Helping Farmers Keep Their Cool

Jonathan Cox / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
A CoolBot device attached to an air-conditioning unit in a test cold room in Siem Reap. Courtesy of Horticulture Innovation Lab Courtesy of Horticulture Innovation Lab

One of a farmer’s greatest enemies is heat. As many as 50 percent of the fruit and vegetables harvested in Cambodia are lost because of heat – lettuce wilts, onions become slimy, tomatoes turn to mush.
Because of a lack of cold storage at most of the country’s farms, farmers are unable to save their vegetables for more than a few days at a time.
With funding from USAID, researchers from the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh and from the University of California Davis’ Horticulture Innovation Lab have been testing a cheap new device to keep rooms cold at a farming collective in Siem Reap, and in post-harvest trials in Phnom Penh.
The device, called CoolBot, was developed by a farmer in upstate New York and turns an ordinary air-conditioning unit into a powerful machine capable of dropping a room’s temperature to only 2 degrees Celsius. Placed next to the thermal coupling in an air-conditioning unit, it tricks the unit into thinking the room temperature is higher than it actually is, so the unit continues to pump out cold air. Placing the unit inside an insulated room creates a cheap walk-in cooler.
Dr. Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab, said she hopes it will lead to more, and cheaper, cold storage options in Cambodia.
“I think that cooling is essential to develop a vibrant produce industry in Cambodia based on local products,” she said.
Since few farmers in Cambodia have a way to preserve produce, they have to get it to market quickly before it goes bad. Many choose to sell the produce to vendors, who then sell to customers in exchange for a cut of the farmer’s profits.
The Siem Reap farming collective using the test cool room has already increased its profits by storing vegetables over time and then selling directly to their customers.
“They’re direct marketing to consumers in Siem Reap,” said Dr. Mitcham, “so they have an opportunity to market it at a better price.”
Along with enabling direct marketing, cold storage also gives farmers the option of storing produce until it goes out of season, when supply drops and prices are higher.
Despite the obvious advantages of a cold-storage room, the initial costs are too high for most farmers, coming to about $4,000 for the insulated room, air-conditioner, CoolBot and a year of electricity.
“That is beyond the reach of farmers, unless they can form a collective of some sort,” said Ieng Sophaleth, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture. Power cuts, common in rural Cambodia, could also make it difficult to keep a room cold.
Despite the high cost, Dr. Mitcham said that based on calculations on return on investment done in Bangladesh, a cold storage room could pay for itself within a year.
“If the growers can make enough money selling the vegetables to cover the cost of the cool room, then the technology can spread,” she said. “There appears to be good demand for high quality local vegetables.”
For now, CoolBot is one of the only cold storage systems being tested in the country. Though several companies in Thailand and Vietnam provide cold storage, Gnoun Meantech, director general of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, said he had not heard of any companies investing in bringing it to Cambodia.
Mr. Sophaleth, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, said this needs to change.
“There’s a lot of wastage on Cambodian vegetables and fruit,” he said. “It’s an area that demands consideration and investment.”

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