Youth-led solutions for vaccine and agricultural cold chain challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa
Across human comfort and safety and medical and agricultural cold chains, small- to mid-size cooling businesses are working to generate technological solutions and take advantage of new business models. This story about sustainable cooling solutions in action was originally published in Chilling Prospects 2021.
Triomphant Tchulang grew up between Bafoussam (West Cameroon) and Yaoundé (Central Cameroon), an area with a cold and mild climate. He later moved to Maroua (Northern Cameroon) for his schooling, where high temperatures and heatwaves threatened the health and safety of the community and created challenges in storing agricultural produce. Following the development of the renewable energy sector in recent years, Triomphant worked to address the challenges caused by excessive heat with the use of solar energy, building a prototype for an absorption solar refrigerator. There were a number of challenges at the outset, notably that the prototype only produced energy for portions of the day, the useful part of the refrigerator was very small compared to its overall size, and it could not reach freezing temperatures. After working to address these over a two-year period, the Bi-Solar Tech Fridge was created.
While more than 780 million people worldwide do not have access to reliable electricity, the FAO has estimated that around 37 percent of food products in Sub-Saharan Africa are lost between harvest and consumption due to inadequate conservation and storage. Meanwhile, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has highlighted the need for cold chains and cooling systems powered by reliable and sustainable energy. Despite many new energy policies and efforts on energy access for remote areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, the necessary infrastructure for cold storage for vaccines and other medical goods remains insufficient in many of these areas. The fact that solar energy is abundant in Sub-Saharan Africa led the Bi-Solar Tech Fridge team to create solar-powered cold storage units using one compressor for multiple applications, including pre-cooling, cold storage and charging a cold storage unit.
The team behind the Bi-Solar Tech Fridge was able to set up a remarkably high-impact project that contributes to eight of the 17 SDGs. Technically, the units make use of solar power and non-toxic refrigerants, achieving thermal conversion efficiency of 70 percent and PV conversion efficiency of 15 percent, with overall device efficiency of about 45 percent. By using solar energy, the solution can enable reliable access to cooling for vaccines and medical goods in off-grid settings, and at scale the solution could store over 360,000 vaccine doses in rural areas.
When applied to the agriculture cold chain, these systems can support meaningful benefits for community nutrition by reducing energy needs for food storage and supplying any excess energy to power lighting or charge phones. To produce the units, the team recycles old refrigerator appliances and refurbishes them. This helps to create jobs in particular for women and young people, who have traditionally been involved in collecting the materials for manufacturing. Already, the project has created 15 jobs and the company hopes to employ over 135 people at scale.
As a result of these efforts, the Bi-Solar Tech Fridge technology was the runner up out of 130 teams competing in the innovation competition of the SEforALL Youth Summit in February 2021