A few months back, the Corona pandemic had hit and worsened the economy affecting people from all walks of life in India. Its unprecedented and sudden impact created a state of confusion at several levels of administration as the spread was unanticipatedly fast. The farmer community of India had to face a very tough time in that span. The country’s agriculture policies were also not giving them the timely required support.
Under such circumstances, the growers in the country’s strawberry capital, Mahabaleshwar in the state of Maharashtra, were among those badly hit by the pandemic. But a cutting-edge green technology provided a lifeline to them. The town is home to just over 10,000 people but produces 85% of India’s strawberries – close to 20,000 tonnes of the fruit are harvested every year.
Lack of storage
Mahabaleshwar, as in many other parts of India, is home to many poor farmers. They lack efficient, affordable cold storage for the food they grow. Earlier this year, when dramatic lockdown restrictions closed markets and limited consumer spending, these marginalised farmers faced disaster. Local tourism and demand for ice cream – both of which create opportunities for strawberry farmers – were also badly hit.
The estimated loss that the farmers across Mahabaleshwar suffered was estimated to be around USD 2.7m, as they were unable to preserve and sell their produce in the domestic market, or export.
However, as a result of the prudent vision and active involvement of the agritech start-up Ecozen Solutions, three portable solar-powered cold rooms have allowed even small-scale farmers in the area to meet demands in the metro cities of Mumbai and Pune – as well as the further afield markets of Bangalore, Kochi and Chennai. Farmers are now able to rent small amounts of space in the cold rooms – the perfect solution for those with few savings to invest in large-scale storage.
Ecozen was started with a vision to disrupt the way perishables are handled across the value chain, with clean and innovative technology. The company is the brainchild of three young and enthusiastic graduates from IIT Kharagpur – Devendra Gupta, Prateek Singhal and Vivek Pandey. The company is now working with 100 farmers in the region.
The Pune-based company has also launched an Eco Connect strawberry collection centre in the village of Bhillar, extending the cold chain that puts money in the pockets of strawberry farmers. Digital technology helps Ecozen and their customers ensure strawberries are kept in the best possible condition.
The new situation
Ecozen’s arrival proved crucial when most commercial buyers, without the means to manage strawberries for transportation over long distances, withdrew from the area in late February. With many tonnes of the fruit still to be sold, Ecozen continued their support to farmers until late March.
Focusing on the benefit that he has reaped, strawberry farmer Amar Chowdhary said, “Now we don’t depend on the Mumbai market only, which keeps going up and down. Ecozen ensures the price of strawberries at the time of delivery. I have gained at least Rupees 20 per kilogramme this season. Our strawberries were sent to Bangalore by Ecozen. In the next season, we want to work with them to sell to distant markets like Chennai and Kochi.”
Ecozen intends to increase its work with Mahabaleshwar’s strawberry farmers ahead of the next harvesting season
Expressing his view on the prevailing situation, Devendra Gupta, CEO and Co-founder, Ecozen, said, “We are delighted to support strawberry farmers at such a critical time. Across India and beyond, lack of cold chain is a big barrier to rural development. As climate change pushes temperatures higher, the problem will only get worse. Our technology brings security and new opportunities to producers and growers of all kinds.”
Ashden’s active support
In November Ecozen received a grant of $100,000 from the Fair Cooling Fund. This initiative from climate solutions charity Ashden, backed by K-CEP, is widening access to affordable, sustainable cooling among those most at risk from extreme heat.
CEO and Co-founder,