Supported by the UN and the Indian government, a start-up has come out with an innovative solution that preserves flowers and other perishables for long hours.
N. Dilli Babu remembers those days — not so long ago — when he ferried jasmine buds plucked from his farm in gunny bags to the market early in the morning. By the time he reached his customers, he often found that some of the delicate flowers had lost their freshness, forcing him to discard the wilted buds.
The jasmine farmer doesn’t need to throw away his flowers anymore. Since late 2020, Babu has been using a container called the Tan90 Cold Storage Box, which preserves the buds for longer hours.
“The Tan90 chiller box keeps the jasmine buds fresh,” the farmer from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district in southern India says.
Buds harvested every morning are sold in the wholesale market in Koyambedu in Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai. Babu stores the unsold flowers in the box, with the buds plucked in the evening. The next morning, these fragrant white buds — used for religious rituals, adornment and a host of other reasons — are taken to the market along with that day’s harvest.
Dilli Babu no longer incurs the daily loss of around ₹200 caused by unsold and discarded jasmine buds. The price of his 50-litre container, which can hold 6-10 kg of jasmine buds, is ₹1,850. Each 1-litre cooling panel in the box costs ₹150, and can last up to three years or so.
“Now, there is zero waste,” he says.
India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. According to government figures, its horticultural production in 2020-21 was 331 million tonnes. According to the National Horticulture Database (Second Advance Estimates) published by the National Horticulture Board, the area under floriculture production in India in 2019-20 was 305 thousand hectares with a production of 2,301 thousand tonnes loose flowers and 762 thousand tonnes cut flowers. A large part of the produce, however, goes waste because of reasons such as inadequate cold storage and refrigerated transport facilities. Estimates of the annual wastage figures vary from 16 per cent to 40 per cent.
Proper storage of farm produce is a problem that many farmers face. There was a time when Babu used basic insulated boxes lined with ice to store the buds. But, he says, the buds often wilted before they could be sold.
The cold storage facilities that are available come with their share of problems. For one, many are expensive and most small and marginal farmers cannot afford them. Second, they are energy-intensive. For instance, unlike Tan90 boxes, which do not use ice, many regular storage boxes require it in large quantities. Ice, in turn, entails the use of power. The daily operation cost of ice is about ₹4 per kilo, Tan90 co-founder Soumalya Mukherjee points out.
The contents stored in Tan90 boxes are chilled and preserved by panels or cassettes filled with phase change materials (PCM), which absorb and release heat during the process of melting and freezing. The PCM panels are frozen in deep freezers and then placed inside the boxes and bags to preserve perishables such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat and fish.
The Tan90 cooling process consumes less power, Mukherjee states. For one, the panels take 6-8 hours to freeze, as against the 18-20 hours that most regular cooling panels take, he says. The Tan90 panels can maintain their temperature for 20 hours or more when they are inserted in the insulated box. The boxes can also be used to transport perishable goods in unrefrigerated vehicles, which consume 50% less power than reefer trucks, he adds.
The Tan90 Thermal brand of portable cooling boxes and bags, produced in a factory in Chennai, is the brainchild of Dr Mukherjee (see interview) and two other former students of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) —Dr. Rajnikant Rai and Dr. Shiv Sharma. Their Chennai-based start-up, called Tan90 Thermal Solutions Private Ltd, was incorporated in 2019. Tan90 is a mathematical term for a value that is infinite or undefined — like the potential of this innovation.
“While PCMs are not new, the Tan90 Thermal’s innovation lies in the PCM’s ingredients. Our PCMs freeze faster in deep freezers, thereby saving power. They also maintain the products stored in the boxes/bags at required temperatures for a longer period,” Rai says.
Farmer Dilli Babu’s box maintains a temperature range of 4-12 degrees Celsius. The buds stay fresh for 8-12 hours at night and for 6-8 hours during the day.
Innovations such as the storage box are helping drive achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 for a “better and more sustainable future”. By enhancing a farmer’s income, it focuses on SDG 2 on zero hunger, with the lens on the role of the farmer in sustainable development. “If a farm is not economically sound or not resilient to external shocks, or if the well-being of those working on a farm are not considered, then a farm cannot be sustainable,” states SDG target 2.4.1.
By saving power, Tan90 also takes a step towards SDGs on climate action.
As part of efforts to promote clean energy technology capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Facility for Low Carbon Technology Deployment (FLCTD) — a joint initiative of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the Indian Government’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency and the Global Environment Facility — has been holding an “Innovation Challenge”. It awards ideas that deal with waste heat recovery, pumping systems and motors, space conditioning, industrial IoT (Internet of Things), industrial resource efficiency and electrical energy storage.
Award-winning innovative ideas include an instant milk chiller that allows milk to be chilled at source, reducing spoilage and increasing farmer income, an energy efficient solar pump and a solar based atmospheric water generator (2021).
So far, 59 innovations have been supported, of which 19 have completed monitoring and verification and 12 are already being commercialised, says René van Berkel, UNIDO Representative & Head, Regional Office in India.
“These are diverse, including solutions for cold chain, irrigation pumping, as well as industrial heat recovery and resource efficiency. They have emissions reduction and Indian ingenuity and entrepreneurship in common and provide innovation specific co-benefits, for example reduction of post-harvest losses, reduced air pollution and/or improved productivity.”
Tan90 won the challenge in 2019 for its storage box. “Such solutions are important baby steps that need to be scaled up in order to reduce emission in the food supply chain,” says FLCTD National Project Manager Sandeep Tandon (see interview).
The FLCTD, van Berkel explains, is a prime example of an innovation partnership for a clean and low carbon future. “It provides comprehensive support to Indian innovators acting as a technical sounding board, facilitating industry connections and part funding for deployment, monitoring and evaluation and providing recognition.”
EXPANDING CUSTOMER BASE
Among others who have benefited from the solution is retired army Major V.P. Sharma, who grows organic greens, vegetables and fruits in Puducherry.
“Ours is a B2C [business-to-consumer] company with the delivery concept of ‘harvest to home’ in six hours. It was a challenge to keep the greens fresh from the farm gate to the customer’s home gate,” says Sharma, the co-founder of Gratitude Farms Private Ltd. He adds that after he met Mukherjee at a conference, he decided to try out the storage boxes. “We found the greens and other vegetables stored in them remained fresh for several hours.”
In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tan90 Thermal is looking at extending the storage concept to the pharmaceutical sector, with their Tan90 Biological Ampule Sample Carrier transporting test samples at required temperatures.
Through different partnerships and projects with Industry and the government of India, UNIDO works towards inclusiveness, sustainability, productivity and innovation in and by the manufacturing sector, van Berkel stresses. This is what the UN’s SDG 9 largely deals with, he says, and it has an impact on other SDGs — such as climate, energy and environment (SDGs 7, 12 and 13), decent work (SDG 8), cities and communities (SDG11) and empowerment (SDGs 5 and 10).
“These partnerships are effective in pivoting replicable new approaches that deliver tangible benefits to select clusters or sectors, and can be scaled up to assist India to achieve the SDGs, for example through implementation of energy efficiency in MSMEs, safe and environmentally sound management and disposal of medical waste and introduction of alternatives to DDT for control of vector borne diseases,” he adds.
Writer: UN/Nitya Varadarajan/Word Wide Media
Photographs: Kannan Srinivasan (Tiruvallur) and Word Wide Media (Chennai)