Most people in the produce industry are familiar with the cold chain – the imperfect but beautiful system that transports fresh produce from the field to the supermarket in a form someone will pay for.
A recent New Yorker article gives us a picture of the cold chain from a Third World perspective, particularly from Rwanda, in southern Africa.
The article quoted Toby Peters, an economist at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who is the world’s first professor of refrigeration technology: “There is no cold chain in Rwanda. It just doesn’t exist.
In 2018, Rwanda announced a national cooling strategy, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to do so. In 2020, he launched a program called the Africa Center of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chains (ACES), a cooperative effort between the Rwandan and UK governments and the United Nations Environment Programme.
The strategy has a long way to go. A common practice in the cold chain is to take the produce, once harvested, and remove the heat from it from the field, for example by means of a forced air cooler. There is only one in the whole country.
The article described a solar-powered cold room in which freshly picked peppers and beans are stored before being flown to Britain the next day. The room temperature, at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, was 20 degrees warmer than it should have been.
Then there were a pair of cold rooms, built in 2019 with funding from the European Union (EU). The article describes the facility: cobwebs lining the walls, a floor “immaculately clean” that “did not suggest frequent use”. The floor was made of wood, a mediocre material to use because it is difficult to sanitize.
The facility housed “two solitary crates of chillies” and the cooling “was turned on solely in honor” of the visiting UN delegation.
Why was the installation not operational? A farmer explained that the refrigeration unit was simply too expensive for them.
Kenya’s vegetable industry is on the move. Exports of fruits, vegetables and cut flowers are now the main source of income for the Kenyan government.
Some operations are able to meet strict international quality standards. Three-quarters of Kenya’s fruit and vegetable exports come from seven large, mostly white-owned farms that have the resources to meet these standards and are “easy to work with and easy to audit”.
At the same time, small farmers who grow more than 90% of the country’s fruits and vegetables and who do not have access to such facilities are doomed to lose about a third of their harvest to spoilage.
It is not easy to draw sweeping conclusions from this article. Foreign aid? We just saw what happened with the EU-funded cold store.
Bizarrely, another cooling plant, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the Dairy Industry, has apparently diminished the quality of food for local children. Why? Because their parents could now store milk overnight to sell instead of giving it to their children to drink.
In writing this article, I do not intend to indulge in tongue-clicking or moralizing. After all, people far more knowledgeable than me have tried but failed to find adequate solutions. But I think it’s a good idea to see the international agricultural products industry in the broadest possible light.