Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant: Our First Six Months

Every year, farmers in India incur nearly USD 12,520 million in post-harvest loss due to inadequate storage facilities and energy infrastructure. To make matters worse, information asymmetry and lack of quality consciousness, crucial for setting the price of crops, lower farmers’ ability to monetise on their produce and earn proportionately to their original production.  In January 2021, BASE and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Sciences and Technology (EMPA) came together under the data.org global innovation challenge to create an open access, data-driven mobile application: Your Virtual Cold-Chain Assistant (Your VCCA). The project aims to provide smallholder farmers access to cold storage through the pay-per-use servitisation model, enabling them to reap lifecycle benefits without facing the upfront costs of setting up the infrastructure or the hurdle of operating and maintaining the equipment. At the same time, Your VCCA equips the cold room users with pre- and post-harvest expertise and market intelligence to secure the best possible price for their produce and escape the vicious cycle of poverty.

Factsheet Launch

Over the past six months, Your VCCA has seen continued and significant progress on multiple fronts. Since its inception, the project team has grown by six members, forged partnerships with various cooling solution providers and other local organisations and collected open-source data for India. Using the data, the team has developed digital food twins for several fruits to map their ageing patterns in food supply chains. Furthermore, a preliminary user interface for the mobile application, making it intuitive and easy to use, has also been designed. 

Today, the BASE and EMPA teams are excited to introduce Your VCCA’s visual identity, striking a balance between the two worlds of agriculture and digitisation that intersect within the app. As a part of the launch, the team is excited to release a factsheet that summarises the context, objective, and methodology of the project.  

Project Insights

In terms of pilot projects and implementing partners, BASE and EMPA have started formal partnerships with two local implementing partners, Coolcrop and Oorja. 

The project team is working closely with Coolcrop towards starting a pilot in Himachal Pradesh’s booming apple industry. The partnership seeks to adapt the post-harvest storage and handling, one of the most power-hungry parts of the agricultural value chain, to energy efficiency. Targeting the Farmer Producing Organisations (FPO) as the beneficiary, Coolcrop will own, operate, and maintain the cold room, charging the users a small fee per box of apples stores. It will simultaneously test the effectiveness of some key components of the Your VCCA app, including an image-based machine learning model to grade fruits after harvest, and gauge their receptivity among farmers. Current solutions that grade fruit based on smartphone images are less tailored to the needs of smallholder farmers. To translate the data into actionable metrics that allow farmers to identify the best time to sell their produce, the team is developing visual, physics-based food twins that predict the expected shelf-life of the stored fruit and age along with it in real-time. Coolcrop and the Your VCCA team are further collaborating to gather and label images of stored commodities to better train and improve the accuracy of the machine learning model. Alongside these developments, an in-person survey is being conducted together in the apple and potato supply chains in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, respectively.

Oorja is using the Cooling as a Service (CaaS) business model in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where they own, operate, and maintain a cold room. This cold room was supplied by Ecozen and provides cooling for horticulture crops in a market visited by approximately 500 smallholder farmers. This project serves as a pilot on which Your VCCA project team is currently collecting hygrothermal and usage data, intending to upcycle this data and provide insights on optimal storage conditions and expected shelf-life of crops. Together with Oorja, the project team will test an interactive map that will facilitate the identification of promising cold room storage locations throughout India.

Tapping into the Power of Data

The team has collected planned datasets on weather, agricultural food production and harvesting, market locations and pricing, farmer census data, and satellite images via open-source repositories. These multi-disciplinary datasets have been depicted in a multi-layer map of India, assisting cooling service providers with better scoping sites to install cooling facilities. policymakers gain insights on different aspects related to food cold storage. This tool can aid decision-making in finding sites with the most considerable potential to save food by cooling, thereby increasing the smallholder farmer’s revenue. 

The team has already built digital twins of different fruits, with which the remaining shelf-life of these foods can be predicted based on the sensor data measured in the cold store or throughout the complete supply chain. This is essential for farmers to recognise the ideal time window to sell their products before they spoil. These food twins will be made operational via a web-based platform to farmers and cooling service providers worldwide or via an executable version that can run on mobile devices. In Your VCCA, these food twins and their shelf-life predictions will be combined with market price forecasts to advise farmers on the best time and market to sell.       

A preliminary architecture of the mobile application user interface, from both the farmer and the cooling service provider’s perspectives, has been designed, and its user-friendliness will be tested for improvement through surveys during the coming months.

Your VCCA has received early support from a variety of organisations. Earlier this year, the Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance has selected Your VCCA with CaaS as the financial instrument they will help replicate in India. They are supporting the development of the pricing model and facilitating interviews with local experts and leaders. In addition, Columbia University has recently published a working paper, “ICT in Agriculture Value Chain, especially during post-harvest operations in India”, by Abhishek Beriya featuring Your VCAA.

This promising progress in India in only six months has motivated BASE and EMPA to start planning the project’s expansion to other countries, with the team already exploring prospects in Nigeria. It is also planning to set up an Incubator, which would enable the project team to train more companies to use the Assistant and implement CaaS.

Additional Resources

For more information on Your VCCA – feel free to download the Factsheet of the project. You can reach us at [email protected]

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