Fresh & Chill: How a Solar-Powered Walk-In Cold Room is Cutting Post-Slaughter Losses for Butchers in Kenya
The smell of meat on the grill, stares from curious onlookers and persuasive sales pitches rented the air as we strolled through Burma Market in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. Burma Market is a critical component of Nairobi’s fresh livestock meat distribution chain, employing thousands of people and feeding millions of Kenyans within the city and beyond. Every morning, delivery trucks flock to the market to service awaiting buyers who purchase meat for consumption in hotels, supermarkets, schools, and households.
On 26 May, the Global LEAP team visited Burma Market to check on the progress of Baridi, a 2022 Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge preliminary product finalist, owned and operated by Tree_Sea.mals Limited. Baridi is a single-phase, solar-powered walk-in cold room capable of chilling up to 1000 kilograms of meat at once. The 3.4 x 2.1 x 2.2-meter unit has an indoor adjustable temperature of 0 to 5°C, powered by a rooftop solar panel during the day. Excess power generated from the solar panels is stored in a 12kWh Lithium-Ion battery for utilization during low light periods and at night.
Prior to the unit’s installation, butchers in the market relied on standard box freezers for all their cooling needs. The majority of these box freezers have a capacity of 300 kilograms, requiring users to cut whole carcasses into smaller pieces for easier storage. Additionally, due to frequent break-ins at the market, the butchers risked financial losses from the theft of their freezers and meat. Having worked with pastoralist communities in Kenya, and recognizing the opportunity for cooling as a service in urban markets, Tree_Sea.mals installed their game-changing cold storage solution at Burma Market during in late 2021.
A Game Changer
“The post-slaughter urban meat market is underserved…Our goal is to enhance food security and minimize post-slaughter loss by increasing the shelf life of fresh meat,” said Tracy Kimathi, Founder of Tree_Sea.mals Limited. The cold room was installed after three failed attempts and a year-long collaborative deployment process involving a team of researchers and industry specialists. As of May 2022, it had processed over 70,000 kilograms of meat.
“Our cold room operates at 60–100% capacity every day. There is so much demand for our cooling services that we are going to introduce a second unit in this market,” said Tracy. In contrast to the widely used box freezers at Burma Market, Baridi chills whole carcasses. Further, being off-grid, the unit shields customers from possible spoilage arising from power cuts or grid down times.
“There is a perception among customers that frozen meat is bad meat. The advantage of our unit is that it chills, so the meat will come out of storage looking fresh, not pale and frosty,” added Tracy. “The second unit we’re introducing is a freezer, but we can always raise the temperatures if we want to chill.”
Tracy and her team leverage a sophisticated Internet of Things (IoT) tracking system to simplify customer journeys and enhance operational efficiency. Upon arrival at the stall, customer and product details are entered into a cloud-based inventory system. The meat is then tagged using Radio Frequency Identification (RFId) chips before entering storage. This process is significantly shorter for repeat clients as their details already exist in the system.
“We partnered with the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) to train our staff before they started working with the unit. It was a two-week training on asset management and stock keeping. We regularly train them on solar operations, basic solar chilling and how to troubleshoot in the event of a technical hitch,” said Tracy.
A kilogram of steak is frozen for five Kenyan Shillings per day, for a maximum of seven days. Payments are done only through mobile money to maximize stall security and avoid unsanitary contact between money and carcasses. “There was an attempted break-in via the roof on the first night after we installed the cold room. Luckily, the unit’s motion sensors flagged this and promptly alerted us. We rushed here and averted loss of property which would have been a major setback for us,” said Tracy.
After the incident, Tree_Sea.mals beefed up security by installing a Closed-Circuit Television (CCTv) camera and reinforcing the stall’s ceiling with metal barriers. “In addition to motion sensors, we now have a video feed which helps us to monitor everything remotely,” said Tracy as she proudly pointed to a desktop monitor displaying numerous CCTV video feeds.
The Road Ahead
The Tree_Sea.mals team hopes to build 70 Baridi units by their seventh year of operation and expand to as many meat markets across the East African region as possible. The primary challenge facing this expansion plan is limited space. While urban meat markets offer convenient proximity to customers with a higher paying ability, securing stall space large enough to house a cold storage unit is no small feat. Urban meat markets also present a raft of technical challenges which hinder ease of assembly and security of the walk-in cold rooms.
Even so, the cost basis of prioritizing urban settings is clear: “We did not set up within pastoralist communities because potential customers in urban meat markets have a higher ability and willingness to pay for cooling-as-a-service compared to those in rural pastoralist settings,” said Tracy. Another advantage of an urban setting is that it allows Tree_Sea.mals to quickly modify business operations in response to market trends. For example, Tree_Sea.mals plans to increase the cost of cooling a kilogram of meat from five to seven Kenyan Shillings per day on account of increased demand.
Participating in the 2022 Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge has empowered Tree_Sea.mals to leverage data as a driver of efficient business operations. They are currently scoping meat markets using geo-mapping services and utilizing power consumption, unit occupancy and customer demographics data collected from their installation to inform future expansion plans.
This installation exemplifies a successful urban application of what would be considered a typical rural off-grid cold storage solution. “It’s rewarding to witness increasing demand for our services because that is an indicator that the solution is impactful”, said Tracy. “In the future, we hope to introduce thermal cooling. Our current set up uses Lithium-Ion batteries, which are very expensive. Thermal cooling will be a good substitute, as it will lower operational costs”, added Tracy. For more information, please read this OGCCC halfway point article to learn how the competition’s field testing is benefiting stakeholders and follow us on Twitter for regular updates on the Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge.
About the Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC)
The Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge is an international competition that identifies and promotes the most energy-efficient, sustainable and cost-effective technologies designed for use by smallholder farmers and producers to meet cold storage requirements for fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, and dairy products.