Food and Water

Frugal innovation: 3 principles to help improve food production

We must learn how to produce and distribute more food using fewer resources and emissions.

We must learn how to produce and distribute more food using fewer resources and emissions. Image: Unsplash.

Navi Radjou
Author, The Frugal Economy
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • The UN predicts we need to increase food production globally by 70% to feed 9 billion people by 2050.
  • The climate crisis demands that we significantly reduce the energy, water, and land needed to produce food and cut its carbon footprint.
  • Frugal innovation offers affordable and sustainable solutions to make global agrifood value chains more productive and climate-friendly.

In a remote Indian village, Mansukh Prajapati, a trained potter, has developed MittiCool, a fridge made entirely of clay that doesn’t require electricity and can keep fruits and vegetables fresh for several days.

Prajapati didn’t study science, but his clay fridge uses the scientific principle of evaporative cooling, which cools air through water evaporation. This is an ingenious and sustainable solution that perfectly embodies the spirit of frugal innovation.

Frugal innovation is a disruptive strategy that aims to do better with less, that is to create simple but effective solutions that deliver more economic and social value while using fewer resources and polluting less.

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The United Nations predicts that we need to increase food production globally by 70% to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050.

But at the same time, given the climate crisis, we need to significantly reduce the use of energy, water, and land needed to produce food and lower its carbon footprint.

In other words, we must figure out how to produce and distribute more food using fewer resources and emissions. We must learn to do farming better with less.

Have you read?

By adopting a frugal mindset, food scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs can develop affordable and sustainable solutions to make global agrifood value chains more productive and climate friendly.

If you want to become a frugal innovator and do better with less in the agri-food sector, there are three proven principles you can follow.

1. Keep it simple

Rather than over-engineer complex solutions, stick to the basics. Create simpler products and services that are easy to develop, use, and maintain – and yet can have a big impact.

For instance, studies show that in Rwanda and Burkina Faso, postharvest losses for perishable products like tomatoes are as high as 60%. This is because farmers lack an affordable and simple storage solution to conserve their fruits and vegetables after harvesting them.

A complex solution to this problem would be to install conventional cold chain facilities powered by electricity. But refrigerated cooling systems would be too expensive for small farmers and also climate unfriendly as they use fossil fuels.

What small farmers in Rwanda and Burkina Faso need is a simple cooling solution that can be built locally, is easy to use and maintain, and doesn’t require electricity.

Remember MittiCool, the clay fridge I mentioned earlier? It relies on the evaporation of water to create a cooling effect. Can we apply that same principle to address the cooling needs of African farmers? Yes, we can.

The Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis, funded by USAID, and Agribusiness Associates, a development consultancy, worked with local scientists in Rwanda to develop what is called “a zero-energy cool chamber”.

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Based on the evaporative cooling principle, this cooling chamber can be built cost-effectively using just bricks and sand. It can store multiple crates of fresh produce.

Thanks to these low-cost cooling chambers, Rwandan farmers are able to significantly reduce the spoilage of fruits and vegetables after harvest and increase their income today.

But you can go one step further. Michel Ferlut, a researcher at L’École des Mines d’Alès, a top French engineering school, has worked with partners in Burkina Faso to develop a brick-walled cooler as big as a container. This frugal solution offers a significantly larger storage capacity yet uses the same basic principle of evaporative cooling.

MIT Researchers have also developed a sizeable evaporative cooling chamber that can be built cost-effectively using a repurposed container.

As you see, you can create a frugal solution that is simple in design and yet big on impact.

2. Think and act horizontally

Companies – especially in agribusiness – tend to scale up vertically by centralizing operations in big factories and warehouses.

But if you want to be agile and create local impact, you need to scale out horizontally the agrifood supply chain by decentralizing activities in small-scale units.

Today, across India, regional governments offer financial incentives to local farmers to cultivate millets, which offer many health benefits and are environmentally friendly.

Research shows that millets use 70% less water and 40% less energy than rice and grow in half the time of wheat. They can also survive extreme heat conditions. Millets are also more nutritious than rice as they are richer in fibre and lower on the glycemic index.

Despite growing local demand, small farmers in India are reluctant to switch from rice to millet. A key reason is because they don’t have access to the right equipment to process millets after harvest at a small scale.

SELCO is a social business founded by Harish Hande, named the Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. SELCO has set up off-grid solar power systems for 1 million households in remote Indian villages, boosting the rural economy.

Just like it decentralized solar energy production, SELCO decided to scale out millet processing. Specifically, it developed a whole range of solar-powered equipment that small farmers can use to automate all steps in millet processing — from precleaning and hulling to polishing and pulverizing. Today, hundreds of rural families in India are using SELCO’s frugal equipment to process millets faster and cheaper and improve their livelihoods.

3. Leverage existing resources

Rather than reinvent the wheel, create more value from existing resources and assets that are widely available. These resources can be physical or intangible.

For instance, in Africa, Hello Tractor is a digital platform that operates as an “Uber for small farmers”. It offers small farmers access to farm equipment like tractors flexibly on a pay-per-use basis.

This affordable on-demand tractor rental service has enabled financially challenged African farmers to plant 40 times faster and 2.5 times more cost-effectively than traditional manual processes, hence achieving 63% in savings and tripling crop yield. Hello Tractor enables farmers to produce better – and earn more – using fewer resources.

Likewise, farmers in India, Africa and South America use digital knowledge platforms like Digital Green to share agricultural best practices and innovations directly with each other. Farmers who use Digital Green have increased their yield by 24% to 74% across various crops.

Feeding the world

In summary, by keeping it simple, scaling out your operations, and leveraging existing resources, you can innovate frugally, create sustainable value for farmers, and properly feed over 9 billion people in the coming decades.

This article is based on a talk delivered by the author at the FAO Science and Innovation Forum 2023.

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