The fishermen of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were faced with a double whammy in April 2020. As the lockdown shrunk their business, nearly a third of the catch rotted away. Even when they were desperately looking for ice to save the fish, the cold storages remained off-limits for them. This despite the fact that a third of the large refrigerated facilities in the two states were lying idle. The fisherfolk’s loss is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg for a country that ends up wasting at least USD 14 bn worth of fruits, vegetables, grains, fish and meat annually, leaving a vast section of the population, already on the fringes, in a more precarious state than ever.
Interestingly, while the fishermen were coming to terms with the setback, a small but significant development was underway. A team of three innovators from IIT-Madras successfully tested a portable cold storage solution that allowed the carriage of leafy vegetables from Puducherry to Chennai in an ordinary truck while retaining the freshness of the produce. Sometime later, they pushed the envelope with an unrefrigerated truckload of flowers that went from Bengaluru to Delhi. The flowers bore no sign of cold shock.
Called Box90, the specially designed thermal panels, containing proprietary chemicals, are placed inside an insulation box to keep liable-to-rot foodstuff at the desired temperatures (6 to 12 hours for fish and meat, and about a couple of days for greens). The product was designed to address the concerns of the very people left out of the big, centralised cold storage infrastructure. They are about 67 per cent of the farming community with small landholdings.
The innovation includes a patented chemical mix, also known as Phase Change Material (PCM), that plunges into sub-zero temperature three times faster than ordinary gel packs. It is packaged into High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) panels shaped like bricks with one-litre capacity, which are UV protected. These bricks are put into the freezer before being packed into insulated boxes or bags for transportation.
The accelerated pace of freezing translates into dual advantage: Firstly, there is a shorter turnaround time, increasing the frequency of the transportation cycle (there can be twice as many deliveries in the stipulated time). Additionally, the chemical can retain the temperature for a longer duration than the gel packs. Secondly, the operational costs decrease by almost 30% compared to a reefer vehicle because of savings on fuel.
The above-mentioned game-changing innovation is being developed by a Chennai based company, Tan90 Thermal Solutions Private Limited, which aims to change the cold chain in India, box by box. Their portfolio products are designed to plug the gaps, particularly, in the first and last mile of the food supply chain, thus reducing food wastage. The team, comprising six experienced professionals, is driven towards providing a solution that is affordable without compromising on the user experience.
“We gave the users a taste of freedom,” said Soumalya Mukherjee, one of the co-founders of Tan 90. “Our success stories are spread across 11 states, including three Farmer Producer Organisations in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan,” said the 28-year-old who has a Ph.D. from Department of Biotechnology, IIT-Madras. The other two co-founders are Rajanikant Rai and Shiv Sharma, both Ph.D. students from the same institution.
The product’s rising popularity must be viewed in the context of the deep-seated systemic issues of the cold storage sector. “The biggest problem with the current system is its one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t factor in the needs of marginal farmers. Instead of setting up units at the farmgate, the focus is on a centralised solution hardly suited to a vast country like ours. Let me give you an example that illustrates why it hasn’t worked till now. The government helped build a cold storage near Trichy, in Tamil Nadu, expecting farmers from far-flung areas to bear the transportation costs of their produce. Soon, the high operational expenditure of the facility resulted in steep rentals, which these farmers could not bear. Before long, the cold storage unit turned into a warehouse. So, apart from providing sops to develop infrastructure, the government should also be active in running these places; otherwise, there is no point of this entire exercise,” he said.
Infrastructure-wise, the country has a long way to go. The National Center for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) has identified a gap of 3.2 Mn MT in cold storage capacity in addition to the need of setting up 69,000 packhouses, 8,000 ripening chambers and deploying 50,000 reefer vehicles. Moreover, there is a dearth of land for setting up these plants: A 1,000 MT unit can take up 1 acre. The government has recently introduced the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund to build post-harvest storage and processing facilities. It remains to be seen how marginal farmers benefit from this move.
Tan90 has created a level-playing field for both marginal farmers and aggregators. The company has already deployed more than 200 units of 40-litre and 60-litre capacities in 11 states.
“Its modular design and energy-efficient system empowers users to turn any room into a cold storage unit or transport temperature-sensitive items in ordinary vehicles,” said Rajanikant.
Marginal farmers just need to pack the foodstuff in thermal boxes, which are designed to minimize thawing, and ferry them on two and four-wheelers.
“In a successful case of last-mile support, small milk vendors in Chennai on cycles and bikes could keep their customers happy without fretting about the milk getting spoilt in heat and humidity,” said Shiv. Apart from fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products, flowers, fishes and shrimps, biological products and beverages can also be stored.
Tan90 has won 10 awards, including the Open Innovation Challenge in IIGP 2.0, DST (GoI), Tata Trusts, Lockheed Martin, 2019, and the Social Alpha Energy Challenge 2.0 in the same year.
Why are we investing in Tan90
Social Alpha observed that low demand at the farmgate level on certain days when the vegetable is plucked leads to wastage due to unavailability of reliable cold storage infrastructure. In addition, due to the disconnect between supply and demand, the farmers are prone to distress sale of their crops at below par prices. This is topped up with steep operational cost on account of high reliance on diesel-based cold storage or alternatively high upfront cost of existing decentralized renewable energy solutions. Thus, there is a clear need for a solution that is clean, affordable, reliable and provides end-to end service right from the farm gate to the customer outlets.
Such solutions are expected to enable increase in income of the farmer due to longer shelf life of perishable produce along with reduced wastage of crop. This has become possible due to Tan90’s deep science and technology innovation. The low cost solution developed by Tan90 has gone through a detailed due diligence process including exert evaluations to assess the technical feasibility, social and environmental impact and field acceptance. This was further followed by a financial and business model due diligence.
Social Alpha has invested in Tan90 as the entrepreneurs have built a promising solution that can address the problem statements in the cold chain and are driven towards making the innovation inclusive for the community. We believe that given the high demand for an affordable portable cold storage solution and the execution capabilities of the Tan90 team, the company is geared towards an exciting growth journey.