02 August 2017 13:31:25 IST

Cost-effective way to preserve farm produce

New, inexpensive tech for cold-rooms and driers could prevent losses and transform the rural economy

One of my first assignments as a rookie journalist many years back was to cover a meeting of the food processing industry and I remember being shocked to learn at that event that India wasted fruits and vegetables worth ₹6,000 crore (then), because of poor harvesting techniques and the lack of means to preserve them.

Nothing has changed in the quarter century since, except the value, which, of course has gone up. India still wastes a humongous quantity of food. A 2013 estimate put such losses at ₹13,300 crore — it is likely much higher today. Another expert put it rather graphically — the amount of agricultural produce that goes waste every year can fill 730 football stadiums.

But, cheer up, for there is a wind of change blowing. Clean technology has thrown up a solution to the problem of how to store unprocessed food-stuff for several months.

Cold chain

Now, as you all know, it is a matter of common sense that if a farmer has a cold storage — a room-sized fridge — she can preserve all her produce and keep releasing them into the market bit by bit. That way, there would be no ‘off-season’. Farmers would benefit by selling more stuff; consumers would benefit by not having to pay off-season high prices. And greater benefits would accrue from eliminating waste.

The solution, therefore, is to put up a string of cold storage facilities, called a ‘cold chain’, across the length and breath of the country, so that farmers can store their produce there. Since not all farmers can afford to build big cold rooms, the answer lies in an entrepreneur setting up such a facility, in which a farmer could rent space.

On the face of it, it sounds simple and straightforward, but the reality on the ground is different. Two fundamental problems arise here. One, for the entrepreneur to be in business, he has to build a fairly large-sized cold room, or else it would not make economic sense. This means he has to find enough farmer-customers to rent space.

Power issues

The second problem is bigger — electricity. To keep the storage facility cold, electricity is needed and you know how electricity supply has been in this country. Very temperamental — it just comes and goes. When there is no electricity, what happens to the food stored in the rooms? It rots.

As a result, some cold rooms came up only in large town and cities, and only rich farmers, who could afford them, stored their produce in them, paying for the transport. India has storage capacity of some 30 million tonnes, but most of these are in the Indo-Gangetic plains and most are equipped to handle only potatoes and onions. Very few fruits and vegetables, especially from other parts of India, can be preserved in such facilities.

Solution in sight

Now, a German company called Covestro — it used to be called Bayer Material Sciences — has come up with a solution. You see, this company produces a material called polycarbonate, in thick, transparent sheets. Covestro is interested in promoting sales of polycarbonate in India. But how? It came up with a useful application. It said, let us develop cheap, small-sized polycarbonate-based cold rooms, which farmers can afford and can put up right near their homes or farms. How about electricity? No problem — if there is good electricity supply, fine; or else, there are solar panels.

Solar panels provide electricity only during the day time, but the room needs to be kept cold all the time. Covestro has tied up with an Indian start-up that produces what is called ‘phase-changing material’. These PCMs are chemicals that absorb heat and become liquid and later keep releasing cold as they solidify.

Small and inexpensive cold-rooms, powered by solar panels and supported by PCMs can solve a chronic storage problem for farmers. The cost varies with size, but they can be bought for as little as ₹12 lakh — an amount a farmers co-operative can afford. The size comes down from 1,000 tonnes capacity, for the big ones, to 5-10 tonnes for the smallest of such units. A hundred such cold-rooms have come up in India. Covestro says it plans to put up at least 800 more in the next two years. Take a look at this brief video .

Needless to say, the country needs lakhs of cold rooms. Covestro does not manufacture the cold rooms, but provides material and technology for entrepreneurs to build them. Soon a crop of entrepreneurs will emerge. Want to be one?

Solar drying

By the way, there is another way of storing fruits and vegetables, especially fruits. Cut and dry them. In dehydrated form, they remain good for months. Again, just as solar-powered cold rooms, solar-powered drying rooms are coming up too. An entrepreneur in Krishnagiri, in western Tamil Nadu, has made a business of buying mangoes, papayas, jackfruit, and even pumpkins locally, and drying them after soaking some of them in sugar syrup. What comes out of the drying rooms after three days is tasty candied fruits and veggies. This entrepreneur now wants to export his products.

And, guess what? The best part is, he doesn’t buy the best of fruits from the locality. He is happy buying the ones that are outsized, spotty, even broken — for it doesn’t matter, he is going to chop them into pieces anyway. Farmers sell the best produce in the markets for a good price, and sell him the second and third grade produce for a price higher than they would otherwise get for them.

You see the transformation this could bring about in the country? The benefits don’t end with just avoiding waste. ‘Rural incomes’ play a huge role in the economy. When farmers have money in hand, their purchasing capacity increases. They buy motorcycles, tractors, television sets and other home appliances. They invest in better technologies for raising farm productivity. A big boost to the economy.

And at this heart of this transformation is the in-thing of today — solar. Tap into the infinite and you are in business.