BASE and Empa are proud to release Coldtivate

Date: 06 August 2022

BASE and Empa are proud to release Coldtivate, an open access, data-science-based mobile application that provides access to postharvest expertise and allows farmers to maximise benefits from cooling.

The image that the word farmer conjures up in today’s context has evolved from what we would have imagined a few decades ago. The modern farmer, equipped with more than just their sickle, now has access to data and information at their fingertips – on their mobile phones. Over the past three years, smartphone penetration in rural households has nearly doubled in India, with the pandemic hitting fast-forward on the digital transformation. Phone ownership unlocks access to tools and knowledge that improve the efficiency and productivity of agricultural practices.

While the country has witnessed tremendous growth in digital infrastructure to support farmers, the innovations have primarily focused on pre-harvest and harvesting phases (advisory on sowing and crop cultivation; knowledge on fertilisers, seeds, and machinery; weather forecasts), or tailored to larger farmers thereby leaving out marginalised farmers and traders. Meanwhile, postharvest losses and commercialisation of crops – a significant step in ensuring farmers’ income is commensurate with the increase in their farm output – have received only limited attention under the app-driven agricultural revolution.

The Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE) and The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) began working towards addressing this gap in January 2021 under the Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant (Your VCCA) initiative as a part of the data.org global innovation challenge. After a year and a half of interdisciplinary teamwork including strong local partnership development, data collection, user interface design, the development of machine learning and physics-based models as well as of the software back-end and front-end, and on-ground user testing, the team is excited to release the first version of its open-access, data-science-based mobile application called Coldtivate. This version of the app is being tested by our local cooling companies and operators. Updated versions of Coldtivate will be released in late 2022, enabling farmers to access the existing and additional features on their smartphones.The BASE and Empa teams are grateful for the excellent collaboration with Relief Applications for the software development.

“We have developed an open-source app that enables cold room operators to manage inventories and monitor occupancy digitally, and cooling beneficiaries to track the quality of their crops in storage in real-time,” shares Roberta Evangelista, the Technical Lead of the project. “By combining this with the upcoming feature of staying updated on market prices, this information empowers people to make informed decisions on when and where to sell their crops, strengthens their bargaining position to negotiate for better prices, and prevents distress selling.”

Even as cold storage capacity is progressively increasing in the country, backed by policy interventions, inadequate trust in the potential of cooling to augment income has hindered farmers’ uptake of these solutions. Coldtivate attempts to bridge this trust deficit with another of its key features, enabling farmers to track the shelf-life of their stored produce in real-time. For each checked-in crate, the app computes the ideal time for farmers to pick up their crops, i.e., it predicts the number of days that the fruit can last under the current storage conditions with a buffer time for bringing the crops to the market at ambient temperature. To make these calculations, the app integrates a crop-specific physics-based model known as ‘digital twins’ developed by Empa, which simulates how crops in a particular crate age inside the cold room in real-time. These calculations depend on factors such as the type of commodity, room temperature and humidity, and the initial quality of the produce. The relevant data is gathered through different means. For instance, the temperature and humidity are recorded by the sensors installed in the room. The initial quality of the produce is determined during the check-in of the produce by noting the harvesting dates.

Since the app’s current version caters to cold room operators, they can monitor the shelf-life of each farmer’s produce and inform them of the ideal check out date as per the app’s predictions via SMS or in-person. In another four months, a new version will be released allowing farmers to see this information for themselves and decide when to check out their crates.

The journey of improving farmers’ welfare through postharvest management goes beyond merely curbing quantitative (decrease in weight and volume) and qualitative (cosmetic imperfections and fall in nutritional value) losses in crops and increasing their shelf lives. Surrounded by uncertainty, farmers make sales decisions in a dynamic environment against many competing short-term tactical and long-term strategic decisions. Although vast amounts of data are available to optimise agriculture sales decisions, the information is typically raw and scattered, offering few useful insights. The next steps for Coldtivate involve empowering farmers with market price forecasting.

The upcoming versions of the app will also feature daily market price forecasts for different commodities using machine learning and open-source data from markets near the cold rooms across India. This information, combined with updates on the remaining shelf-life of the crops, help farmers with better price discovery by choosing the ideal time and location of sales. Processed data represented in actionable formats fixes information asymmetry in the market, mitigating exposure to manipulation by intermediaries and ensuring that the farmers secure a relatively larger portion of the profits.

“It has been a long and exciting journey: from software design, development and testing, to data acquisition, model development and their integration into the app. We’re thrilled to finally make this a reality and bring the power of data science to farmers in an open-source solution,” shares Joaquin Gajardo, Data Scientist at Empa’s Simbiosys group and Technical Co-Lead of the project. “We leverage sensor’s temperature data with our physics-based digital twin models to predict the remaining shelf life of crops in cold storage, and we’re also in the final stages of the development of a machine learning model that leverages public market data to make 2 weeks daily market price forecasts at the market, district and state levels. We believe these tools combined in Coldtivate create a unique added value and have the potential to disrupt the agri-business sector.”

In addition to using data-science to assist farmers in navigating an increasingly complex value chain, Coldtivate includes a Knowledge Hub that contains information about the optimal storage temperature and average storage time for each commodity and will be regularly expanded and enriched to reflect the best practices in postharvest management as per the latest research. To universalise access to this crucial information and create engaging learning environments, the knowledge hub will also be available offline in interesting formats such as comic books and manuals in the coming months. After the addition of further functionalities, Coldtivate will also be tested with cold room operators in Nigeria by September 2022, where the Your VCCA project is deployed in partnership with Coldhubs.

Coldtivate helps cold room operators and providers to offer sustainable cooling technology under a servitisation business model, and helps farmers to better leverage the benefits of cooling, reducing food loss and securing higher prices.

Coldtivate is now available for download for free on Android and will be available on iOS in the following week.

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