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Home » InspiraFarms Cooling technology aids Lauetta’s blueberry exports from Zim

InspiraFarms Cooling technology aids Lauetta’s blueberry exports from Zim

In its first phase, the InspiraFarms technical team came up with a two-stage design for the Lauetta blueberry farm in Zimbabwe, consisting of a 240m² facility that included two pre-cooling rooms to remove field heat, a temperature-controlled packing room and a finished product room with forced air cooling to bring final product temperature down to 0–1°C.

Blueberry packhouse. All images supplied by InspiraFarms Cooling

Blueberry packhouse. All images supplied by InspiraFarms Cooling

Blueberries have become popular as a healthy and easy-to-snack fruit. Consumers in Europe are increasing, with strong demand in the United Kingdom and Germany. According to the CBI¹, Europe’s import of blueberries has increased from 37 000 tonnes in 2014, to 81 000 tonnes in 2018.

In the last two years, we have experienced fast-expanding imports from new countries where production is rising everywhere including counter-seasonal southern African and South American countries. Following this market opportunity, Lauetta Farm, an agribusiness in Zimbabwe – about 40km outside Harare – started venturing into blueberry export with great success, even with the difficult climatic conditions. As first-time growers of Costa genetics in Zimbabwe, they are exporting to markets in Europe and the Far East. The project commenced in 2019 with an investment of 20ha. The project’s initial success resulted in a further investment of 20ha in stage two. The key indicators of success would be in the delivery of class ¹ premium quality fruit after the 2020 export season.

A critical component of these key indicators is the performance of the cold chain and post-harvest practices to guarantee that quality is maintained up until delivery to the final market. The farm in Zimbabwe would have to maintain this quality to markets in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East with a transit journey of up to 13 000km, 72 hours by air freight or 35 days by sea freight. Managing director of Lauetta, Alistair Campbell, says: “What’s critical for us as Lauetta is how quickly we get the core temperature of the berry down to between 8 and 10 degrees. The faster we do that, the longer the shelf life of the berry. We concentrate very hard on making sure that we get the berry from field to pack shed as quickly as possible.”

STAGE ONE OF THE PROJECT

Precoolers for blueberries.

Precoolers for blueberries.

The need for world- class packshed and cold rooms was apparent. As this was a green field project, the investors had no previous experience or knowledge of what was required. The team of experts at InspiraFarms guided the Lauetta investors to make the right considerations and completely understand the importance of the cold chain:

  • Firstly, that the cold chain infrastructure should be as close to the areas of production as possible. Every 45 minutes out of the cold chain results in the loss of one whole shelf-life day. Due to the distance to the final market, fully appreciating this fact was key.
  • Secondly, understanding the importance of step-down temperature maintenance in the post-harvest handling and packing process. Supporting this is the understanding that after cooling, rises in temperature of the product should be avoided.
  • Thirdly, the effect of dehydration during the cooling cycles while removing field heat and while reducing the product temperature of the finished goods, packed for export.

It is important that the cold chain that we have is up to scratch by making sure that within 45 minutes to an hour, we can get the berry down to that temperature,” says Campbell. During the design process, the InspiraFarms team takes the time to get a detailed understanding of the farm activities, such as:

  • Considering harvest volumes per day, how often and in what volumes deliveries are made to the pack house.
  • What is the expected volume in year one and the anticipated peak production years.
  • How many employees are needed inside the packshed at any given time in order to optimise workflow.

The InspiraFarms technical team came up with its design for a 240m² facility which included two pre-cooling rooms to remove field heat, a temperature-controlled packing room and a finished product room with forced air cooling to bring the final product temperature down to 0-1°C. The facility included special add-on features of humidifiers to reduce dehydration and remote monitoring technology.

The entire facility – including all panels, cooling machines, pipes, cables, doors, lights, sockets, every nut, bolt and rivet – was packed into two 13m containers and shipped to site ready for installation. After the installation process, which took only 21 days, the project team lead from InspiraFarms Cooling (Heather McSorley) trained the Lauetta team on the operation of the facility, cold chain protocols for blueberries, and handed over the facility. Campbell says: “What is becoming increasingly evident is that the better your cold chain, [the more] we are able to improve on our gross to net ratio as far as pack out is concerned. The future is bright, we want to expand. The world is loving blueberries at the moment as it is a super food with many good qualities. We have to make sure that we supply the best, and we can only do that with world class infrastructure. I’m glad to say that we are very happy and wholly satisfied that we have received just that from InspiraFarms Cooling.”

