Vaccination programs have underscored the importance of a cold chain infrastructure that is lacking in much less prosperous countries. Sustainable solutions offer many other long-term benefits.
In our overheated world, 2.2 billion people are without clean and efficient cooling. This endangers their health, but also their ability to provide for themselves.
Those at risk include many millions of small farmers in the least prosperous countries in the world. When they see their precious crops wither in the heat, or their carefully cultivated fruits and vegetables turned to mud, they also see the hope of a better life rotting away.
Wider access to refrigeration would boost the roll-out of coronavirus vaccines. But even without this massive boost, investment in affordable, sustainable refrigeration is needed to raise living standards in villages around the world.
Lack of refrigeration is one of the reasons for the shocking amounts of food wasted every day. This equates to 1.3 billion tons of production per year, or a third of all food grown worldwide.
Conventional cooling technology is too expensive for most. Ironically, it is also a huge driver of the emissions fueling the climate crisis – a major threat to those same small holders.
In contrast, scaling up sustainable, proven solutions can bring cool benefits to a wide variety of farmers and producers, opening up new markets and providing higher and more stable income.
For these solutions to succeed, they must overcome the day-to-day challenges that marginalized people face – such as how to pay for the initial cost of new products and services, or how to keep equipment working when parts and mechanics are scarce.
These barriers are great, but not insurmountable, as long as innovators work with their customers and consider the causes and consequences of deep-seated poverty.Pioneers who take this approach are already leading the way in rural communities.
For example, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Promethean Power Systems’ sustainable refrigeration technology helps groups of villagers cool milk so that it can be sold to major distributors and retailers.
Promethean chillers reduce the need for polluting diesel generators and can be used in areas where the power grid is weak or absent.
In recent months, Promethean has launched a smaller version of their cooling unit – suitable for even more remote and isolated communities.
The company has partnered with local NGO Swayam Shikshan Prayog to ensure that women take advantage of the business opportunities this brings.
Another pioneer in sustainable refrigeration in India is Ecozen, whose solar-powered cold stores help growers store vegetables, flowers and other produce.
The units are portable, which means they can be rented out to support the harvest of different crops at different times of the year.
And just like Promethean, Ecozen is developing a smaller model that will bring cooling to more farmers.
Both companies’ technology uses monitoring software and real-time analytics to predict and address problems. The cost of living without refrigeration can be a treat.
In fishing communities in Ghana’s Volta region, families can spend up to a dollar a day on blocks of ice to keep their catch fresh – a large portion of their income. A more popular preservation method is smoking fish.
But smoked fish attracts a lower price than fresh produce, and the demand for firewood also threatens the environment and stimulates local deforestation.
In the Volta region and elsewhere in West Africa, solar energy company PEG Africa is testing the sale and rental of solar-powered refrigerators and freezers to small businesses – including in fishing communities, where women handle the daily catch.
Families, including many who already use solar energy to power their lights and charge their phones, can increase their earnings.
All three companies offer fair and affordable financing, which is vital for farmers who have little hope of building the savings to make large one-off payments.
And all three are rolling out their latest solutions with the help of Ashden’s Fair Cooling Fund, which has supported innovation by increasing access to cooling for those most at risk. We know there are clean, accessible cold chain solutions.
But they will not scale up without financial support. For investors and funders, supporting these solutions delivers a range of development benefits – not only increasing incomes and moving communities towards a low-carbon future, but also addressing gender inequality, boosting nutrition and reducing environmental damage.
A cooler future for all is possible if we stand behind the communities and businesses that lead the way. Harriet Lamb is CEO of Ashden, the climate solutions charity.