Access to refrigeration is essential for farmers to reduce post-harvest losses, scale up and explore new business opportunities. However, some current systems in place do not take the local context into consideration and are often very expensive. Solar Cooling Engineering seeks to address these challenges by promoting solar cooling solutions that are adapted and assembled locally. Solar Cooling Engineering is a spinoff company of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering of the University of Hohenheim. Since 2014, it has developed and assessed small and medium-scale solar cooling systems for the Agri-food sector. This includes the development of its SelfChill system, a solar-powered cooling unit, which received funding from the Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund.
In this interview with Solar Cooling Engineering, the company’s Founder and CEO, Dr Victor Torres-Toledo, explains the motivations behind the creation of its SelfChill technology. He also discusses the benefits of local manufacturing and assembly of off-grid appliances, as well as how the Efficiency for Access Fund has helped the development of his company.
1) Solar Cooling Engineering has a range of climate-resilient appliances. What motivated your company to create these appliances?
We are a group of people that have worked for big corporations. Nowadays, the challenge of creating sustainable products is that the market is influenced by economies of scale. We think this is the reason why the industry hasn’t changed as much as we would have expected it to. Therefore, from the beginning, our motivation was not only to create physical products, but also a platform for change. For example, we sell components and services that small companies can use to grow, and help them to offer climate-resilient appliances. Our products are energy-efficient from a technical point of view and we embed sustainability into the marketing of these solutions. We support local manufacturers, local design, development, assembly, distribution and maintenance.
2) You are developing a project called Solar-Powered Ice Block Production in Africa. Why is this important?
We develop components, such as solar-powered cooling units, which can be combined to create different products. At the moment, we focus on cold rooms, milk tanks and medium-sized icemakers, which are fully modular and scalable. Our current projects aim to improve our prototypes and test them under real conditions. These help to build awareness around how easy and cost-efficient solar refrigeration can be nowadays. Mostly, they demonstrate that we don’t need to import finalised systems from abroad, but rather, we can create and adapt solutions locally, even in rural areas.
The project is very important because it helps us to test an example system we hadn’t previously tested. The system aims to produce a machine that is suitable for the production of bigger ice blocks. It is also able to reproduce a semi-industrial ice machine. Beforehand, it was something we had only tested in laboratory conditions, so this gives us the opportunity to test it on a larger scale, under real conditions and, therefore, to make the adjustments that are needed.
3) The project emphasises local manufacturing. What environmental benefits could this bring to the off- and weak-grid appliance sector?
The most important thing for us is to reduce the cost of the finalised systems in rural areas. We have observed that even though sustainable solutions are available around big cities, the distribution costs and margin of middlemen makes technologies expensive in rural areas. From the other side, we also know that trust is very important in local communities and customers don’t typically buy anything coming from the major cities. We are convinced that the use of components that can be easily assembled in rural areas can reduce the cost of technologies and address the high demand for refrigeration. At the same time, they can help generate sustainable jobs.
We want to ensure sustainability throughout the production process, from the components themselves to the power source. This approach also allows us to use local materials and helps to promote a circular economy. For example, it can help create products that can be recycled and repaired more easily compared to those that come directly from a factory.
4) What other social and economic benefits could this have for people living in off- and weak-grid areas?
People living in these areas are not just farmers waiting for a great product that could improve their lives. We think society is more complex than this; there are also technicians, teachers, engineers, leaders and people with different motivations and talents like we have in our own society. This means our approach not only has a positive impact on the income generation related to agricultural value chains, but can also help boost job creation and capacity building. We need to pay special attention to the local context and be aware that sustainable improvements only occur when local markets lead the change. That’s why we need to focus on how we can offer opportunities and independence to communities instead of just offering products.
5) You won funding through the second call of the Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund. How has the Fund helped grow your company?
As you know, our company emerged from the Institute of Agricultural Engineering of the University of Hohenheim and we have an existing cooperation with a German solar off-grid company called Phaesun. Since 2013, public funds have been essential for us to gain the experience we have today. The Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund has assisted our company at a time where we were not yet financially stable. Efficiency for Access also helped us before and during the funding period through their working groups and publications. We feel a part of an initiative that knows which development measures need to be taken and how to create synergies between different stakeholders. We are very proud to work with Efficiency for Access and are grateful for its support.
By Eleanor Wagner, Marketing Communications Executive and Sarah Hambly, Partnership and Communications Manager, at Energy Saving Trust, Co-Secretariat of the Efficiency for Access Coalition