Lauetta Investments have since reported a highly successful first export season, as of 2020 and after the first phase of installation by InspiraFarms Cooling. Their berries were able to access premium markets in Hong Kong, Europe, UK and the Middle East based on the size of their berries and quality on arrival in the market due to premium cold chain infrastructure and protocols. The shareholders thereafter proceeded with expanding production in phase two, by 20ha, to a total of 40ha by the end 2021.

PHASE TWO EXPANSION

Blueberry dispatch cold room.

Blueberry dispatch cold room.

Thanks to the return on investment in its first facility, Lauetta expanded its production operations by 20ha and resulting cooling capacities only one year later. Its expansion packhouse is rigged with the latest state-of-the-art cooling technology from InspiraFarms Cooling, and includes 120m² for receivables and a pre-cooling area, with four independent pre-coolers; 200m² of the finished product area, with forced air-cooling to bring final product temperature down to 0-1°C before dispatch. Additionally, it has a new dispatch area of 50m², with a loading bay and a pallet holding cold room to keep fruit at an optimal temperature while loading.

“We started with a 240m², enough to cater for about 300 tonnes of blueberries. Since our expansion, we have now progressed from that, and added another 340m², with additional pre-cooling units that now cover just over 600m² of pack shade space. With this expansion, the vision was to be able to accommodate between 800–900 tonnes of blueberries, which we target to reach by next year. This year we might end at 450 – 500 tonnes, with the vision being going to 1 000 tonnes in 2025,” says Campbell. Export-grade blueberries require high- level, state-of-the-art pre-cooling and cold chain technology. Without such efficient technology, it is close to impossible to penetrate this market since a few hours of delay in precooling might result in losing over 40% of the harvested value to deterioration, dehydration and mold – all common causes of spoilage and rejections.

Thanks to the efficiency in their cooling investment, the enterprise has received outstanding performance with low claims. With total control around key cooling aspects such as temperature and humidity, their post-harvest systems are fully reliable, and have allowed them to reduce their operational costs by reducing their use of airfreight by 40% and shifting to the cheaper alternative of sea-freight.

According to Atherton Squire from Lauetta, like their first cooling facility, their new cold room also has remote monitoring facilities and an app that he accesses both on the phone and computer. This comes alongside valuable hardware consisting of IoT-enabled sensors, including intelligent sensors, loggers, and electronics, which allow him to generate the key data they need to optimise their cooling and track their energy consumption. “I can monitor every part of the pack shade from the precoolers, the maintenance room, into the pack shade and the storage room. For us, temperature and humidity are extremely important parameters that we need to track, particularly when I am offsite. Through the app, I can simply monitor that these are being maintained throughout the pack shade, even when I am away.”

THE ROI OF PRE-COOLING AND COLD CHAIN IN BLUEBERRIES

With the high and rising cost of airfreight – which has almost doubled within three years – the ability to shift to sea-freight represents significant savings for Lauetta. Thanks to their excellent pre-cooling systems, they now have the necessary shelf-life required to travel around 25 days by sea, while still delivering excellent display quality to their destination on shelves. In a 2020 case study, Campbell says that investing in world-class cooling infrastructure for their post-harvest management and cooling was a worthy investment. As he could see in their blueberry enterprise, it paid for itself with the savings they obtained in reduced losses, claims, rejections and a cut-down in operating cost.

For Campbell, it was important that they got this process right, from the precoolers to the holding room and into the pack shade. Moving forward, the enterprise is planning on loading its own reefers to go to port for its sea freight containers. This way, they would need to design a loading bay for their own truck and reefer. Luckily, the modular nature of the InspiraFarms Cooling machine means that they can accomplish this expansion and load their truck between 25 to 30 minutes (16 skids) on their own truck and a reefer that can accommodate up to 24 skids to be loaded in 45 minutes. Thankfully, the modular design of the facility has allowed them to have a smooth and well-planned expansion to accommodate their double capacity in production.

Produce probe for blueberries

Produce probe for blueberries

REFERENCES

  1. The European market potential for fresh blueberries | CBI
ABOUT INSPIRAFARMS COOLING

InspiraFarms Cooling is a leading provider of advanced and sustainable cooling solutions, for high-value fresh produce across Africa, serving exporters, agribusinesses, third party logistics service providers and food supply chains in emerging markets. Founded in 2012, the company has served the flower, fruit, vegetable and meat sectors, providing agribusiness in the across Africa with the tools, technology, data and expertise to significantly reduce food losses, energy costs and access higher-value markets. The company has designed its solutions (cold rooms, packhouses, freezers, slaughterhouses and pre-coolers) to minimise food loss, maximise shelf life, reduce OPEX and give access to cooling data. Read more about their solutions at inspirafarms.com or contact

Sharon J Cheboi at scheboi@inspirafarms.com