Once in everyone’s life, we need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman or a preacher, but every day we need a farmer. For us consumers, all we care about is that food is available on our tables – but the farmer goes through many challenges. Top on the list is post-harvest losses. It is this nightmare of farmers that a young entrepreneur, Charles Yabe, has found a solution to.
Mathias Charles Yabe is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of AkoFresh, a cold storage preservation technology that extends the shelf-life of perishable crops from 5 to 21 days. Mathias is passionate about technology, design, community sustainability and climate action.
He studied Communication Design at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and Entrepreneurship at Queen’s University in Canada.
Mathias grew up in Aboabo, a small village in the Eastern part of Ghana. According to him, in his community, he witnessed a lot of people facing the issue of food insecurity and financial instability. But the urge to step up and provide help for farmers battling post-harvest losses started in 2018 after his encounter with 56-year-old Mary.
What inspired the vision
In 2018, Mathias was a first-year student at KNUST and had the opportunity to embark on a volunteer trip to Akumadan in the Ashanti Region of Ghana – under the auspices of Enactus, a global non-profit and community of students, academics and business leaders committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives. On this trip, he met Mary who lamented about her ordeal.
“I left all my tomatoes on my farm to rot since my buyers couldn’t make it on time. Tomato farming is my only source of livelihood to fend for myself and my family.”
“These are the words of a 56-year-old woman, and as a young innovator who grew up in a farming village her story inspired me to create a solution to mitigate the issue of post-harvest losses in Ghana,” Mathias said.
For him, one thing was clear; though poised to provide the solution, he was not sure where the funding or technical expertise would come from. He started researching for solutions and came to realise that post-harvest loss is a problem for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa – where up to 36 percent of total harvested food can go to waste, with up to 94 percent of these losses attributed to inefficient supply chains. He was optimistic that a solution could be found to help farmers.
According to Mathias, he discovered a solution in cold storage preservation but there was no help to start it until he joined the Fishbowl Challenge, an intensive global venture-building programme for young college entrepreneurs.
As the Challenge believes in global collaboration to solve problems, he was teamed up with two like-minded students, Arina Machine and Dhruvika Sosa from Finland and India respectively, who is currently his co-founders supporting AkoFresh’s mission to reduce food waste.
That was a game-changer for Mathias since he received funds, mentorship and collaboration. Since then, his objective has been to help make food systems more resilient by introducing climate-smart solutions into local communities and improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through the Agritech solution, AkoFresh.
AkoFresh is a green cold chain enterprise that offers smallholder farmers effective preservation services and a mobile application that connects farmers to food aggregators to help reduce post-harvest losses.
The mission of AkoFresh is to help reduce post-harvest losses of fruit and vegetables. The innovation is a solar-powered cold storage preservation technology that extends the shelf-life of perishable crops from 5 days to 21 days. This off-grid cold store is available to smallholder farmers as a service where farmers pay a daily fee per 20kg crate stored, or pay weekly subscription fees. While farmers keep their crops, AkoFresh further assists farmers in selling their crops at competitive prices.
The AkoFresh mobile off-grid cold room is multipurpose. The cold room accommodates fresh fish and medical materials such as vaccines in some cases. AkoFresh is presently the first social enterprise offering an off-grid cold chain solution to smallholder farmers and traders in Ghana using the Pay-As-You-Store model.
“There are similar solutions, but those are used in large manufacturing companies – which requires connection to a vehicle for energy, meaning further emissions of greenhouse gasses. But AkoFresh is creating a community storage service whereby farmers do not need to pay the cost of the entire technology upfront and do not need expertise related to maintenance of the unit.”
AkoFresh aspires to be a pioneer in Ghana’s sustainable cold chain and logistics solutions, combatting post-harvest losses and empowering thousands of smallholder farmers.
The young entrepreneurs face a hurdle in some parts of the country, particularly in farming communities, due to a lack of reliable electricity.
According to Mathias, while cooling is the most effective technique to limit the rate of spoilage, establishing cold storage systems in rural communities is more difficult because most of these settlements are still not linked to the grid.
“To help achieve 100 percent energy access and ensure inclusive food systems informed our decision to operate our cold room technology fully powered by solar energy. However, the costs involved in deploying 100 percent solar-powered cold rooms are very expensive and require high upfront costs to set up. Getting funding opportunities, especially in Ghana, has been a challenge,” he said.
Another issue he mentioned is that most small-scale farmers are hesitant to adopt new technologies.
“During community entry when we scale and introduce our solution in a new location, it is normally a challenge getting grassroots farmers to quickly accept and adapt to our new technology,” he said.
How government can support
Mathias believes that government can help through private partnerships. He highlighted that government should actively engage the private sector, notably in co-investments to open up start-ups’ access to smart money and tap the private sector to take the lead in investments.
Advice for prospective entrepreneurs
“Make sure you are passionate about what you do. Starting a business, especially in our part of the world, is not easy; so make sure you’re fully committed through the ups and downs.
“Also, time management is essential when starting a business. As a young entrepreneur, you may still be at school, college or university. Get into the habit of maintaining a diary and ensure that you can complete tasks and attend meetings on time. Do not be afraid to ask questions, or to say you do not know the answer but will come back shortly with one. People will respect your willingness to learn, your curiosity and your openness,” he advised.
Awards and recognition
AkoFresh has won many awards, including the Best Startup Under3-Years at the Total Energies Ghana’s Startupper of the Year Challenge, 2022. Also, it was the first-prize winner of the Young Global Changers Recoupling Award, 2022; winner of the Youth for Climate Resilient Agriculture Competition, 2022; winner and top innovator of Generation Restoration Youth Challenge by World Economic Forum in 2021; Community Prize Winner, Techstyle for Social Good International Competition in 2021; and of the OpEx Prize in 2021.
In 2019 Mathias was selected as a Millennium Fellow, a global programme hosted by the United Nations Academic Impact. This programme convenes, challenges and celebrates bold student leadership advancing the Sustainable Development Goals on campuses and communities. Mathias is also an awardee of the Ford Motor Company Fund COVID-19 College Challenge. Last year, he received the Community Prize award from the Mills Fabrica in Hong Kong and was named Top Innovator by the World Economic Forum through the Generation Restoration Youth Challenge.