Op-Ed: With COVID-19 causing food insecurity, cold storage facilities are more important than ever for fishermen, here’s why…

Benson Kibiti, Director of Communications at Power for All

“At times, the catch is high yet we have nowhere to sell. If the county government revived the cold storage and fish value chain system, the prices of fish would fetch higher prices,” Fredrick Otieno, a fisherman on the western shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya says in an interview with the Business Daily. Otieno’s sentiments came after a cold storage plant funded by the European Union broke down in 2013. A day’s catch must be sold quickly or thrown away. For an industry that employs 12 million people (58% in the fishing and 42% in the processing sector) in Africa alone, lack of proper cold storage remains a serious problem for many fishing communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 16% of the total seafood loss occurs during post-harvest operations due to lack of proper cold storage, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

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The fisheries sector is crucial to food and nutrition security, and its importance is growing given the need for food security and access to nutritious food during this time of high stress and uncertainty due to COVID-19. There is a need for sustainable healthy diets which are crucial in protecting people’s immunity as well as functional food supply chains. As former International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Director General Shenggen Fan, writes, “COVID-19 is a health crisis. But it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken.”

According to the latest Africa’s Pulse, the World Bank’s bi-annual analysis of the state of the region’s economies, COVID-19 has the potential to create a severe food security crisis in the region, with agricultural production contracting between 2.6% and 7% in the scenario with trade blockages. Transport routes blockages are particularly obstructive for fresh food supply chains but also affect basic grains and staples. 

The seafood supply chain is highly dependent on a well-functioning cold chain and just like any other chain, it’s only as strong as its weakest link. It’s highly dependent on electricity to power refrigerators and freezers to maintain the quality of frozen fish products. If the power supply is interrupted, the whole chain can be jeopardized. Access to reliable electricity is, therefore, one of the most critical requirements to ensure the safety and quality of seafood in any cold chain.  In rural and remote areas that are dependent on fishing but are challenged by little or no access to grid electricity, deploying decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions such as mini-grids and solar-powered freezers and refrigerators can help to reduce losses.

Fish and seafood loss and waste is shockingly high at over a third of all fish and seafood caught or farmed. Illustration by Mark Garrison, data from the FAO

Fish and seafood loss and waste is shockingly high at over a third of all fish and seafood caught or farmed. Illustration by Mark Garrison, data from the FAO

Innovation is already happening across the continent. In Mozambique, Winrock International’s GreenTech project is working with SunDanzer Refrigeration to develop solar chilling products for use by artisanal fish traders. In Ghana, a Munich-based solar system provider Redavia recently installed a 90 kW solar PV system at Movelle’s cold storage facility for frozen fish products while in Nigeria, ColdHubs has deployed solar-powered cold rooms for coastal communities in Niger-Delta region to serve more than 200 fishermen and retailers. In Somalia, Power OffGrid plans to build a solar-powered ice block making plant and a cold-storage facility in Cadale region, North of Mogadishu. “Lack of electricity to power cold storage facilities has kept fishermen fearful of rotting fish, or selling their catch at reduced prices in the afternoon before they turn sour,” said Abdullahi Malin, co-founder, and chief technology officer of Power Offgrid.

In the Islands of Lake Victoria in East Africa, local fishermen had been unable to organize the cold-chain and logistics to supply Tilapia to demand centers in Dar Es Salaam. JUMEME, a solar mini-grid company, is closing this gap. The company purchases Tilapia from local fishermen paying fair prices making this business attractive to more and more fishermen, cleans the fish, deep-freezes the Tilapia using its locally generated mini-grid electricity, packs it in cooler boxes, delivers it via ferries to the mainland and onwards via lorries to wholesalers in Dar Es Salaam where the Tilapia is sold with a margin. Jumeme has created 60 permanent jobs for its employees, and over 45 fishermen are earning revenue from the business leading to increased income to 500 people in 108 households. 

In Kisaba Village, located on Bukasa Island in Uganda, 90% of the income generated in the village is fishing related. Most people rely on flake ice as the main tool for preservation during handling and transport. But getting flake ice is not a simple task. Most fishmongers need to buy flake ice in Entebbe and travel six hours back to Kisaba village for use. This process is inefficient and costly.  The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) launched the Ssese Islands Mini-grid Project in 2018. The 100kW solar mini-grid helps offset the costs of ice by selling locally-made, lower-cost flaked ice to island fishers. As a result, fishmongers save an average of USD 2 per bag of ice. They also save time and saw about a 35% reduction in post-harvest losses.

The deployment of solar power in the seafood supply chain will not just enhance food security, it will also allow communities that are highly dependent on fishing to earn more. Besides improving economic gains through safe and expanded market connectivity, solar-powered cold-chains can help improve the resilience of fish farmers and the rural communities in which they are located. Without a reliable source of energy, the opportunity to increase incomes will remain unrealised.

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