Sustainable and effective cold chains are crucial for the transportation of food and medicine, but in many parts of rural Africa they have been sorely lacking. Tackling this issue is Nigerian startup Gricd, which is using solar power and the Internet of Things (IoT) to ensure effective refrigeration.
Founded in 2018 by Oghenetega Iortim, Gricd builds mobile refrigeration boxes – that are solar-powered and IoT-enabled – for the transportation and storage of temperature sensitive food and medication.
Powered by the sun, the Gricd Frij boxes are able to transmit storage data, such as location and temperature information, in real time to the owners, ensuring the cold chain is effectively monitored and maintained.
The boxes have internal probes that are calibrated, and can detect temperature and transmit via the 4 Tier Redundancy communication panel to the server. The customers have access to the information via a web dashboard or mobile application and the box's power-independent battery has a runtime of between six and 24 hours.
The Gricd Frij box
Iortim came up with the idea for Gricd while working in agriculture.
"Back in 2014, myself and a couple of friends acquired a farm and planted fresh vegetables. At every cycle, we lost about 30% of our output. Three cycles later we were out of funds and out of business," he said.
This is a problem facing farmers across the continent and other parts of the world.
"About 23% of food produced globally is lost due to the lack of refrigeration systems. Most of these losses occur in developing countries where many challenges exist, some including absence of power and low income," explained Iortim.
"I decided to solve the challenge of post-harvest losses by building an affordable, efficient cold chain system."
Understanding the challenges of his potential customers, he knew he needed to ensure the technology was effective but cheaply priced.
"Being a smallholder farmer, I had at the back of my mind that whatever technology was being developed had to be incredibly affordable for the business to grow or thrive," he said.
The first Gricd prototype was built in January 2019, and was very crude, but the startup has been adding to its product since then, and branched out from agriculture. It realized it had potentially lifesaving technology, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) saying 19.4 million infants across the globe lack access to vaccines partly as a result of the lack of efficient cold chain systems.
"We soon realized that the cold chain problem was not limited to agriculture but also existed in healthcare delivery, where lives were being lost. So we spotted a problem in agriculture but soon discovered the application of our solution could be spread across various platforms," said Iortim.
Gricd is, therefore, straddling two of Africa's most exciting tech verticals. Healthcare startups are proliferating across Africa, with notable companies including drone-based blood delivery systems LifeBank and Zipline. Agriculture-focused companies such as Twiga Foods and Taimba are also working to ensure farmers have greater access to markets. Effective cold chain solutions will have a key role at the heart of this new, connected Africa.
Moreover, Gricd's increasing focus on healthcare comes at the right time, as the sector has emerged as one of the fastest growing on the continent when it comes to attracting investment. Relatively stable yet not particularly impressive until 2018, e-health funding has leaped over the last couple of years, peaking last year, according to Disrupt Africa’s African Tech Startups Funding Report 2019. In 2019, health-focused tech startups saw funding increase 70.6% on 2018 and these companies secured a combined US$28.8 million, up 51.8% on the year before.
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research has used the Gricd Frij to transport plasma samples.
Despite this growth Iortim said securing uptake initially proved tough as there were many barriers to entry in the healthcare space.
"However, within the first three months, we were able to commence commercial testing with three companies. Since those tests, we have maintained consistent sales. In December of 2019, we released a bigger device version which allowed us to revisit conversations with FMCGs. This has helped drive up product demand such that in January 2020, we have orders for more than half the units we sold last year," he said.
This is all just in Nigeria, a market large enough to mean that Gricd has no plans to expand elsewhere for the time being. Because of its uniqueness Iortim said the company's primary competition is coolers and regular ice blocks.
"These are pretty expensive due to recurrent expenses on ice and inability for users to maintain standard temperatures for a long period of time," he said.
Iortim said that an average of about US$600 can be spent per annum to maintain temperatures in passive cooling boxes.
"Our boxes cost less and provide real-time information into storage temperatures and location of items. Thus, vaccines can be audited before dispensed and sample integrity can be proven before further testing."
One of the Gricd Frij boxes on the move in Nigeria
This is a simple yet effective idea, and Gricd has matched it with a simple business model. The startup sells the hardware and then has users subscribe to its monitoring dashboard, ensuring upfront and ongoing revenues. Getting to this point of sustainability, however, has been a challenge, and the growth in funding available to healthcare startups in Africa will be good news for the startup.
"We've had to bootstrap a lot, like any other startup," Iortim said. "Later on, we had angel investors come on board. In the past 22 months we have been the beneficiaries of some grants, which include the AFF Disrupt 19, NESG 25, and more recently GreenHouse Lab."
The latter saw Gricd named winner of the Lagos-based GreenHouse Lab accelerator program's demo day, securing 1 million naira (US$2,760) in prize money and the chance of securing investment from VC firm GreenHouse Capital. Gricd took part in the ten-month accelerator, at the end of which it was also named the winner of the Audience's Choice online poll.
Whether it ends in investment or not, GreenHouse Capital believes Gricd is unique and has the chance to make a real impact on the continent.
"There are a lot of similar cold storage device solutions existing in the market. Gricd combines cold storage, GPS location tracking and real-time temperature monitoring to provide a unique product offering," said GreenHouse Capital's Joshua Ebinabo.
"We believe that unlocking cross border routes for food, pharmaceuticals and logistics will be a catalyst for growth and success. We recognize smart mobility/logistics to be a growing sector in Nigeria and Africa, attracting a great amount of funding in the last few months, " Ebinabo added.
— Tom Jackson, co-founder of Disrupt Africa, special to Connecting Africa