The hustle and bustle that defines Kithimani Market along Nairobi-Thika-Garissa as vendors hawk fresh fruits and vegetables to motorists wanes gradually as the day wears out. The vendors are not worried their unsold stocks may go bad. This concern, which has defined trade in the region for years, eased six months ago when a farmer installed a solar-powered cold room.
The Sh3.5 million facility at Joseph Muuo's homestead, just behind the market holds up to eight tonnes of fresh produce at a time. The farmer is among dozens who grow bananas, tomatoes, squash, okra and assorted vegetables along Yatta Canal, a 60 kilometre furrow that was constructed by the colonial administration through the arid region.
"The cold room extends the shelf life of fresh produce by at least six weeks. This has translated to increased profits since we are able to store fresh produce for long as we look for lucrative markets," Mr Muuo told the Enterprise.
Mr Muuo’s daughter, Rachael Mwende, gifted him the equipment to stem post-harvest losses which have bogged down farmers and traders in the region for years.
The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services approximates that more than 40 per cent of the fresh produce grown in the country goes to waste after harvesting.
The post-harvest loss menace is more magnified in drylands where fresh produce faces the double whammy of pests and drought.According to Dr Jane Ambani, a post-harvest management expert who teaches horticulture at the University of Nairobi, extending the shelf life of fresh produce through refrigeration significantly reduces post-harvest loss.
Cold storage facilities, she notes, give farmers an opportunity to reap more from their produce since they are able to sell when the market forces are favourable. Such facilities therefore enable farmers to enter into and sustain good deals with exporters.
This is what Ms Mwende, who is based in Germany, was determined to achieve at home. She is married to Stephen Bleyer, an official at Eurocomm Tekbiz Afrika, an organisation which links European technologies to African markets. This is how Suncooling, a Germany company behind the solar cooling technology, ended up working with Logicool, a Kenyan company which installs cold rooms, to pilot the solar powered facility. They settled on Mr Muuo’s farm.
“We invested in the cold room to stem post-harvest losses at home and among other farmers in the region as well as generate income,” she said.
The facility comprises a white cold room, 12 solar panels and a battery. The solar panels charge the battery while at the same time powering the cooling system. The fresh produce is stored in crates stacked in the 420 cm by 300 cm by 247 cm air tight cold room.
To avoid power wastage and enhance efficiency, the cooler is insulated using polyurethane sandwich panels which are 100 millimetres thick. At any one point, the temperature at the cold room is at 6 degrees centigrade. Moisture inside the cold room is retained at 90 per cent always to preserve the fresh produce, according to Charles Kagiri, a director at Logicool.
The facility has been drawing dozens of curious farmers, traders and government officials, among them Kitui and Machakos agriculture executives, who marvel at the conversion of the scorching sun which defines the region as a cooling solution.
“During the day the cold room is powered directly by solar energy which also charges batteries which hold power for 8 hours without sunlight. That means cooling of the produce happens during the day and at night. The solar panels generate 48 volts of direct current,” said Mr Kagiri.
The facility is accessible to farmers in the region as well as traders who use it at a fee. A retired trade unionist, Mr Muuo charges only Sh10 per day per crate of fresh produce. The cooling service enables farmers to get good prices from their produce by cheating glut.
“I use the cold room to store fresh beans and tomatoes awaiting the market to stabilise,” said Ms Elizabeth Wanza who grows the produce along the canal.
According to Mr Kagiri, the Kithimani solar cold room is the first one of its kind in the country. However, for decades, farmers have been using low-cost cooling systems to slow down the deterioration of their farm produce.
The most common improvised cooling system which is highly effective is the charcoal cooler which is made by filling the walls of a specialised cooling compartment with charcoal and periodically watering the walls.
“The evaporation of water from the charcoal walls taps the heat in the local environment and creates a cooling effect in the cooling chamber which keeps fresh produce for long,” said Wanjala Nasirembe, the head of the Agricultural Mechanization Research Programme at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation.
Traders are expected to make more profits as farmers who grow highly perishable crops along the Yatta Canal are expected to double their efforts now that they are relieved of post-harvest losses.
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