It does not depend on erratic electricity supply from the grid

A solar-powered mini cold storage installed at a village market (Photo by Ecozen)

Sandeep Alse, a farmer who grows fruits and vegetables in Marathwada, a drought-prone region in Maharashtra, found it difficult to reach the market with his produce on time, due to poor infrastructure. The lack of cold storage facility in the vicinity added to his woes and much of his harvest was spoiled, making it difficult for him to sustain his livelihood.

Alse lives in Lohara village of Parbhani district in the western state, which gets only eight hours of electricity supply in a day. This meant there was no way he could store fruits and vegetables in a cooler. He used to incur losses after each harvest till matters took a turn for the better in 2016 when he bought Ecofrost, a solar-powered cold room.

“Earlier, we used to store our produce in grass and 15% of fruits and vegetables used to rot,” Alse told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Now we keep them in Ecofrost, which is a cold storage and cool temperature is maintained in it. Now our losses have reduced to just 2% of the harvest.”

Ecofrost is a cold storage that runs on solar power and has innovative thermal energy storage for providing backup during non-sunny hours. It is a brainchild of three IIT Kharagpur alumni — Devendra Gupta, Prateek Singhal and Vivek Pandey — who founded Ecozen Solutions Pvt Ltd.

Reducing post-harvest losses

The idea was to harness solar energy to help farmers sell fresh produce by storing crops in a solar-powered cold room and reduce post-harvest losses in return. Indian horticulture loses about 18% of its fruits and vegetables produce due to lack of quality infrastructure and storage facilities.

“We initially started providing solar pumping for farmers who did not have energy access for irrigation. These were installed in rural parts of India where power is a major problem. We used to interact with farmers on a daily basis and understood their pain-point of post-harvest losses, mainly due to improper storage and handling of perishables,” Gupta, CEO and co-founder of the company, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “We put the technological innovations we were doing for the big cold storages and our knowledge of harvesting solar energy in the most efficient way and came up with Ecofrost.”

Lack of adequate power from the grid is a reason that farmers are not able to opt for cold storage. Hence, for farmers like Alse, off-grid solar storage has come as a boon. It is also enabling them to retain the quality of their produce for a longer period and fetch extra income.

“Earlier, I had no storage so I always had to sell my produce right after the harvest at whatever price that would be offered to me before it turned bad. But now I can hold onto it and get a better price,” said Alse. He manages to keep his produce safe in his five-tonne storage house and sell his produce after peak season at better prices.

“The weather is getting erratic. And temperatures are increasing so mangoes get sunburnt if not sold immediately. Recently, due to strong wind, everyone’s raw mangoes fell simultaneously. So the market got saturated with mangoes and the prices fell,” Alse told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “But I could wait before selling them and earned more. Similarly, In February, everyone’s tomatoes fell and the price crashed to Rs 2-3 per kilo. But I had kept five tonnes of tomatoes safe in Ecofrost and managed to sell those at Rs 25 a kilo after a month.”

Portable cold room

Ecofrost is a 20-foot container with five-tonne capacity that not just taps solar energy to run the system but also to charge the thermal plates installed inside the system that can provide backup for up to 30 hours. The system is portable and can be easily shifted from one place to another. It comes with a mobile phone based application in which farmers are automatically able to set the required temperature and humidity conditions by choosing the type of fruit or vegetable they want to store.

When Alse bought Ecofrost in 2016, its cost was INR 1.24 million (USD 18,000). But thanks to the state government’s schemes to promote solar power in the agricultural sector, he got a subsidy of INR 540,000. With his 70 hectares of farmland, he not only broke even in two years but his income has increased manifold since then.

There are currently over 80 Ecofrost systems installed across India that are helping in proper storage of perishables across the farm value chain. Sometimes, a group of farmers pool in and jointly buy the system, like in the Kanpur flower market in Uttar Pradesh, where some farmers are collectively using it for storing flowers.

For transforming the lives of farmers in areas that lack access to grid-connected electricity, this project has been chosen as a finalist for this year’s Ashden International Awards, a globally recognised measure for excellence in the field of green energy.

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