an enormous scale to reach Ethiopia’s vast rural areas that account for 80 percent of its 107 million people.
Lacking access to refrigeration and viable markets, poor rural farmers earning under $2 a day cannot afford nutritious foods. Most of the animal source food produced by smallholder farmers are sold to generate much-needed cash for cheaper foods, charcoal, kerosene, phone charging costs and other pressing needs, according to Dr. Sintayehu. They rarely have enough money to buy fruits and vegetables. Meal after meal, they eat maize, sorghum and a flat spongy bread called injera or a bread-like staple made from false banana trees.
“Local diets are mainly cereal-based foods,” said Dr. Sintayehu. “Meat, chicken, eggs and fruits – these are luxury foods. They might only happen during religious holidays.”
Children are hit the hardest by these poor-quality diets, with millions suffering every year from stunting. At last count, according to the 2016 Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey, 38 percent of Ethiopian children under 5 years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition (documented by stunting or low height for their age.) While these numbers are an improvement from 20 years ago, the country still has a long way to go, with many rural regions still seeing stunting rates of over 40 percent.
The Cold Truth
The cold truth is that most of Ethiopia’s refrigeration capacity is aimed at large commercial agriculture ventures, principally for export products such as flowers, exotic fruits and meats.
This becomes very clear soon after leaving the mayhem of the Altkit Terra Fruit and Vegetable Market in downtown Addis Ababa and driving south towards the city of Hawassa.
The first area we pass through is blessed with a high water table and irrigation – and lots of refrigeration. (It’s also a popular spot for nomadic camel herders escaping parched conditions further east in the Ogaden Desert.)
Our first stop is Luna Export Meats, which exports locally-sourced sheep, lamb and other meats to the Middle East. It is one of a half-dozen slaughterhouses in this region that have extensive cold room facilities powered by the local electric grid. “They’re all commercial and they’re all exporters,” say Dr. Yetenayet, who joined me on the trip.
Further south in the Rift Valley, we pass sprawling strawberry farms and dozens of greenhouses that are growing cut flowers that will eventually be sold in Holland and other parts of Europe. Again, they all have cold storage.
Yet, some area farmers are realising the benefits of cold storage by working cooperatively. At the Meki Batu Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Cooperative Union in the Rift Valley, 152 growers banded together in 2012 to secure a loan to build a food aggregation centre that includes a 10-ton cold storage unit. Their fresh produce is now being delivered three days a week in refrigerated trucks to Ethiopian Airlines which uses it for meals.
While not sourcing for local families, the grower’s union offers a key lesson: Access to cold storage is nearly impossible if you’re a small individual farmer; It’s simply too expensive. Groups of farmers that can be organised around a viable business venture have a far better chance of financing and building cold storage capacity that will enable them to boost their incomes – while also improving local diets and nutritional prospects.
“Without the cold room, the grower’s union would never have been established.” said Melesse Abule, a field technician with the farmer’s union. “The airline wouldn’t buy from us.”
The urgency for scaling such efforts cannot be understated. With a skyrocketing population in a region that is getting drier and hotter due to climate change, Ethiopia has no time to waste in producing more nutritious food that is accessible for rich and poor alike. The solution is better post-harvest food practices that include broader, more equitable access to refrigeration.
“We need to be focusing on nutrition, not just filling tummies ,” said Toby Peters, Professor in the Cold Economy at the UK-based Birmingham Energy Institute who is researching how we create access to cooling for all. “Broader, more affordable access to refrigeration and cold chains is a critical step for getting Ethiopians the nutritious diets they need to live fully productive lives.”
“These interventions are so vital for the country, but it has to be cost effective and it has to be done quickly,” Dr. Sintayehu added. Otherwise, a preventable problem that has hundreds of thousands of young Ethiopian children dying prematurely and millions who will never reach their potential could grow even worse.
This post has been supported by the University of Birmingham Institute for Global Innovation (IGI) and forms part of a series of articles to explore the need and strategies to deliver clean cold chains. Over the course of the next few months the IGI will be running a series of articles looking at the impact of cold chain through real-world stories. You can view the articles here; https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/energy/research/cold-economy/clean-cold-chains.aspx