While a tropical climate enables farmers to enjoy plenty of crops, it can be a curse when the fruits of their labour rot in the humidity before they make it to market.
Witnessing the plight of farmers racing against rot, a former agricultural engineering student at the Royal University of Agriculture Hong Soth thought of creating cold storage spaces which would keep produce fresh.
“They [farmers] just store harvested fruits and vegetables in a traditional way like putting [them] in baskets, or keeping them under their houses.
“This produce [is then] transported to markets the next day. Some are damaged and some fruits may have black spots on them. Leafy vegetables are easily withered,” he says.
The 30-year-old observed that farmers typically do not have good post-harvest systems and that leads to the inevitable loss because some of their produce never makes it to the market.
“Farmers are not able to control and maintain the firmness and freshness of fruits and vegetables after harvest. This situation causes leakage in their farm productivity,” Soth says.
He says even some of the produce that makes it to market rots once it arrives because of insufficient refrigeration equipment.
“The cold room storage project can help solve this [spoilage] problem for retailers, wholesalers and farmers,” Soth says.
A Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official, he spent over one year conducting experiments with walk-in coolers that can maintain proper temperatures for locally grown fruits and vegetables.
“Seeing the farmers and retailers’ problem, I spent the past year studying and trying to produce a small sample cold room for testing,” he says.
After he was satisfied with the cooler, he teamed up with five workers – most of whom were students at his alma mater – and spent 10 days building and installing the first walk-in cooler.
“I built my first walk-in cooler in an organic vegetable store in Phnom Penh, and the store owner fully funded all expenses on this experiment. My team and I injected our effort and skill on this experiment,” Soth says.
The walk-in cooler is built with painted steel walls, insulation panels and a stainless steel frame.
The first walk-in cooler was 2.5m-wide, 4m-long and 2m-high. It consumes 1,200W of electricity and costs $5,500. Customers can tailor the size to their needs.
Soth says the walk-in cooler can store eight to 12 tonnes of fruit or 600 to 1,000kg of vegetables.
The cooler functions through an automatic system and keeps fruits and vegetables fresh for five to seven days.
“Temperatures from five to eight degree Celsius can keep vegetables fresh for a week, and temperatures n between four and five degrees can maintain the firmness of fruits,” says Soth.
While similar-sized commercial coolers cost between $4,000 and $9,000 in other countries, Soth’s walk-in cooler is cheaper and includes installation.
“But many Cambodian farmers cannot afford to own this cold room because it is still expensive for them,” he says.
Instead, he suggested investors and private companies that purchase fruits and vegetables from farmers invest in cold storage to raise revenue for businesses and farming communities alike.
“I’d like to urge agricultural investors to invest more in helping farmers to overcome productivity losses. Installing a cold storage facility like our cooler can achieve this,” Soth says.
The walk-in cooler allows business owners to control their inventory easily, and order larger numbers of products at cheaper prices.
“It is good to have a cold room for some businesses like organic fruit and vegetable shops, restaurants with flexible demands of fruits and vegetables, and even farmer associations which collect a huge amount of products,” he says.
But Soth says that at this time, he cannot produce a storage system with minus-zero temperatures to allow for freezing meat.
“My cooler is for crop harvesting only and it is immobile. It will stay only where the owner wants it to be located after installation. Customers may place an order in advance and the team will bring all the equipment to install it at their desired location.”
While Soth is working to improve his walk-in cooler, he also hopes that the technology can spread and become common throughout the country at the rural and commercial level.
“Having a good storage system will avoid losses caused by rotten harvests. It will respond to demand for high-quality fruits and vegetables while ensuring food safety for our people as well,” he says.
For more information about the walk-in cooler by Hong Soth, please visit the Facebook page Kasekor Chhlat or call 070 535 838.