Hi everyone! I’m Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making a difference on climate change. Today I’m excited to be moving to the continent of Africa where I’m interviewing Dysmus Kisilu of Solar Freeze.
Spiffy: Welcome, Dysmus! Now I can’t help but notice the dichotomy of your company name — Solar Freeze! Can you tell me about what climate challenge you’re working on?
Dysmus: Yes, it is a bit of polar opposites, and it might be different from what you’re imagining! Did you know that food loss amounts to roughly $310 billion in developing countries? Estimates from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank suggests that up to 47 percent of the $940 billion needed to eradicate hunger in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 will be required for the post-harvest system. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and tubers have the highest loss rate of any food in developing countries, with 45-50% occurring during post-harvest and processing. This can all be traced back to constraints in harvesting techniques, as well as a lack of storage and cooling facilities.
Spiffy: That’s a lot of waste! Now I’m beginning to understand — you need cooling facilities to keep food fresher for longer, is that right?
Dysmus: It sure is, Spiffy. Temperature control is the most important factor in reducing post-harvest loss of fresh produce. Today, an estimated 470 million smallholder farmers in developing countries lose an average of 35 percent of their income to food spoilage. The environmental effects of food loss and waste are enormous. The total carbon footprint of food wastage, including land use change, is around 4.4 Gigatonnes (Gt) CO2eq per year. Similarly 1.4 billion hectares of land — which amounts to 28% of the world’s agricultural area — is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted. We cannot afford to allow these losses to continue!
Spiffy: No we can’t! These numbers are astonishing! What exactly motivated you to work on this, and who all is helping you? It seems like a daunting task.
Dysmus: Well, Spiffy, our team is a new generation of young Africans — our average age is 27! Like many of our peers, we watched our parents, grandparents, and those before them, tirelessly work and toil on rural farms, only to see a huge chunk of their fresh produce rot away due to lack of cold storage units. Oftentimes “middlemen” would quickly swoop in and offer dirt cheap prices, forcing farmers to sell out of desperation and fear of post-harvest loss.
Spiffy: That would have been very hard to witness and experience.
Dysmus: It was. And do you know what lesson we learned early in life? Don’t do agriculture! It’s a backbreaking endeavor that will leave you with crusty hands and empty pockets. We voted with our feet and opted for a better life in the big city. That was then — and now the only hope we see for our generation is to make an impact through agriculture. We’ve decided to utilize our skills in renewable energy, engineering, agriculture, business management, ICT (information and communication technologies), and communication to make a difference for smallholder farmers.
Spiffy: So you’ve combined all these skill sets to create solar power cooling units? What kind of impact is this having on individuals?
A mobile solar-powered cold room enables farmers to store fresh agricultural produce in temperature controlled units. (Photo courtesy of Dysmus Kisilu)
Dysmus: The direct beneficiaries of the project include 3,000 smallholder farmers, 80% of whom are women. Farmers who have accessed the Solar Freeze cold storage solutions have reduced their post-harvest loss by 95%. We are also pioneering an innovative business model to enable more women to own and operate the solar-powered cold storage units. Through a "Hubs and Spokes" model, rural women receive training to own and operate the solar-powered cold storage units in their communities and become independent micro-franchisee entrepreneurs in the rural areas.
Spiffy: Dysmus, this local impact is amazing. Has your road always been smooth? Have you ever encountered any roadblocks or failures along the way?
Dysmus: Oh yes, Spiffy. Prior to Solar Freeze, I founded Farmazone — a platform that used mobile phones to provide innovative solutions for smallholder farmers to connect via SMS, USSD, and voice messages to value chain operators such as cold storage providers, fertilizer manufacturers, and buyers of fresh produce. The innovation used the power of what the smallholder farmers already had in the palm of their hand — a mobile phone — to connect independent agriculture entrepreneurs to sector value chain actors. However, the product failed to take off, and I ended up shutting that company down.
Spiffy: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
Dysmus: Don’t be! You know, Spiffy, through that failure I learned about the needs of rural farmers and developed an understanding about their lack of access to productive use assets and micro-financing options. Armed with this knowledge, I started Solar Freeze, and we’ve been able to successfully connect all the dots for the farmers.
Spiffy: It sounds like it was all a necessary part of your journey. You seem to be curating many lessons along the way. Do you have any other important teachers or lessons that you could share with us?
Dysmus: I have a good one for you Spiffy! I’ve learned about the power of patience from the many rural, small-scale, women farmers that I work with. Patience has enabled me to work out the road map for Solar Freeze, with a long-term perspective of what real change in the community would look like.
Spiffy: I think the future is looking very bright. Thank you for telling me about your work, Dysmus, it’s been an honor.
Dysmus Kisilu is the founder of Solar Freeze, a company that specializes in providing renewable energy solutions to smallholder farmers in Kenya to increase agricultural productivity. To date, Dysmus has worked with 3,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya to increase agricultural yields by more than 150 percent, by providing solar-powered irrigation kits and solar-powered cold storage units. (Nominated by the Africa Business Conference at Harvard Business School)