In countries like India or Uganda, where farmers struggle to grow enough food to supply booming populations, around 40% of the crops that are produced never make it to market. Without the money for refrigeration–and in many cases, without power to run a fridge–fruits and vegetables often rot before a slow-moving transportation system can get them to consumers.
A new low-cost solution helps produce last up to 10 times longer without any refrigeration. Instead of cooling food, the Wakati keeps it hydrated. It’s powered by a small solar panel, so it can work anywhere, and it preserves bananas or mangoes essentially as well as an expensive, energy-sucking fridge.
The product was inspired by traditional evaporation coolers, simple devices that have been used to preserve produce for thousands of years. The traditional coolers use too much water to be a sustainable solution. But a product designer studying the problem of food waste noticed something interesting: The “coolers” manage to preserve food without really lowering temperatures very much.
“I decided to run an experiment: I would try to preserve fruit and vegetables in a hot, extremely humid microclimate,” says Belgium-based designer Arne Pauwels, founder of Wakati.
“I took a waste paper basket, placed an evaporator in it with some crops of lettuce inside and outside, heated the room to over 86 degrees, and waited a couple of days,” he says. “To my surprise the crops inside the paper basket looked fine, but the ones outside were completely wilted.”
Pauwels designed a simple tent-like structure for his new system, with a tarp and frame, a few zippers, and an evaporator inside. Tests show that it works better than traditional evaporation coolers; it saves water, and it’s self-sterilizing, so fungus doesn’t grow on it. The humid microclimate in the tent keeps produce fresh by preserving the cells inside each fruit or vegetable.
Though it can’t keep produce as long as an industrial fridge, it works well for keeping food fresh long enough to reach markets. “Wakati focuses on short-term storage–up to 10 days–but at a fraction of the cost and energy usage of a fridge,” Pauwels says.
He’s focused on bringing the product to smallholder farmers first, who can benefit from it most. “It gives you more time to store your fruits and vegetables before going to market,” he says. “You also have better quality, so crops look much better. And it prevents weight loss–normally produce loses 20-30% of its weight, and your profit evaporates along with it.”
The Wakati is designed to help lift farmers out of poverty. “Currently, most systems focus on increasing yield to compensate for the losses after harvest,” says Pauwels. “But when you lower the losses you can easily boost the income of families by over 20%.”
The startup worked with a 3-D printing company called Materialise to make prototypes and a first batch of the devices, which will be tested in Haiti, Uganda, and Afghanistan by Cordaid, a Dutch nonprofit. Eventually, Wakati hopes to also sell the units to produce markets, distributors, and consumers. The current production cost is $100, which the company is working to bring down.
Eventually, they may even offer the product to farmers in some higher-income countries, as food suppliers look for innovative ways to cut energy use. “Our first priority is to develop and get them out there in developing countries,” says Pauwels. “But, of course, the need is bigger.”