Aston University and ColdHubs Ltd partner up to minimise food waste in Nigeria

The two year project will develop a hybrid solar-powered off-grid pre-cooling storage system for smallholder farmers clusters in Nigeria to preserve perishable foods.

Aston University has been awarded Global Challenges Research funding to undertake research and development with ColdHubs Ltd and the University of Port Harcourt who are both based in Nigeria.

This unique African Agriculture Knowledge Transfer Partnership aims to tackle food waste by developing a novel hybrid solar-powered off-grid pre-cooling storage system for smallholder farmers clusters in Nigeria. Although the produce sector in Nigeria is worth over £3 billion, new technology is urgently needed as the country currently loses nearly half of its annual vegetable and fruits production due to the absence of adequate cold storage.

The ambitious goal of this project is to enhance existing and develop new cold rooms, minimize food waste, improve cooling efficiency, increasing farmers' income and drive business growth for ColdHubs Ltd.

The need for a solution

ColdHubs Ltd. is a social enterprise based in Nigeria that designs, installs, commissions, builds and operates 100% solar-powered walk-in cold rooms ("ColdHubs"), in markets and farm clusters. The Hubs are used by smallholder farmers, retailers, and wholesalers, who pay a fee to store and preserve perishable foods which typically extends product shelf life from 2 to 21 days. Cold rooms are installed at multiple locations, depending upon need and agri-food density.

A key element of the new ColdHubs will be the development of a hybrid solar-powered pre-cooling technology based on novel vapour compression-absorption technology developed at Aston. The team will also have to apply their extensive expertise to identify common operating conditions for a range of produce, to avoid food damage due to either excessive cooling or undercooling; mitigate the impact of weather conditions on optimisation of the ColdHub minimising energy usage and storage.

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There are also significant technical and socio-economic challenges in the development of the ColdHubs such as, a) mitigation of the impact of weather conditions on optimisation of the ColdHub, b) potential societal barriers towards the roll-out of new cooling and renewable technologies and c) commercial conflicts between technology solutions and the business model. Research and development teams will need to navigate the above mentioned challenges in order to develop and integrate year-round sustainable cooling system that meets very challenging user needs. 

Academics will seek for solutions to optimise use land for the installation of sorption cooling units and integrated solar subsystems and overcome commercial conflicts between technology solutions and the business model.

Benefits

ColdHubs currently operates 24 solar powered cold storage rooms on 18 sites in the Southern and Northern Regions of Nigeria serving more than 3.5 thousand users. In 2019, the 24 ColdHubs saved 20,400 tons of food from spoilage and increased the income of small farmers, retailers and wholesalers by 50%.  

However, ColdHubs current technology is expensive and constrained. The proposed new technology is novel, hybridising vapour compression and vapour absorption refrigeration cycles in a single unit for fast chilling. It will reduce the battery bank size, reduce cost and meet demand at high cooling loads.

Exploitation of the above mentioned technology opens up the a potential market of over 93 million smallholder farmers (70% of them women) along with additional opportunities for pre-cooling in farm clusters, horticultural produce aggregation centres and outdoor markets, across Nigeria.

Harvest-to-sell ratio will be improved therefore, enabling smallholder farmers to increase annual income up to 50%. The project will also enhance economic development, support the generation of renewable energy generation (solar and wind) and ultimately increase the number of people with access to fresh food.

Upon successful completion this partnership will increase revenue of ColdHubs by 30% in the next 3 years; improve the existing business model by opening new markets; help to invest 5% of revenue in cutting edge innovation; develop the technical and business skills of employees and generate many other substantial business benefits and outcomes.

About the academic team

The Academic team working on this KTP includes Dr Muhammad Imran from Aston University, an established researcher in the area of thermal energy systems and hybrid energy from Mechanical, Biomedical and Design Engineering, alongside Dr Ahmed Rezk who is a Lecturer of Thermal-Fluid Sciences in the School of Mechanical Engineering. Dr Rezk has extensive first-hand research experience in adsorption cooling both in the modelling and experimentation. 

They will collaborate with Dr Ogheneruona Diemuodeke and Dr Mohammed Ojapah from the University of Port Harcourt who have significant expertise in renewable energy, thermofluids and power engineering.

Dr Ogheneruona Diemuodeke said:

"The beauty of this project is that it comes with three significant impacts after completion – climate action, food security and improved income. Imagine smallholder farmers losing a huge amount of revenue from rot/spoilage of farm produce due to lack of storage facility. This AAKTP funded project shall provide a cost-effective cooling system to eliminate spoilage in the farm produces supply chain."

Dr Muhammad Imran stated:

"This project is so important as throwing away food is like stealing from the tables of those who need it the most."

Expected project finish date: September 2022

This project is co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

GCRF is a £1.5 billion fund to support cutting-edge research which addresses the problems faced by developing countries.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships is a UK-wide programme that has been helping businesses for the past 45 years to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK Knowledge Base. 

To find out more about how your business can benefit from working with Aston University, please email rke@aston.ac.uk or call 0121 204 4242