By Leon Louw

The Rwandan government has formally launched the new African Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain (ACES) that is hosted in-country by the University of Rwanda. The cooling centre is a boost for African farmers.

At the inception meeting, a high-level cross-department team was established to lead the Centre’s development, which will be a boost for African farmers. In collaboration with the core technical partners – the University of Birmingham and UN Environment Programme’s United for Efficiency (UNEP U4E) – progress in setting up the centre has quickened with the official endorsement of planned activities.

ACES will help get farmers’ produce to market quickly and efficiently – reducing food waste, boosting profits, and creating jobs as well as look to improve cold-chains for vaccines and health, now recognised globally as a key challenge for Covid-19 immunisation.

ACES brings together multi-disciplinary UK and in-country expertise with commercial partners to develop and demonstrate ways of delivering affordable lowest carbon emissions cooling and cold-chain systems while meeting Africa’s social and economic cooling needs. Associated “Living Labs” will conduct state-of-the-art research and offer technical assistance, demonstrations, and knowledge transfer. The first Living Lab is anticipated in rural Rwanda, with others to follow in additional countries.

Dr. Mujawamariya Jeanne d’Arc, Rwanda Minister of Environment, says that the Rwanda Cooling Initiative with UNEP U4E has assisted the development of National Cooling Strategy in 2019 and it is now providing the foundation for ACES, which will bring together talent from across Africa to develop and deploy world-class cooling solutions. The Rwandan government supports the establishment of the Centre with our partners over the months and years ahead,” says d’Arc.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, Cranfield University, London South Bank University and Heriot Watt University are applying their expertise with rural cooling and cold-chain, backed by funding from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The project’s first cooling needs and gap assessment report is nearing completion, after in-country interviews with representatives from agricultural co-operatives and communities across Rwanda, as well as key ministries, private companies, and NGOs. With analysis of energy consumption and sources, food and value losses, facilities and equipment, refrigerants and cold chain demand, the report will help guide the design of ACES.

Rwanda is one of the least urbanised countries in Africa with 73% of the workforce employed in agriculture. In sub-Saharan Africa, 54% of workers rely on the agricultural sector. A further challenge is that agriculture in Rwanda is dominated by six million small and marginal farmers, each on average farming less than 0.6hectares of land.

Project co-developer and technical lead Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, says that farmers need robust means of getting perishable produce to urban markets and medical staff must move temperature-sensitive vaccines to rural communities, but cold chain logistics must be sustainable. “The Centre’s progress means we move closer to this goal in Rwanda and the wider continent without using fossil fuels – giving Africa the means to feed millions of citizens effectively and meet export targets to drive growth,” says Peters.

The project supports the Rwandan National Agricultural Export Development Board’s (NAEB) five-year strategy to double agricultural exports by 2024-25 and significantly increase exports of aqua-culture, beef, and other temperature-sensitive products.

At the same time, the work will contribute to not only supporting the efficient and equitable delivery of COVID-19 vaccination but also design solutions which contribute to long-term cold-chain and energy resilience with a lasting legacy.

Around 40% of Rwanda’s population live below the poverty threshold (USD1.90 a day) – with women, disabled, widowed, and rural populations disproportionately affected. According to the World Bank, food loss represents 12% of annual GDP, 21% of total land and contributes 16% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Traders with access to cooling facilities access higher value markets – worth up to 10 times the local market.

Rwanda’s population is estimated to nearly double by 2050. In a world where climate change has a negative impact on food cycles, intensifying food production alone is no longer a viable solution to respond to the emerging food demand. Mitigating food loss will be key to food security.

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