What Needs to Change?

The challenges of facilitating access to a range of higher value markets for farmers in developing countries and meeting the growing urban demand for food produce and related convenience food products, while addressing the issue of post-harvest loss of perishable produce through affordable and sustainable cold chain provision, require concerted action by several players, often working in coordinated partnerships. Governments, NGOs, philanthropists, aid agencies, banks, investors, commercial companies, engineers, community leaders and farmers all have an important role to play. In doing so, it is essential for a sustainable outcome that these individuals and organisations shift their thinking away from the ‘business as usual’ model of cold chain deployment rooted in fossil fuel sources and energy insecurity, to one based on the use of clean technologies, renewable energy and waste cold. One way forward is a model where aid donors playa catalytic role while the for-profit sector drives the economic component of sustainability. Since liquid air appears, on early initial assessment from simple modelling, to have the potential of sound economics for a holistic sustainable cold chain system, the key will be overcoming the initial fixed costs of adoption and building local capacity and capability to start implementing a cryogen infrastructure.


Governments of developing countries have a significant role to play in stimulating the deployment of cold chains by creating an attractive enabling environment within which they can be built and operated. This can be achieved through policy initiatives, regulatory frameworks and financial support, which remove barriers to development and attract investment, with a particular focus on adopting technology and infrastructure that is clean and sustainable. These issues can include addressing importation and tax policy, infrastructure management and other regulations or subsidies that could either aid or undermine the adoption of new technology, as well as streamlining and standardising procedures and supporting economic modelling and local in-country commercial scale demonstration of an energy secure, sustainable approach. However, while the most pressing need for such infrastructure is in the rapidly industrializing nations of Asia and emerging economies of sub-Saharan Africa, as is common with many renewables and cleantech based solutions, the technological and engineering expertise required to deliver is largely concentrated in the mature developed economies of the world. Governments of these nations should therefore take the lead in addressing this global imbalance in cleantech knowledge by incentivising the dissemination and installation of sustainable cold chain infrastructure knowledge through programmes such as ‘aid for trade’. Such an initiative does, however, need to be pursued in parallel with development of a cleantech refrigeration blueprint for the mature economies that utilises their technical expertise, access to capital and policy mechanisms so experience can continue to be accumulated and shared.

NGOs are called upon to champion the international cause of easy to build and operate engineered solutions which reduce perishable food loss and to act as enablers to encourage investment in sustainable and reliable cold chain systems. These development focused organisations are uniquely positioned to work with local communities and the private sector to raise awareness and drive the campaign for affordable cleantech based cold chains and a reliable clean energy system, including local capability building through the provision of appropriate training, knowledge and management programmes across borders. Mechanisms for the effective development, management and transfer of knowledge and sharing of ‘best practice’, including the use of cryogens to provide power and cooling, in preference to diesel which provides power, heat and pollution, should be established amongst NGOs. They can also play a major role in collaborating with government and private sector to prioritise research funding for economic modelling of tank of cold solutions and to accelerate commercial scale demonstration. If NGOs can work with governments, for-profit companies and other partners, sustainable cold chain development will enable the move from aid to trade; and investment can become an economic catalyst for longer term higher revenue agricultural output. It is important in this regard to shift the focus from aid provision for yield increases alone to a more holistic approach that is inclusive of enabling market access and can create a virtuous cycle of rural reinvestment.

Secure, reliable cold chains are vital in helping minimise food losses and protecting food quality, nutritional value and safety in developing nations. Robust, affordable, easy to build, use and maintain solutions for local context must be developed by the engineering community and deployed to increase food security; thereby driving rural development in newly emerging regions and supporting the growth taking place in the rapidly industrialising countries. Further, the international engineering community must work to ensure that the governments of these nations have access to the engineering knowledge, design know-how and suitable clean technologies to enable them to maximise the opportunities for the development of wider joined-up sustainable cold economies from cold chain and tank of cold starting points.

UK engineers both academic and industrial are leaders in mechanical engineering systems thinking, cryogenics and liquid air based technologies, as exemplified by the recently established Birmingham University Centre for Cryogenic Energy Storage, the work of the UK industrial gases sector, the Dearman Engine Company, Highview Power Storage and the Liquid Air Energy Network. These engineers and engineering based organisations must work in consultation and collaboration with local and regional in-country decision makers to ensure that solutions for developing economies are carefully aligned with the technical requirements and engineering capacity specific to the region. This will require work to be done on the issues of equipment and plant scaling so that smaller facilities can be utilised in distributed operations that form part of a coherent holistic system. In addition the profession will need to engage with local providers of engineering education and training to ensure the necessary skills are developed and local capability is built. To facilitate such initiatives the creation of a technology and training deployment roadmap, from farm to fork, would be a useful first step contribution by the profession. This will involve tasks that include defining the needs for pre-cooling/chilling/freezing technology, energy storage, cold storage and refrigerated transport vehicles that use new energy vectors to harness renewable energy and sources of cold.

Finally, finance and investment are the ultimate key to realising the full potential of sustainable cold chains and in this regard international organisations such as the World Bank and regional development banks can provide long term infrastructure debt financing on terms which smaller developing countries may not otherwise be able to access. Clean technology systems based on renewable energy sources are challenging due to their financial structure, which is heavily dependent on up-front capital costs, and banks need to recognise this and play a role in offering finance appropriately structured to suit the cash flow realities of developing rural communities. International donor agencies, many of which are currently focusing attention on global food losses and waste reduction, can also provide seed money for the capital costs of piloting cold chain development efforts based on renewable energy sources and clean technologies. In both cases however banks and NGOs need to make themselves aware of the specific characteristics of the technologies they are being asked to finance so that appropriate informed financing decisions can be made. Businesses have a significant role to play here too. Retailers, particularly those operating international food supply chains that source produce in developing economies, have a responsibility to consider the sustainability of the cold chains they are investing in. More generally, businesses need to recognise the commercial opportunity of investments in off-grid and micro-grid renewable based energy systems, as well as in holistic sustainable cold chain systems based on cryogens; encouraging entrepreneurialism and unlocking further commercial development investment opportunities. In a gold rush business invests in shovels, in a cold rush it needs to invest in cold air.